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Thursday, June 16, 2016


I imagine it is obvious that my mind has been much absorbed with my forthcoming lecture series on Kant’s First Critique.  I have decided to write a post today explaining, as I will in my first lecture, why I think it is important to read entire great works of Philosophy rather than just the tasty bits.  This latter seems to be the approach of graduate Philosophy programs these days.  I was startled to learn, when I asked the UNC graduate students in my Marx course last year, that they were required to read journal articles but not complete works by the great philosophers.  Think of this post therefore as a preview of coming attractions, rather like what one is regaled with at the movies before the main feature comes on.  
Why read entire works of philosophy?  There are three reasons.  The first is that those of us who choose to make a career of Philosophy enter into the oldest continuous intellectual discipline in Western civilization, indeed two and a half millennia old.  I genuinely believe that those who arrogate to themselves the honorific title “philosopher” owe a duty of respect to that immensely long tradition, a duty to be fulfilled by at least acquainting oneself with the most important writings of Plato, of Aristotle, of St. Thomas, of Descartes, of Spinoza, of Leibniz, of Locke, of Berkeley, of Hume, and of Kant, as well as the other immortals of our profession.  Sneer if you will at an old man’s ramblings, but I really believe that.  To be a philosopher is something, it is a calling, not just a way to pay the bills or [when I was younger] to stay out of the army.

The second reason is that if you only read the selections from Descartes’ Meditations or Hume’s Treatise or Aristotle’s Physics that your instructor has assigned, then you are a prisoner of his or her judgment of what is philosophically important.  You may get an A, you may publish an article, you may even get a tenure-track job – all important and admirable ambitions – but you will never have a genuinely original response to the text you have dipped into, because you will simply be echoing what your instructor said or thought.  Mind you, your instructor may be a fine philosopher, but the world does not need acolytes, it needs original minds.  There may – indeed I can guarantee that there will – be portions of the text not assigned in which you find important, challenging, provocative ideas, ideas whose pursuit may make you a fine philosopher as well.

Third – and this is the deepest and most important reason – great philosophers, unlike those who write journal articles, think more deeply and in more complicated ways than even they on occasion realize and can say.  There may be important logical interactions between the parts of the text you have been assigned and other parts whose importance your instructor does not understand – indeed, that the author himself or herself does not understand.  You will never discover these connections if you read snippets.

 Here is one profoundly important example that, to the best of my knowledge, I was the first to point out:  In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant says that the pure concepts have possible or problematic, but not actual or assertoric, application to things in themselves.  His entire moral philosophy, as expounded most famously and powerfully in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, depends on this claim.  But in the First Edition version of the “Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding” in the Critique of Pure Reason, at the very deepest level of his investigations, Kant presents an analysis of concepts, on which his entire theoretical philosophy depends, that implies that pure concepts [the so-called Categories] cannot even have possible application to things in themselves.  Kant himself never realized this, but it undermines his moral philosophy.  Only someone prepared to study both Kant’s theoretical philosophy and his practical philosophy in the most profound way can discover this fact and confront it.  No one who tries to talk about Kant’s moral philosophy without a deep knowledge of his theoretical philosophy has a clue.

Well, my two minutes and twenty-four seconds are up.  I trust this will make you want to see the movie, which may run twenty-four hours or more [be sure to get plenty of popcorn before taking your seat.]


s. wallerstein said...

Of course Descartes's Meditations is 85 pages with relatively big print, while Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is a bit longer....

In fact, the word "cartesiano" in Spanish, although apparently not in English, refers to a text that is exceptionally logical and clear, whether or not the author is Mr. Descartes himself.

On the other hand, Kant is known to be harder going, but anyway, we'll all give it a try.

mesnenor said...

Hah. Most editions of the Meditations include just the base text. To read it properly you need to take in all of the objections and replies as well.

Tom Cathcart said...

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Danny and I gave a TEDx talk in Lenox, Mass. on Monday---our usual schtick on the philosophical wisdom embedded in jokes. One of the other presenters was a colleague of Tobias's, Kermit Roosevelt, apparently a distant relative of FDR. He knew you were Tobias's dad and has read some of your books. Not a small world so much as a small intelligentsia. : )

Matt said...

Why read entire works of philosophy?...

I am pretty sympathetic to this, though there are trade-offs in classes. I've taken two grad seminars, a few years apart, on the first critique, and in neither one did we manage to read the whole thing. Not because the professors thought it wasn't important to do so, but because we could not go fast enough. The first was with Bob Howell(*). That class was a mix of a break-neck pace (if I dropped my pen, I'd never catch up with what we were going over) and incredibly detailed slowness. Because of that, it was impossible to make it through the whole text. The next was with Paul Guyer. It was not as break-neck as with Bob Howell, but had more contextual reading as well, making it, again, impossible to read every bit of the text. Maybe this is the wrong way to do things, but there are clearly trade-offs here.

Another sort of trade off - I've read several complete texts by Aristotle. Not all of them are worth, I think, giving full attention to in a philosophy class. Surely there's something to, say, reading all of de anima, but only part of the physics, if that fits the theme of the course better?

It's also hard to know what counts as the whole work in some cases. Few people read Locke's First Treatise on Government, and with good reasons. (I've read a significant chunk of it, and have been glad to do so, but it is really dull. I've even read some of Filmer, though I strongly doubt it's worth the time for most people.) Should people read all of _Leviathan_? I'm just not sure. It seems a bit arbitrary to say that people should read all of the 2nd Treatise (but need not read the first) but should read all of Leviathan.

So, I have some real sympathy there, but think there is ground for a lot of nuance.

(*) I'm pretty sure that the first thing I read by you (Bob) was your critical notice of Bob Howell's book on Kant, in Synthese, or somewhere like that.

- Tom, nice that you met Kim Roosevelt. He was a relatively newish professor at Penn Law when I was a student there, and I know him a bit, though I never took a class from him. I think he's more directly descended from Teddy than Franklin, but obviously related to both. A nice and smart guy.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

I quite agree with you Professor, which is one reason I don't look too fondly on my undergraduate major in Philosophy. We did read some texts in full, but not nearly enough (and not enough of the right ones, but that is more subjective). Perhaps that is one reason why I felt underprepared for the MA program in Philosophy which I entered but quickly left.

Sad to say, I haven't read much except for a few articles here and there over the years since, though I have recently recovered my appetite for reading significantly; I am currently re-undertaking my long dormant project of a more systematic and careful study of Nietzsche's writings than I have previously experienced (as well as supplementing my reading with the best secondary literature I can find).

Anyway, I look forward to your Kant lectures. The only texts of Kant's I read in undergrad were the Prolegomena and the Groundwork (and maybe not even all of the latter). I expect I shall learn more about Kant from your lectures than I already know. (I have certainly learned more about Marx over the years of reading your blog than I did in my undergrad!)

Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

Thank you for this post. I have always held the same sentiment but have never been able to adequately articulate it as such to my own satisfaction. If you don't mind, I plan to share some of these points with my students.

-- Jim

Gene said...

I have been an unrepentant book worm since pre-K. When I first got to college, I randomly signed up for an Intro to Philosophy course. I didn't even know exactly what philosophy was at the time. The weekend before classes started, I went to the book store and bought all of the books that we would be using. Among them was the Nicomachean Ethics. I read it cover to cover that weekend. I thought books IX and X, on Friendship, were about the most fascinating ideas I'd ever encountered. Naturally, when class started, we only read selections of the work and completely skipped books IX and X because they "aren't really important." I was furious. Not only are they the best part of the work, I still firmly believe that almost none of Aristotle's philosophy makes sense without his views on friendship. This is basically a long winded way of saying I feel you on the importance or reading entire works from the greats.