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.]