Before I return to our current obsession with the election, I thought I would say something about how I think about the work of a great philosopher. Truth to tell, I don’t have anything novel or important to say about the election, no inside information, no report of my conversations with unnamed sources in the White House or in the Biden campaign. I have never so much as seen a presidential candidate in person, except of course in 1952 when I took part in the Harvard Square I Go Pogo rally and Walt Kelly, the creator of Pogo, drove by in an open car.
Why on earth would anybody be interested in how I think about the work of a great philosopher? Well, this is a blog, which is to say a web log, which is to say a record of my private thoughts on a wide variety of subjects. So here goes.
Let me begin by observing in a seemingly irrelevant fashion that although there are many wrong ways to play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto there is no single right way. The wrong ways of course are endless: to begin with, you can just play the wrong notes or you can play them out of tune or you can pay absolutely no attention to Beethoven’s markings of tempo and such. But if you are presented with Hilary Hahn and Itzhak Perlman playing the Concerto, it would be absurd to say that one of them must be doing it wrong since they are doing it differently. I believe that the same can be said of the interpretation of a great work of philosophy. There can be endlessly many wrong ways of reading it but there is surely no single right way. Indeed, the case of interpreting a work of philosophy is even more complicated than that of playing a great work of music.
I am really not interested in what I philosopher believes. I am only interested in whether he or she can make a powerful argument for some interesting thesis. In short, I am really not interested in what is rather oddly called “the history of ideas.” I have in my long life engaged deeply and seriously with the thought of only three great thinkers: Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and Karl Marx. In each case – I am not sure why – something in their writings seized me and virtually compelled me to struggle with those writings. As the Good Book says, Genesis chapter 32, in each case I have wrestled with the text and have refused to let it go unless it blessed me.
In each case, I begin by intuiting, if I may put it that way, a deep and very powerful claim that the author is making, a claim that I find interesting and exciting. Quite obviously, this is a subjective response. It is typical of great works of philosophy that serious readers approach them in many different ways, finding in them different theses that excite them and that they wish to explore. Once again, as with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, there are any number of theses that cannot plausibly be found in the work or that are not capable of sustaining an interesting interpretation, but among the powerful theses there is no single one that must command the attention of any serious reader. Indeed, on the basis of my experience I believe very strongly that the most interesting and powerful thinkers often have their hands on ideas that they cannot with complete success articulate, but which they are unwilling simply to give up so as to make their writings superficially consistent. Thus, as I see it, the challenge confronting the serious reader is to seize on one or several of these claims and struggle with them, looking in the text and even beneath the text for the argument that will establish the claims.
In launching on such an adventure, the reader must be willing simply to brush aside passages that conflict with the central claim and which – this requires judgment on the reader’s part – are of secondary importance and can safely be ignored. The idea, as I see it, is to plunge into the depths of the caves of Moria (if I may use that analogy) and wrestle with what one finds there, relentlessly, doggedly, until one emerges with a coherent argument, changed inevitably as Gandalf was by the experience.
Now all of this sounds intolerably pretentious and self-important, but as I observed when I began this is a blog and of one is not going to be honest about what one is seeking to do, then why bother having a blog?
Well, it is a little bit past 11 in the morning and if we count this day as already in the books, then ignoring election day itself there are five days left. Someone with a serious commitment could hold his breath that long surely!