I have taught countlessly many works of philosophy, politics, sociology, economics, history, literature, and Afro-American studies since I earned my doctorate 65 years ago, but in that long time I have only engaged deeply, seriously, in a sustained fashion with four works: David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, and Karl Marx’s Capital. As I have explained in some of my YouTube postings and also, I am sure, at various times on this blog, I have never imagined that my interpretation of any of these books was the only correct interpretation or even by some objective measure better than other, competing interpretations. To use again an analogy to which I frequently recur, just as there are a number of different legitimate ways of playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto as well as countlessly many ways of mis-playing it or playing it badly, so there are always a number of competing and incompatible ways of legitimately reading a great work of philosophy as well as endlessly many ways of simply getting it wrong.
One of the reasons that I do not “keep up with the literature” on the books with which I have engaged in this manner is that once I am done struggling with a great book and finding my way to a reading that I consider satisfying and well-grounded in the text, I am in an odd way done with the book. As the Old Testament says, I have wrestled with it and it has blessed me and that is enough.
This kind of activity bears very little relation to what is usually described as “doing research.” It would be simply absurd for an historian or a biologist or an anthropologist to say “I have said what I have to say about the French Revolution or RNA or burial rituals among the Kwakiutl and therefore I shan’t read what other historians or biologists or anthropologists have discovered about those subjects.” But it made perfect sense to me to say, at the end of my series of YouTube lectures on the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason: this is the argument I have found in the text after wrestling with it for many years and I am quite comfortable acknowledging that others may have found different arguments, competing arguments, in the same text.
I do not really know whether other philosophers conduct their engagements with great works in this way. My suspicion is that they do but are simply somewhat hesitant about saying so openly. However, since I am near the end of my long life I want to leave behind me not only the results of my struggles with these texts but also some explanation of what I imagined myself to be doing.
As I have often remarked, my goal has always been to find in the text an argument that is simple, powerful, elegant, and beautiful, and then to show it to my students or my readers in all of its simplicity, power, elegance, and beauty so that they can appreciate these qualities for themselves. I imagine that Jerry Fresia, who is by calling and profession an artist, will understand what I am trying to say.