How to Do Philosophy

When I read Marx, or Hegel, or Nietzsche, or Plato, or Hobbes, or Confucius, or a hundred other writings, how do I read them?  Why do I read them?

First, let me tell you how I'm not reading them.  I'm not reading them looking for The Answer.  I'm not looking for The Truth.  I'm not looking for something that is correct.  Any of the above may very well be correct, but that's not why I'm reading them.  

Let me break this down.  Here are two options for how to read a text:

Option 1) Be a Seeker.  Read a text seeking the truth, looking for something that will tell you the correct answer to all of your deepest questions.  A text that will tell you what your ultimate purpose is, and how to achieve it, and why you should achieve it.  Something that will give your life a goal, a meaning, perhaps even a sense of destiny.  A text that will tell you right from wrong, and give you a body of dogma - answers that you can carry around in your head that are as emotionally satisfying as they are theoretically inerrant.  (This is not what I'm doing, when I read a text.)

Option 2) Be a Pastor, looking through the Bible, preparing for the weekly Sunday sermon.  This option is something like what Foucault suggested his own writings were like - not something designed to give his readers a final, ultimate answer, but a "toolbox" - a set of theoretical tools that anyone can use, whatever their ideological commitments may be.  Thus a Pastor is not concerned primarily with gaining a fully comprehensive understanding of a text that takes into account every part of the text and forms a coherent and consistent meaning for the whole, nor with aligning the reader's own viewpoint fully with the perspective of the author.  Instead, the Pastor picks and chooses this or that fragment of the text, out of context, to serve whatever purposes the Pastor sees fit.  The quote is, at best, a jumping-off point around which he may spin whatever yarns he likes, on the basis of the loosest of associations.  The point is not fidelity to the text per se; it is care for the Pastor's flock that matters.  The text can be freely interpreted to serve the needs of the present moment.  (I'm not doing this when I read a text, either.)

Pastors might like to see themselves as more "free" and more "playful" than Seekers, but in reality they are more dogmatic than Seekers.  Seekers, whatever their many faults may be, are at least good faith interlocutors, genuinely yearning for the truth - thus they are, at least in principle, persuadable.  Pastoralism creeps into a regime of discourse long after it has achieved dominance and stability, when it has become rigid and stale.  Pastors no longer really question the tradition, they accept it as fundamentally unquestionable and then proceed to use it however they see fit.  In case it's not obvious: Richard Rorty was one such Pastor. All Pastors are essentially Liquefactionists, rendering all of the different philosophies into one single homogeneous goo.  

Which, by the by, brings up a third option for reading a text, which overlaps with Seekers and Pastors to a degree and could be considered the combination of the two - that is, the Perennialist way.  A Perennialist combines Seekerism and Pastoralism and incorporates the worst aspects of each.  From Seekerism, the Perennialist inherits a self-righteous, sanctimonious missionary complex, and from Pastoralism, the Perennialist inherits a cynical facility at massaging and manipulating history to fit one's own agenda.  The Perennialist ignores precisely those aspects of a tradition that make it distinctive, defined, and meaningful, while retaining only those aspects that blur with anything and everything else: the "night in which all sheep are black".  (I've already written about how Perennialism should be understood as a form, or even a symptom, of postmodernism.)

Both Seekers and Pastors have an essentially religious attitude towards a text.  It is precisely the authority of the text that allows Seekers and Pastors to play their games.  But this authority means nothing for a philosopher.

Instead, the philosopher is doing something else when she reads a text.  She's not looking for the final answer, the ultimate truth to come from a text.  Nor is she cynically quote-mining a text to bolster her own arguments.  She tries to understand a text, but also reads it critically.  I put "but" in that sentence but the two clauses are not in opposition.  Despite what a religious person may feel about his sacred text, critical reading is no obstacle to understanding, and can aid and even improve it.  Inevitably, the philosopher spends part of her time arguing against a text, or at least questioning its premises.  This implies a few things.

On the one hand, a philosopher, rather than reducing a text to a grab-bag of fragmentary quotes which can be used at her convenience, will try her best to treat a text as something roughly resembling a coherent perspective - and further, will try to understand what that perspective is, by means of the text itself.

On the other hand, the philosopher need not assume that the author of a text was fully consistent.  Obviously, texts are produced by human beings, who are living organisms that grow and change and learn and forget, and undoubtedly contradict themselves all over the place.  Of course a "deconstructive" reading of a text, in which the text undoes itself and subverts its own central thesis, is not impossible - but neither is it especially interesting for a philosopher, most of the time.  The fact of deconstruction is not surprising to a philosopher, who responds to it with a yawn.  There are of course exceptions, but usually the philosopher is interested in discovering - or, more accurately, constructing - a coherent perspective in the text, but crucially one that is different from her own.  Actually, it is surprising - and delightful - when this is possible.  A philosopher constructs a coherent meaning for the purpose of arguing against it.

What both Seekers and Pastors have in common - their common mistake - is that they both want to agree with a text.  A philosopher is much more interested in disagreeing with it.  For the philosopher, it is precisely the arguments that are productive.  They are looking for texts to disagree with.  Some texts are more fun to disagree with than others, and the ones that are really fun to disagree with are called "philosophy."

A philosopher loves to read Marx, Nietzsche, Hegel, Freud, Ayn Rand, etc., etc., but is unlikely to become a Marxist, a Nietzschean, a Hegelian, a Freudian, or a Randian.  That would be to miss the point entirely, and to miss all the fun.

Arguing against a text at once sharpens the meaning of the text, and, at the same time, sharpens one's own perspective in opposition to it.  A philosopher thus improves a text - makes it more interesting.

There is a rather stale tradition in philosophy of counterposing "monologic" with "dialogic," a fluid, open, "dialectical" "speaking being" contrasted with the static, hard, frozen "written word."  In reality, a reader is always in dialogue with an author, whether they admit it or not.

There are multiple dangers here.  One is strawmanning.  Many people have already written about this, so I won't bother telling you what you already know.  In order to avoid this, some people like to practice "steelmanning"- that is, presenting the best version of the argument of the opposition, and arguing against that - rather than focusing on tiny factual errors, grammar mistakes, slight non sequiturs, or other inessential failings of one's opponent.  Steelmanning, also known as the principle of charity, is generally a good practice, and we should strive to accomplish it as much as possible.  

That having been said, steelmanning has its own itinerant dangers.  If all one ever does is to project one's own thoughts onto other thinkers, eventually one will only be arguing with oneself - a kind of mental masturbation.  Every attempt should be made to capture the meaning of your interlocutor in its radical otherness.  Yes, this inevitably means that one is constructing a subjectivity from the text - but the fidelity should be to this constructed subjectivity, not to the text itself, nor to one's preconceived normative notions of a "good" argument.

This implies also that the Socratic game is to be avoided.  This is the tendency to try to play 5 moves ahead of your opponent: "First, I'll ask them this question.  Then they'll say A.  Then I'll ask them this question about A, and they'll respond B.  Then I'll ask them about that, and they'll respond C.  Then I'll respond with this question, and then they'll be trapped.  Checkmate!"  Instead of playing the conversation out in advance - and either getting annoyed when your partner fails to answer the way you predicted, or simply ignoring the divergence between what they're saying and what you want them to have said and plowing over the conversation like a bull - try actually listening to what they have to say.  Inevitably you will have expectations about what they're going to express.  That's perfectly fine, and indeed charges the conversation with a certain energy.  But when they diverge from your expectations, that is the moment to be treasured above all others.  That's when you know that there really is someone out there.

Next: How to Interpret a Text


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