My suggested approach toward learning Philosophy

A response to a post in the Gwave Why is it that when we learn Philosophy we start with ancient texts?

My way of reading is this. Pick the most fascinating book you can find and read it, and then read the most interesting thing you see referenced in that book, and so on. Treating any specialty as sacrosanct is deadly.

Next take the philosophers you read as your teachers, and learn them well, so well you can apply their ideas to new subject areas that they did not apply them too. That is Heidegger’s definition of understanding. Memorization is not the goal but faithful reproduction that goes beyond what the original philosopher himself said, deeper into his own thought than he penetrated.

Read originals prior to commentaries if you can understand the originals. But after you read the originals read a judicious number of good commentaries to see how your understanding of the text stands up under scrutiny by the professionals who spend their whole lives studying one philosopher.

Think for yourself using the tools you learn from philosophers about new subjects in new directions.

Develop your own tools of thought that are different from anything you discover in the works of those you have read. Then go back and find it already there in the tradition which confirms you are on the right track.

Develop your own ideas, that are fresh and challenge the tradition, then go back and find that this is what was being said in the tradition all along and you just did not get it.

Read everything about what ever subject you are interested in until you are not learning anything new. Then think what is new concerning that subject that no one thought before. Then go back and see that what ever you thought had already been thought before many times.

Getting to the cutting edge of the tradition is very hard. Most never find it. Many don’t go far enough and some go too far and go over the edge. Knowing the edge of the known is the key. Know that edge and then live there until you can advance beyond it.

Recognize when others find that cutting edge. Recognize when someone has something important to to tell you that you have never heard before.

Always, give credit to others for what they have thought, and build upon it. That is the tradition. As Heidegger says thinking is thanking. We need to thank those who teach us to think through their own thoughts.

Thinking we can think without them is ultimately madness. We become cranks when we do not build upon the thoughts of others and think we have unique and wonderful thoughts all on our own. The Crank is the one who engages in the reverse conspiracy theory of the mind. It is only they who have good thoughts. It is a kind of Narcissism.

The real thoughts are the ones that you have and then you find already there, you just did not understand that they were there before. On some rare occasion one will actually have a thought that no one has had before. That one cannot find in the tradition already in retrospect.

Those thoughts are the prize. Because it is those thoughts that move the tradition to some new vista no one has seen before. And at that moment it is impossible to distinguish the philosopher from the crank. We can only do it in retrospect, when we realize that those thoughts were turning points within the tradition. We just keep reading those books, and they are ever new. You won’t be able to distinguish yourself from the crank if you have a unique-ly new idea that will step over the edge of the tradition into a new territory no one has seen before.

For instance, Nietzsche did it when he thought of the problem of the Value of Values. He stepped into a world that was always there, but no one had seen it before, and we are still recovering from the fateful entry into that land that borders on nihilism.

The closest thing that exists that appears to be what you are looking for is the works of Nicolas Rescher. I suggest you read all of them. That is an education in the diversity of the human mind if there ever was one. My favorite book of his is Cognitive Systematization.

Good luck in your attempt to discover philosophy for yourself. But I notice you are reading other philosophers in order to find a way to that. You are engaging in a part of the tradition. The fact that it is contemporary does not make it any less than the tradition. As soon as the book is written it enters the realm of the dead, even if the author is still kicking. You give it life when you think creatively with all that dead material that makes up the scrap heap of our tradition.


Posted May 22, 2010 by kentpalmer in Uncategorized

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