Chapter 18 – How To Read Philosophy (part 3 of 4)


It is perhaps clear from the discussion so far that the most important thing to discover in reading any philosophical work is the question or questions it tries to answer. The questions may be stated explicitly, or they may be implicit to a certain extent. In either case, you must try to find out what they are.

How the author answers these questions will be deeply affected by his controlling principles. These may be stated, too, but that is not always the case. … the importance of discovering the hidden and unstated assumptions of an author … applies to works in philosophy with particular force.

It is difficult to give examples of such controlling principles. Any that we might proffer would probably be disputed by philosophers, and we do not here have space to defend our choices. Nevertheless, we could mention the controlling idea of Plato that conversation about philosophical subjects is perhaps the most important of all human activities. Now this idea is seldom explicitly stated in the dialogues, although Socrates may be saying it when, in the Apology, he asserts that the unexamined life is not worth living, and Plato mentions it in the Seventh Letter. The point is that Plato expresses this view in a number of other places, though not in so many words – for example, in the Protagoras, where the audience is shown as disapproving of Protagoras’ unwillingness to continue talking to Socrates. Another example is that of Cephalus, in Book I of the Republic, who happens to have other business to attend to and so departs. Plato seems to be saying here, though not explicitly, that it is a betrayal of man’s deepest nature to refuse to join, for whatever reason, in the search for truth. But, as we have noted, this is not ordinarily cited as one of Plato’s “ideas,” because it is seldom explicitly discussed in his works.

This is all we can say about finding the controlling principles in a philosophical book, because we are not sure that we can tell you how to discover them. Sometimes it takes years to do this, and many readings and rereadings. Nevertheless, it is the ideal goal of a good and thorough reading, and you should keep in mind that it is ultimately what you must try to do if you are to understand your author. Despite the difficulty of discovering these principles, however, we do not recommend that you take the shortcut of reading books about the philosophers, their lives and opinions. The discovery you come to on your own will be much more valuable than someone else’s ideas.

Once you have found an author’s controlling principles, you will want to decide whether he adheres to them throughout his work. … If a philosopher is inconsistent, you have to decide which of two sets of propositions he really means – the first principles, as he states them; or the conclusions, which do not in fact follow from the principles stated. Or you may decide to that neither is valid.

The philosophical problem is to explain, not to describe, as science does, the nature of things. Philosophy asks about more than the connections of phenomena. It seeks to penetrate to the ultimate causes and conditions that underlie them. Such problems are satisfactorily explored only when the answers to them are supported by clear arguments and analysis.

The major effort of the reader, therefore, must be with respect to the terms and initial propositions. Although the philosopher, like the scientist, has a technical terminology, the words that express his terms are usually taken from common speech, but used in a very special sense.

The basic terms of philosophical discussions are, of course, abstract. But so are those of science. No general knowledge is expressible except in abstract terms.

Whenever you talk generally about anything, you are using abstractions. What you perceive through your sense is always concrete and particular. What you think with your mind is always abstract and general. To understand an “abstract word” is to have the idea it expresses. “Having an idea” is just another way of saying that you understand some general aspect of the things you experience concretely. You cannot see or touch or even imagine the general aspect thus referred to. If you could, there would be no difference between the senses and the mind.

Just as inductive arguments should be the reader’s main focus in the case of scientific books, so here, in the case of philosophy, you must pay closest attention to the philosopher’s principles. They may be either things he asks you to assume with him, or matters that he calls self-evident. There is no trouble about assumptions. Make them to see what follows, even if you yourself have contrary presuppositions. It is a good mental exercise to pretend that you believe something you really do not believe. And the clearer you are about your won prejudgments, the more likely you will be not to misjudge those made by others.

The thing to remember is that the experience from which they are drawn, as we have noted more than once, is, unlike the scientist’s special experience, the common experience of mankind. The philosopher does no work in laboratories, no research in the field. Hence to understand and test a philosopher’s leading principles you do not need the extrinsic aid of special experience, obtained by methodical investigation. He refers you to your own common sense and daily observation of the world in which you live.

In other words, the method according to which you should read a philosophical book is very similar to the method according to which it is written. A philosopher, faced with a problem, can do nothing but think about it. A reader, faced with a philosophical book, can do nothing but read it – which means, as we know, thinking about it. There are no other aids except the mind itself.

Thus you can see why we say that the rules of reading, as we have stated and explained them, apply more directly to the reading of philosophical books than to the reading of any other kind.