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


A good theoretical work in philosophy is as free from oratory and propaganda as a good scientific treatise. … There is utility, however, in reading the works of other great philosophers who have dealt with the same problems as your author. The philosophers have carried on a long conversation with each other in the history of thought. You had better listen in on it before you make up your mind about what any of them says.

The fact that philosophers disagree should not trouble you, for two reasons. First, the fact of disagreement, if it is persistent, may point to a great unsolved and, perhaps, insoluble problem. … Second, the disagreements of others are relatively unimportant. Your responsibility is only to make up your own mind.

It is, indeed, the most distinctive mark of philosophical questions that everyone must answer them for himself. … And your answers must be solidly grounded, with arguments to back them up.


There are two kinds of theology, natural theology and dogmatic theology. Natural theology is a branch of philosophy; it is the last chapter, as it were, in metaphysics. If you ask, for example, wither causation is an endless process, whether everything is caused, you may find yourself, if you answer in the affirmative, involved in an infinite regress. Therefore you may have to posit some originating cause that is not itself caused. … you would have arrived at the conception by the unaided effort – the natural working – of your mind.

Dogmatic theology differs from philosophy in that its first principles are articles of faith adhered to by the communicants of some religion. … If you are not of the faith, if you do not belong to the church, you can nevertheless read such a theological book well by treating its dogmas with the same respect you treat the assumptions of a mathematician.

Understanding this seems to be difficult for many readers today. Typically, they make either or both of the two mistakes in dealing with dogmatic theology. The first mistake is to refuse to accept, even temporarily, the articles of faith that are the first principles of the author. Asa result, the reader continues to struggle with these first principles, never really paying attention to the book itself. The second mistake is to assume that, because the first principles are dogmatic, the arguments based on them, the reasoning that they support and the conclusions to which they lead are all dogmatic in the same way.


There is one very interesting kind of book, on kind of reading, that has not yet been discussed. We use the term “canonical” to refer to such books; in an older tradition we might have called them “sacred” or “holy,” but those words no longer apply to all such works, though they still apply to some of them.

A prime example is the Holy Bible, when it is read not as literature but instead as the reveled Word of God. For orthodox Marxists, however, the works of Marx must be read in much the same way as the Bible must be read by orthodox Jews or Christians. And Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book has an equally canonical character for a “faithful” Chinese Communist.

The notion of a canonical book can be extended beyond these obvious examples. Consider any institution – a church, a political party, a society – that among other things (1) is a teaching institution, (2) has a body of doctrine to tach, and (3) has a faithful and obedient membership. The members of any such organization read reverentially. The do not – even cannot – question the authorized or right reading of the books that to them are canonical. The faithful are debarred by their faith from finding error in the “sacred” text, to say nothing of finding nonsense there.

The characteristics of this kind of reading are perhaps summed up in the word “orthodox,” which is almost always applicable. The word comes from two Greek roots, meaning “right opinion.” These are books for which there is one and only one right reading; any other reading or interpretation is fraught with peril, from the loss of an “A” to the damnation of one’s soul. This characteristic carries with it an obligation. The faithful reader of a canonical book is obliged to make sense out of it and to find it true in one or another sense of “true.” If he cannot do this by himself, he is obliged to go to someone who can. This may be a priest or a rabbi, or it may be his superior in the party hierarchy, or it may be his professor. In any case, he is obliged to accept the resolution of his problem that is offered him. He reads essentially without freedom; but in return for this he gains a kind of satisfaction that is possibly never obtained when reading other books.

Here, in fact, we must stop. The problem of reading the Holy Book – if you have faith that it is the Word of God – is the most difficult problem in the whole field of reading. There have been more books written about how to read Scripture than about all other aspects of the art of reading together. The Word of God is obviously the most difficult writing men can read; but it is also, if you believe it is the Word of God, the most important to read. The effort of the faithful has been duly proportionate to the difficulty of the task. It would be true to say that, in the European tradition at least, the Bible is the book in more senses than one. It has been not only the most widely read, but also the most carefully read, book of all.