Wednesday, January 23, 2008

My fear of philosophy, or Tocqueville almost makes me nervous

Alexis de Tocqueville was not primarily a literary critic, despite my recent notes. Instead, he wrote a founding work of modern sociology and political science. Merely.

This keeps him just on the good side of philosophy. Why mince words, philosophy scares me. There won't be much of it here at Wuthering Expectations. I have the excuse that most philosophers were terrible prose writers. Non-literary. I don't read 19th century mathematicians or philologists, either.

Two objections: first, a person can read about Kant and Hegel without actually reading them. Good point. I'll see what I can do. Second, aren't a number of important philosophers actually good writers? Yes, unfortunately, yes.

So, who might show up here: John Stuart Mill, yes, Hegel, no. William James, yes, Charles Peirce, no way. Nietzsche, definitely, but what are The Birth of Tragedy or Twilight of the Idols if not literary criticism? Or so I tell myself.

Who are the other philosophers who are within reach of the Amateur Reader? Which books? Advice much appreciated.


  1. I used to be fairly intimidated by philosophy as well. Last year for the first year of my 10 yr reading plan I read some of Plato, Aristotle, Montaigne, Rousseau and Locke. And I just finished Schopenhauer. Of all those Schopenhauer is the most accesible. In fact, he's most of the time hilarious. Montaigne is wonderful and I found Plato really accessible. Aristotle was a bit too detail-oriented for me and got boring (hence why I haven't yet finished Politics) and Locke was kind of a big yawn. Rousseau was okay.

    This is rather bland of me isn't it? But I did post on most of my reading so some of my notes might be interesting for you....I'll add a second "might" to that. :-)

  2. I define away the problem:

    Montaigne: the foremost essayist in history, and a delight to read. Not a philosopher. "The Apology for Raymond Sebond" may get a little heavy in places.

    Plato: a proto-novelist, creator of an all-time great character, Socrates. See the components of the trial and death of Socrates, and the one about the banquet.

    Rousseau: novelist and memoirist. The "Confessions" is an all-time classic, while "Emile" and "La Nouvelle Heloise" are slipping off the edge of the canon.

    Schopenhauer: Oh right. I should read him, thanks. Not "The World as Will and Representaion", no no, but how about the Penguin "Essays and Aphorisms"?

  3. Well, verbivore went and stole all my suggestions. I wouldn't say they are bland at all. Sadly, the defining feature of most of the newer sort of philosophers is their jargon-ridden impenetrability. (And I say this as a Poli Sci major.)

    To that list I would add Marcus Aurelius, Francis Bacon, a second big push for Schopenhauer because he really is that funny, Thorsten Veblen (for "Higher Learning in America" too although everyone goes for "Leisure Class), Kierkegaard and Lucretius. I could list a few more if I thought about it but then the list would get very very long. :D

  4. Like very much your new definitions to my idea of philosopher.

    I will also second Imani's Lucretius suggestion.

  5. Ok, Lucretius was a poet, and Bacon -

    Sorry, no, these are just the sorts of things I was looking for. Thinkers who were also real writers. Thanks.

  6. Sorry, I've been horribly preoccupied or I'd have been all over this. And no, I am not going to recommend Kant. I love him, but not even I can say he was a delightful and witty wortschmidt. Dilthey is very charming in German, as is Fichte, to my mind. I genuinely like Gadamer. I think you might enjoy the Horkheimer & Adorno _Dialectic of Enlightenment_, or at least the essay about Culture as Mass Deception.
    I think Kierkegaard's _Fear and Trembling_ is a nice read. It's no Kit Marlowe, but neither is it Hegel. I also think Habermas gets a bad rap for being obtuse -- parts of his stuff are a hoot. I don't mind reading John Rawls. I kind of like James Buchanan, though I suppose he's not really a philosopher-philosopher. I frankly detest Rousseau, though I'm not sure if that's because of his writing or because of his ideas. I'll second or third the motion on Montaigne, who is a delight.

    And, seriously, as bad as Kant can be, the Anthropology is really pretty nice.

    Oh, wait, I forgot Aquinas. I love Aquinas. Also and along those same lines: Etienne Gilson. Sticking to the medieval, well, Peter Abelard's a decent writer. The Heloise letters are annoying (and frankly kind of creepy) but if you can get at the stuff he wrote that was scholarly, it's good.

  7. "Fear and Trembling" has moved onto the short-term reading list. Short-term means 3 to 5 years.

    Meine Frau also told me to read Gadamer ("What's wrong with you? Read Gadamer!" Why is she so mean?) "The Relevance of the Beautiful" was the specific recommendation.

    Rousseau: ideas and writing! Ha ha!

    Very helpful, thanks.

  8. Locke's SECOND TREATISE ON GOVERNMENT. You'll have the eerie feeling that you've read it before. For good reason.

    Bergson's TIME AND FREE WILL. William James said of this book (one of the few truly original doctoral theses in the history of philosophy) that Bergson had resolved all of Kant's antinomies. Bergson also received a Nobel Prize for Literature.

    Western philosophy is a long conversation extending across the centuries. It's difficult to know why philosophers come up with their views if you don't know the questions posed to them by their age and the questions and solutions put forward by their predecessors. It's also a particular way of engaging with the world. Not everyone finds it congenial. Not everyone finds poetry congenial. Or, or, or....

  9. I would certainly have the sense that I read the Second Treatise before, but the feeling will not be eerie, since I have read it before.

    The political philosophers are really an exception to all of the above. I'm OK with them. My weakness is with the abstract system-builders.

    Thanks for the Bergson recommendation. A good idea - helpful with Proust, Nabokov, and so on.

  10. Don't know why I'm getting linked to all your old post today. Probably too late to weigh in but I found Tocqueville reads much faster than one expects because, in my case, I find him so interesting.

    We've already mentioned Freud elsewhere recently and if you can find a copy of Schopenhauer's Parerga and Paralipomena it is a great collection of essays and remarks from his late career. Not as systematic or dense as Will and Representation but with all the wit and insight that makes Schopenhauer a great stylist and fun to read.

    Other great philosophers for the Amatuer Reader:
    John Dewey & Bertrand Russell on their better days write clear, lucid and enlightening prose. Hume, particularly his delightful Dialogues on Natural Religion, often Marx, as in the Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts, and the ever chaotic Slavoj Zizek is an entertaining read (but not 19th century).

  11. Too late, not at all. It is a pleasure to read your advice.

    As I have gotten to know the later half of the 19th century better, it has become clear that my textbook knowledge of Schopenhauer is a problem. I should read the real thing.