February 10

How Do You Read Philosophy?

As I have been reading through some of the works of the great American philosophers I have found myself having to think about “how” to read them.

When you read Ralph Waldo Emerson or William James you are reading the thoughts of these great minds from one or two centuries ago. Their thoughts are no doubt great, but I don’t believe that it is in their thoughts alone that their true genius can be found. Their thoughts are best read in context. In the context of the lives that they lived, the times that they lived in, and the history of what came before and what happened after.

Many of the ideas of great thinkers of the past will seem dated to us. And our post-modern sensibilities make it easy for us to find fault, to criticize and to deconstruct these earlier works. I don’t find that there is much real value to be found in that activity.

The real value for me is to hunt down the true genius that was driving the ideas. What was the inspiration, the spark that fueled truly original thinking? To me, “how was the thinking original?” is a more interesting question than “was the thinking right?”

What did Emerson bring that was new, that was passed on from him to the next generations? what did James offer that had not been thought of before and how has that affected the course of things since? This is where the value is to be found. You won’t find answers to these questions through only reading the ideas, you have to know about culture and history and personality.

As I approach a philosopher, I approach slowly in revolving circles. I read some of their own thoughts, I read biographies that others have written and then go back to the original works. I read about the history of their time. I talk to people who know more than I do about it all. And if I can, I read about the ideas that inspired them, either through agreement or disagreement.

A while ago I had the pleasure of meeting Thomas Barnett, a “global strategist” who has previously worked for the pentagon. In conversation he spoke with passion about the merits of learning about things from every angle. He said, “If you aspire to be a global strategist, you shouldn’t read books about global strategy. You should read books about history, philosophy, science, and fiction and poetry too.”

I have taken Barnett’s advice. And have tried to approach these philosophers from different sides. As my posts continue I hope to be able to share more of my investigations and more of the fullness of great ideas and great thinkers.