The hardest thing about doing philosophy is certainly not reading books and thinking. By far the most difficult is understanding the fault lines that make up the world of professional philosophy and finding one’s place within it. It’s not uncommon to shift between styles as one goes through the first few years of training; most of us probably have cloud spaces full of embarrassing mimicry of particular philosophers who captured our interest early on. Eventually you figure out what types of work you most enjoy reading, what types irk you, what your own voice sounds like, and develop a roughly drawn justification for those preferences. In the worst cases, those harden into provincial ideology. The difficulty, it seems, is reminding oneself that our stylistic and methodological tastes  say little about the quality or value of work done in other styles and with other methodological priorities.

One of the striking aspects of both reading the informal writing of professional philosophers and of working in the university is the level of detachment, punctuated by episodes of visceral disdain, that different strains of people all doing what normal people would call “philosophy” display toward one another. This seems comical when you admit that most of us had our tastes in philosophy set before we ever came on campus, or even read a work of philosophy. For example, I didn’t understand much of a distinction between philosophy and literature. To me something like Plato’s Republic, however carefully argued, was a work of literature; if you’d shown me Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as an undergrad, I would have probably said, “What kind of math is that?” No surprise there: my verbal scores on standardized tests have always vastly, embarrassingly outstripped my quantitative ones. It’s likely I was born to sympathize with philosophers trying to do things with stylistics and dismiss work riddled with formal logic as something foreign.

But I’m learning to continually force myself to see them on equal planes. Mostly by accident, I ended up in an interdisciplinary but residually postmodernist context where a mixture of Frankfurt School critical theory and Americanized French post-structuralism are quite important. I found Derrida fascinating, and was awed in that amateurish way by his difficult style. But I couldn’t deny that I much preferred reading commentators on his work—especially English-language ones by philosophers rather than literary critics—than the work itself. It was possible to talk about Derrida without saying things like the “eventality of the event.” I discovered a few things about the fragmentation of philosophy in that early engagement with Derrida: I preferred a certain philosophical current he descended from (Husserl and Heidegger) to his larger French context (Barthes, Foucault) or his American descendants (literary theory, cultural studies). I liked the content of Derrida’s work, and continue to feel it was worth the effort; however, a certain attitude surrounded him that felt dated and insular and was not one I wanted to characterize my work.

Heidegger was a slightly different experience that taught a different crop of lessons. People who read him tend to be more firmly in the “philosophy” camp (as opposed to critical or literary theory), but even so he remains suspicious to some American philosophers. It’s still not uncommon to hear Heidegger casually described as “obscurantist” or, regarding his later work, “mystical,” both of which turn out to be shallow epithets. But I understand; even I, sympathizing enormously with Heidegger’s project and respecting the idea of letting a writing style aid the work of thinking, found myself occasionally disillusioned with the difficulty of Being and Time and the even more obscure later work. It’s difficult to shake the impression, especially when you pick up a book like Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind that’s making similar points in a much simpler way, that it just doesn’t have to be this hard. (Which is not always true, but sometimes is.) Again, every bit of the effort was worth it, but it was ever more obvious how much I—just by temperament and taste—tend to value clarity and concision.

And so I moved closer to finding a style that fit. It turned out, it was bits from all the “camps.” It was clear to me that I was interested in philosophy on a world-historical scale, and liked the occasional overlap with disciplines like literature, sociology and theology. But I disliked reading sprawling, oracular prose, even if its intentions were defensible and its effect on its comprehenders indisputable. I appreciated the practical application and the passionate political engagement of “cultural theory,” and even many of the thinkers in their canon, but found things like its “tone” and endless neologisms (“virality,” “animality,” “spectrality,” etc) grating. It’s highly unlikely I will ever care about someone like Frege or even, outside of necessary-to-be-educated engagement, Wittgenstein; still, philosophers from their tradition often prove to be powerful commentators on and critics—perhaps even the most powerful commentators and critics—of people I do care about.

All of these preferences, though, are matters of taste, as my best and most open-minded teachers have admitted. I know of no case that formal logic is pointless or cultural theory is, as one particularly hostile critic put it, “long on attitude and short on argument.” I can take that on faith, or absorb it by impression, but I really have no clue. The only thing we can honestly say is, “So far, _____ hasn’t interested me enough to make me engage it seriously.” I haven’t read one major work of philosophy that I was able to conclude was utterly fraudulent or a waste of time; sure, perhaps “hard” or “boring” or “irrelevant to my work” or “saying the same things as X,” but nothing on the level of “intellectual fraud” or “dangerous.” Time and attention are limited, and most of our caricatures turn out to be arbitrary borders we erect to limit our ignorance. There’s so much good about letting the methods, styles, and values of the “rival camps,” or perhaps we should call them the “friendly neighboring tribes,” critique your own. Laziness, cant, bullshit and groupthink are not limited to any particular discipline or tradition; we find the one that fits us best, and once we’re there, most of us thinking people are remarkably similar. This is probably pretty obvious to those further along, but I guess we have to master what we love, struggle to be at least conversant in necessary things we don’t love, and refuse to make judgements about the rest.

About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

7 Responses to Philosophical Flavors

  1. Rebecca W says:

    Thanks for this. I have become fascinated with philosophy over recent years. Have you ever read any of Michael Polanyi? Unfortunately he is not well know , but his ideas should be particularl interesting to Christians.

  2. toddh says:

    Polanyi has been used by Christians, perhaps most notably here:

  3. Rebecca W says:

    Thanks so much. I hadn’t heard of that one.

    This links to a resource that has been most helptul to me. “Tacit Knowing Truthful Knowing” came to me at a time when I had started questioning some things about the highly rational emphasis of our culture and the American church in general. The report is done “NPR style and shows how Polanyi came to his ideas and what motivated him. Includes awesome material from the late philosopher Marjorie Grene (worked with Polanyi), the late scientist/theologian Thomas Torrance, educator (previously Calvin College) Steven Garber and more.

    Highly recommended starting point if you’re interested in exploring Polanyi ..or just want to explore a different area of philosophy.

  4. Rebecca W says:

    PS: I wonder what experience David Sessions has with Polanyi.

  5. Rebecca W says:

    I looked it up. Wow, that’s interesting because those CDs dont focus on that at all.

    For ex, Steven Garber would not be considered conservative. (Calvin College certainly isnt.) And Thomas Torrance was a mainline Presbyterian. Other folks they interviewed didnt claim any faith.

    In the CDs they also said many groups say Polanyi’s theories support relativism. (The Polanyi Society is one I think.)

    Hmmm..Kinda interesting that so many groups in and out of Christendom try to claim him.

    –>Anyway.. Near the end of the audio report, they maintain that Polanyi was simply trying to form a more truthful way of knowing for all people.

    May be a fresh look at Polanyi? 🙂

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