Friday, August 10, 2007

Philosophers we've never read

Times Online reviews Pierre Bayard’s How to discuss books that one hasn’t read. Quite funny:
He tells us, in his “Prologue”, that he was born into a family who read little, that he himself has almost no appetite for reading and that, anyway, he cannot find the time for it. As a (fifty-two-year-old) professor of French literature... he often finds himself obliged to comment on books he hasn’t looked at. And yet “non-reading” is a taboo subject in the circles in which he moves. He lists three constraints that we all feel as readers: “The first of these constraints could be called the obligation to read. We live in a society... in which reading still remains the object of a form of sacralization”, particularly where certain “canonical texts” are concerned: it is practically forbidden not to have read these. The second constraint “could be called the obligation to read a book in its entirety. If non-reading is frowned on, speed-reading and skimming are viewed in as poor a light”. For example, “it would be almost unthinkable for professors of literature to admit – what is after all true for most of them – that they have merely skimmed Proust’s work”. Can this really be the case? If so, it’s a dismaying thought – presumably Bayard has had some explaining to do to his colleagues since his book was published in France earlier this year. The third constraint, and the one which most of us would take as given, is the need to have read a book in order to be able to talk about it: according to Bayard, it is perfectly possible to have a fruitful discussion about a book one hasn’t read, even with someone who hasn’t read it either. These constraints lead to a lack of openness in our dealings with each other, Bayard claims, and generate unnecessary feelings of guilt.

It's true though: how many young philosophers have actually read Gettier's famous article? It's so well-known, you don't need to. (I kind of feel the same way about the history of philosophy. I've never done any officially, or even unofficially, but you can pick up a lot just through osmosis.) Of course, you need to read a work in all its minutiae to engage with it on a scholarly level. But for general purposes, this may not always be necessary. Most fun philosophical discussion isn't had in journals, after all!

So: any other examples of philosophers or works that you're happy to discuss despite never having read them?


  1. The problem is for me that, even having read someone, within a few years most of the details of a work will be no longer recallable from my memory. I read large chunks of Sartre, but if you were to ask me now for details, I would strain to remember a lot of it. I'd have to go back to all my essays I wrote to see what I once knew but no longer.

    In contrast, I could discuss some basics of Marx, including what I take to be some interesting anomalies, but what I have read by him is *very* little, no longer remembered.

  2. If only all philosophy articles were as "long" as Gettier's ...

  3. It's so lonely in the library...

    It makes me sick to think that reading isn't needed to discuss something that has already been discussed many times before.

  4. Tea - ha, yeah, I guess there's not a lot to miss there.

    Jared - you might want to see a doctor about that. Unless you mean to suggest that such a reaction is warranted - but then let's hear the reasons! (Bearing in mind the issues I raise here.)

  5. Yeah, I wanted to avoid that conflict this time around. A short-list of my reasons would be:
    (1) (a) A problem has been discussed before and (b) for some reason the discussion failed or has been forgotten
    (2) The problem isn't a problem, and someone has pointed that out
    (3) The goal of reading is not a verbatim regurgitation but an engagement with the past author--the same way one engages with contemporaries
    and (4) a review of past ideas often reveals much about the origin of one's current ideas

    I feel (metaphorically) sick because it often sounds like people believe (1) a problem has never been encountered before, (2) it is a dire problem to which one must be a heroic solver, (3) when we read we just repeat, (4) we can't know our selves through our past.

    If I'm being overly Quixotic about reading, then I might point out that believing that one can learn one's history (textual, social, material, or otherwise) via osmosis effectively takes up the posture of Sancho Panza: looking for an insula that doesn't exist and that ultimately in its false realization, has no interest in him. (It's a joke; but to get it, you have to have read Don Quixote!)

  6. I think the most famous case of this is with Moore's refutation of skepticism. That is a 30 page article. At most people have read the eight paragraph conclusion, and many only remember:

    here is a hand

    here is another hand

    there is an external world.

  7. Jack - yeah, that's a good example!

    Jared - I don't think that the unread conversationalist is committed to any of those bad beliefs. The attribution seems to derive from misunderstanding the purpose of their discussion (which is not necessarily to make a unique and lasting contribution to the sum of human knowledge).

  8. What is being said when two people are talking about Sarte's Being and Nothingness without either having read it?

  9. Well, in general they might just be enjoying discussing interesting ideas (including some of what they know about Sartre's) with each other.

    Think of it as recreational philosophy. Like recreational sports, one's "performance" may be improved by investing greater time and effort, etc. But it's not a crime to just play for fun.

  10. I agree Richard if, given we are talking about Sartre here, it is done in good faith, i.e. people openly acknowledge that they haven't read it, and don't take their discussion to be definitive.

    The problem is recreational philosophy is often taken quite seriously. This contributes to the everyone can solve a problem that has been around for 2000 years idea which shows up in student's essays which are typically vastly over ambitious.

    While this is unusual for a Kiwi philosopher, I'm quite a fan of knowing your philosophical history, and have read the back story. There is some excellent stuff there which gets neglected by many.



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