Thinking Against the Grain

The bulk of today’s posting is written by a former student, now 19, who returned after his first year at university to conduct a colloquium in philosophy-reading over the summer holiday for a group of students in grades 10, 11 and 12. He addresses the students in a concluding email. I am taking it exactly as written, omitting introductory and concluding paragraphs aimed at this summer’s particular situation. The rest has a wider application partly for its own sake, but partly because it runs so refreshingly counter to much of what passes for justification of study and learning. There is nothing here about national security audits or “value added,” though it is valuable and should make anyone who reads it feel a bit more secure in his or her humanity. (My title for this posting comes from the title of one of Isaiah Berlin’s essay collections, and so it seems doubly apposite, given the writer’s admiration for Berlin.)

…I thought I should write a few words to wrap things up, as an attempt to look back at the past few weeks and make something of it. Looking back, I guess the most important question to ask is: why read philosophy? Let me try to explain what I have discovered from my own experience, and how I think this should influence the way we approach philosophical literature.

First (as Christopher was telling me yesterday), philosophy helps us to understand people. Some parts of philosophy are explicitly about people, and help us to reflect upon the way we treat ourselves and others. ‘He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.’ ‘Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it.’ Despite all the criticism Mill receives for endorsing a moral theory that does not prioritize intrinsic human worth (unlike Kantian ethics), I think his book On Liberty is, ironically, a classic tribute to human dignity.

Reading philosophy is also a way to get to know some truly exceptional individuals, the authors. In On Liberty and Utilitarianism, I see a torn person, trying his best to stay faithful to the legacy of his dead father (James Mill), yet irresistibly drawn to a far more complex and, in my opinion, more wonderful philosophy of the ends of life. While reading The Social Contract, I marvel at how Rousseau, a person with such a remarkable vision of the ideal state, could have been so unsuccessful at preventing his own personal life from falling into ruins.

But not only does philosophy describe human beings in general, and certain individuals in particular, it also invites us to behold the entire history of humankind. In ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, Isaiah Berlin plays the role of the narrator, as he tells how Kantian philosophy descended into Stalinist horrors. ‘What can have led to so strange a reversal—the transformation of Kant’s severe individualism into something close to a pure totalitarian doctrine on the part of thinkers some of whom claimed to be his disciples?’ he laments. I can almost hear J. R. R. Tolkien continuing: ‘If it has passed from the high and the beautiful to darkness and ruin, that was of old the fate of Arda Marred…’[1]

Of course, philosophy is not just about people, it is also about ideas. Ideas can be misleading, but it is equally easy to be lost in a vacuum of ideas. The latter seems to be the problem for many of us today: what ideas are we passionate about? Maybe you want to continue Rousseau’s quest for the ideal state, or maybe you seek a more practical vision for Hong Kong in particular. Perhaps, like young Marx, you want to change the way we view and relate to our work. Or maybe, like Isaiah Berlin, you think moral problems cannot be solved using technological solutions, so instead of changing institutions, you want to change people’s hearts. (Or maybe you just aren’t interested in ideas. If so, I doubt you would have come to these seminars, but in good pluralistic spirit, I think it’s perfectly fine.)…

Finally, philosophy teaches us how to think, and how to be a good philosopher. Above all, a philosopher must be humble. Hume writes that ‘ a man is guilty of unpardonable arrogance who concludes, because an argument has escaped his own investigation, that therefore it does not really exist.’ In light of what Hume goes on to show, I think philosophers should be prepared to admit not only the limits of their investigations, but in also the limits of rational investigation per se: some truths are simply impossible to demonstrate by logical argument.

What does all this mean for the way we read philosophy?

Read the original texts, and take your time. A philosophical classic is like a novel: you must appreciate it, muse over it, and relate to it. And I challenge you to engage personally with the ideas in the books and to decide what you think about them, whether your conclusion is that you agree, disagree, agree in part, or are simply uninterested. Do not be too quick to criticize, and always remember that many theories may not be fully correct, but may still contain part of the truth. Most importantly, remember that philosophy is the love of wisdom; you will miss something very important if you read with your head, but not with your heart.



[1] [As this student might be expected to know, for his IB Extended Essay on Tolkien gained full marks]

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