08 August 2007

Reading and writing philosophy

Philosophy is always attempting to explicate the implicit. Try it, and you soon realize that ordinary language, though it must be the ground from which every theoretical edifice arises, is far too vague for any fine-grained explication. So you adopt a more specialized idiom, capable of more specific and less ambiguous expression. You may begin with an idiom already standardized within the field; but inevitably you begin adapting this ‘received idiom’ to current purposes, or inventing a new one, and at each step in the path your idiom becomes more distinctive, more specialized, more esoteric. Your explication, therefore, requires an ever greater commitment from the reader to immerse herself in that idiom.

For any reader, or anyone trying to make sense of the world, critical thinking is an absolute requirement. While we always rely on prejudice, intuition or external authority to some extent, we also have to recognize that none of them are ultimately reliable as guides. And there's no point in substituting one of them for another—for instance, calling upon your own prejudice to bear witness against someone else's authority. It's impossible to cogently criticize a writer's work without grasping its relation to your own experience. That relation is constituted by your reading, and that—not the writer or the writing—is the real target of genuine critical thinking.

What does a reader learn from immersing himself in a writer like, say, Peirce? First, that any thumbnail sketch of the author's ‘system’ is bound to be misunderstood. Indeed these sketches are most commonly used either as substitutes for an immersion to which the student is unwilling to commit himself, or as excuses for refusing that commitment. Of course there are good reasons for refusing that commitment, since intensive study of anything requires you to pass up a thousand other studies: you simply have to choose. But what you learn from any specific study is that no justification for passing it up, being uninformed by the study, can be at all informative about the subject of the study. At best it reveals that one way of reading the subject is a dead end.

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