This is the first in an 11-part series, commenting section-by-section through Critique of Religion and Philosophy, by Walter Kaufmann. Stay tuned each Friday for the next installment.
I hope most of you have received your books and that you’ve had a chance to start reading. Let me begin with a little bit of advice about reading this book and then I’ll comment on the content of this first, very short, section.
How to Read Philosophy
1. I’m not an expert in reading philosophy. If I can do it, you can do it. I have never had a formal course in philosophy, if you can believe that. You can chalk that up to the Christian schools I have attended since graduating from high school. My doctorate at Fuller Seminary required me to engage with continental philosophy but by then I was assumed to have a working knowledge of the primary thinkers and the overall contours of the history of western thought. I didn’t. So I am self-taught. You can do this!
2. Read above your current reading level. In order to get stronger you have to lift a weight that’s a little heavier that what you can do easily. So in reading, we must read beyond what we currently feel capable of in order to grasp new ideas.
3. Keep reading. Just as the best advice for how to be a successful writer is to sit your butt in the chair and write, so the best advice for being a good reader is to do a lot of reading. Specifically when it comes to philosophy, you will read many sentences and paragraphs that don’t make sense to you. Forge ahead. I have found that just when I am about to give up, I read a gem. Typically that gem does not stand in isolation as an aphorism (though much good philosophy is aphoristic, as Kaufmann points out in Section 1) but the fact that you get the impact of that insightful statement will help you grasp—even a little—the previous paragraphs you didn’t really understand. So, that’s the long way around to say, in the words of the contemporary philosopher, Dori, “Just keep reading!”
4. Philosophers are name droppers. This is the most difficult thing, I’ve found, about reading philosophy. The funny thing is that in Section 1, Kaufmann both critiques and engages in this practice. It is virtually unavoidable. Every philosopher is responding to those that have gone before. If you’re not familiar with the main ideas of the philosophers you will miss a few things (mostly Kaufmann’s sharp wit which is exquisitely on display in Section 1. But fear not. Refer to point 3, above.
Two Prefaces & Section 1: The Philosophic Flight
Right from the start we get a sense of where Kaufmann is headed and he confirms this, page by page, through the preface and into Section 1.
“Philosophers examine their life, ideas, and assumptions not only occasionally but full time. Some do it playfully and feign perplexity to create suspense, while allaying any apprehension by reminding us now and then that what they are doing has no bearing on the conduct of their life” (xvii).
Philosophers, as much as the rest of us, are prone to forego the flight—the bird’s eye view and the challenge to conventional thinking—in exchange for, as he says, noting how two snapshots taken in flight are not alike.
Philosophers, Kaufmann tells us, shoot themselves in the foot by taking themselves too seriously, unable to laugh, they have no fun at the project, and divorce from their thinking the implications for every day life. In a funny quip at the very end of Section 1, Kaufmann writes,
Relevant criticism may be offered by those who have never taken a philosophic flight. One can tell a rotten egg without being able to lay a fresh one. And a philosophic essay involves more than new insights; it also requires exposition and arguments which may be objectionable.
Clever criticisms can be stupid: those who see only the error of Plato may be brilliant, but they are blind. Every great philosophic work says…, “You must change your life.” The critic who does not realize this is a Philistine—or possibly a positivist; he has a very inadequate notion of philosophy. But those who see only this challenge may also be positivists, in which ace they are likely to discount it as merely emotive; or they may be Schwärmer—romantic souls—or possibly existentialists (19).*
In the next section Kaufmann will explicate the terrain between positivism and existentialism. For now, what is required, is to be willing to take a flight out of our intellectual comfort zones to critically examine our ideas and assumptions. This will require heavy lifting for both theists and atheists alike. These first two Sections are quite difficult. In fact, Kaufmann says in the preface, “perhaps the first two sections cannot be fully understood until one has finished the book.” So fear not. Refer to point 3 above.
I love his alternative title for the book, How to Go to Hell: The Need for Negative Thinking. About this alternative title he writes, fourteen years later in the 1972 Preface,
“both the religious seekers and the negative thinkers are for the most part neo-romantics. They tend to be uncritical of what is dear to them: their own convictions, sentiments, experiences, and above all the fashions that they share with their peers. The rigor needed to examine our own methods and beliefs is as rare in the younger generation as it is among their teachers” (xvi).
This is perhaps the most profound statement in this first chunk of reading. And with this Kaufmann sets out his agenda: to be ruthless to all our pet ideas, on all sides of the question. So, while there is room to get lost for all parties involves, the traps are different. Academics will tend to get lost in the need to be comprehensive; thoroughly examining all sides of every issues with little to no personal investment. Neo-romantics tend to find what they’re looking for.
* I have no idea what Schwärmer is or means, so I just keep reading, see?