Sunday, December 9, 2007

Dare to Be Deep

Philosophy used to be taught at colleges and universities to acquaint students with the rich heritage of the Western intellectual tradition, to present texts against which one might define, develop, challenge, and re-evaluate one’s own ideas, and to encourage logical thinking. But now, in an age where celebrity gossip dominates all of life, the student is less likely to learn about the intellectual achievements of the past and to encounter models of reasoned discourse than to be told, for example, that Kant is “a disaster” (Bertrand Russell), that John Dewey “replaces structure with fog” (Arthur C. Danto), that “Wittgenstein wants to make a bonfire of our philosophical vanities” (Hilary Putnam), that Jean-Paul Sartre is “an appalling language-user” (Mary Warnock), that A.J. Ayer “might have been a great philosopher--ruined by sex” (Gilbert Ryle), and even that awarding an honorary degree to Jacques Derrida showed “it had been a bad year for bullshit in Cambridge” (Hugh Mellor).

In an effort to restore philosophy to the grand tradition of providing a guide to wisdom and the conduct of life, philosophers must return to their true calling, which is to challenge people to dare to be deep.

Sad as it is to say, nobody’s going to accept you as a profound thinker unless they believe you have acquired your superior knowledge by reflecting upon the wisdom of the great philosophers. This does not mean you must spend your life studying their work or actually reading all their difficult books. Fortunately, the keys to becoming a profound thinker can be found in proven, practical guidelines and techniques to put you on the road to wisdom. For example, selective reading can save you years of time in achieving your goal.

Consider first and foremost the philosophers you have not read. Either they are major philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, or they are not. You need not read philosophers who are not major, for they are less influential and thus less important than the “majors.” This alone eliminates 99% of the philosophers who have ever written or are writing now. Of the remaining 1%, there are philosophers who you would no doubt read if you had more time, but unfortunately you don’t. No one will hold it against you if you have not read anything by this group of thinkers.

Then there are philosophers you intend to read as soon as you’ve read other philosophers. Again, it will not reflect badly on you if you have not read anything by philosophers who fall into this group. Take Aquinas, for example. No one would expect you to read the philosopher who attempted to reconcile Aristotle’s thought with Christianity until you had read Aristotle himself. So much for Aquinas. How about Aristotle? Surely no one would expect you to read Aristotle until you have read the works of Aristotle’s great teacher, Plato.

Next there are philosophers who treat topics that are not about anything you are thinking about right now or expect to think about in the foreseeable future. They can be removed from your reading list. And there are philosophers you suspect everyone has pretended to read, but whom probably very few have. Strike them from your “must read” list as well. You can use this technique to find countless other philosophers you can safely ignore.

Finally, there are philosophers everyone’s read, so there’s no need for you to read them too, and philosophers no one’s read, so there’s really no need for you to read them either.

If you tally up all the philosophers you must read, one conclusion seems inevitable: you only have to read Plato. After all, did not Alfred North Whitehead--a philosopher you would no doubt read if only you had the time--say the history of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato? So Relax. Dare to be deep and start reading a copy of Plato’s Republic today.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Minimal Maxims/#2 in a series

Hope lights a path out of the darkest woods; misadventure leads us back into them. --Jean-Jacques Rousseau

"Let bygones be bygones" is not so much good advice as a brute fact precisely because the past is unalterable. --Lord Acton

Even a poor argument by a Russell or a Dewey can be a thing of beauty, but a page of Heidegger is the ultimate insult. --A.J. Ayer

Having a conscience is a terrible burden except in the most favorable circumstances. --Oscar Wilde

The worst affairs, the ones which present the most intractable problems, are nearly always the work of single women or married men. --Marcel Proust

Etymologically Mixed Metaphor (see "Mixed, Not Stirred" below)

A writer for the New Yorker (October 29, 2007, p. 66) used the expression "spacious confines" to describe the metaphor "in the arena of truth." One might call this an etymologically mixed meta-metaphor.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Minimal Maxims/#1 in a series

Count no man consistent until he is dead. --Aristotle

Flirtation has a dual moral flaw: it is a questionable means to a dubious end. --Immanuel Kant

The most fatal obstacle to happiness is the overexamined life. --Mark Twain

Never apologize, never explain: a true friend does not require an apology; a false friend will not believe your explanation. --Truman Capote

Ignorance plays no favorites. --Voltaire

A Good Man to Know

Philosopher Keith Burgess-Jackson’s eponymously-named blog is filled with nuggets of philosophical insight, political commentary, and keen observations on sports, music, and the like. In a post from January 29, 2007, he wrote movingly of his mentor, Joel Feinberg, from which I take this excerpt:

He was not just a great philosopher and a good man; he was a wonderful teacher and friend. He taught, mentored, and inspired hundreds of graduate students during his long, distinguished career. Some of them, because of his influence, have gone on to do great things. Some of us, in spite of his influence, have gone on to do mediocre things. I miss you, Joel.

As incredible as it may sound, I have never heard (or seen) a single disparaging comment about Joel. The man was universally loved. Of how many people can that be said?

Hours after this blog was posted, "Will," a regular visitor to the blog, left this comment:

Joel sucked.

In a follow-up comment, Will explained that he assumed Keith Burgess-Jackson knew him well enough by now to recognize “a snappy comeback when you see one and an attempt at humor.”

In what can only be described as a monumental act of forbearance (one that must have been preceded by a huge sigh), Keith Burgess-Jackson replied:

Yes, I know you well, Will. You couldn’t bear the thought that someone, somewhere, hadn’t been disparaged.

Monday, September 17, 2007


In the week following Ingmar Bergman’s death, David Denby wrote in The New Yorker that Bergman “was perhaps the most influential of all filmmakers as well as the most widely parodied.” (August 13, 2007, p. 10).

Of course, Denby said “perhaps,” and he supported his view by writing that “In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, antic couples quarreled in mock Swedish, film students spoofed his morbid dream sequences, Woody Allen sent the hooded figure of death from ‘The Seventh Seal’ stalking through ‘Love and Death’.”

Nevertheless, his assertion is astonishing. It was as if someone had called Nietzsche “perhaps the most influential of all philosophers as well as the most widely parodied,” and had noted that in the nineteen-seventies students walked about Harvard Square in Nietzsche T-shirts, that some thinkers have called Nietzsche the philosopher of the twentieth century, that even The Sopranos invoked the pronouncement for which Nietzsche is best known (at least to non-philosophers), “God is dead.”

Indeed, the case for Nietzsche is considerably stronger than the analogous one for Bergman. While there are no obvious alternative candidates to Nietzsche in the “most influential and widely parodied” contest (with the possible exception of Wittgenstein, who has been hugely influential--even among those who do not accept his view of philosophy-- and parodied at least once in a while), there is an obvious alternative to Bergman in the person of Alfred Hitchcock, whose work has influenced and been imitated, parodied, and otherwise sent up by admirers and acolytes from Mel Brooks and Jonathan Demme to Gus Van Sant and Brian de Palma.

Has there ever been a more recognizable filmmaker, one who combined artistic achievement so thoroughly with commercial success, and whose influence can be felt in such disparate movements and subgenres as film noir, French New Wave, thrillers, psychological dramas, espionage, romance, and horror films?

To see how “the case for Hitchcock” might be made, see the recent collection of essays on the range and influence of Hitchcock’s films, After Hitchcock: Influence, Imitation, and Intertextuality, edited by David Boyd and R. Barton Palmer (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006).


In (what must have been) first grade, I had a teacher who read a story to the class in which the narrator tries to disabuse people of the notion that there are bears on Hemlock Mountain. Our teacher would read the line this way: “There are no bears on Hemlock Mountain!” I don’t know who wrote the story, how it ended, or what anyone else in class felt, but that “line reading” scared the hell out of me. It was my first encounter with irony, which is perhaps why I’ve never forgotten it.