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.