The Way Out Is Through
In Organon 3 I made (foolishly, perhaps) a distinction between philosophers I find it useful to read and philosophers I find considerably less so, and in Organon 5 I stated categorically that there is no specific text that can necessarily be considered a prerequisite for reading or understanding another text. These two statements, combined, might seem to leave the reader in the sticky position of tackling a major philosophical treatise without any help or preparation. Though I have, to some extent, addressed this issue in yesterday’s post, I want to take another minute to discuss the problem of the magnum opus.
For some philosophers, this is much less of a problem. There’s no onebook by Aristotle that is unilaterally considered the most important, just like there’s no single one of Leibniz’s many, many essays that is undeniably the most important. But many philosophers - and here Spinoza, Hume, Marx come easily to mind - are considered to have a masterwork or key text which often stands metonymically for their entire life’s work. Sometimes, this is because the philosopher himself thought of it in those turns: Spinoza refers repeatedly to the Ethics as “my Philosophy,” just as Maimonides clearly knew that the Guide of the Perplexed was fundamentally different in nature than anything else he had written. Other times, this privilege is the product of institutional history or historical accident: it’s not at all self-evident that Of Grammatology is Derrida’s most important work, there’s no real evidence that he himself considered it as such, and I’d bet money that when the wheel of time grinds on a little further, the history of philosophy won’t remember it as Derrida’s most interesting or useful text. But whatever the reason a text is considered Important, trying to read something like Capital or the Ethics can seem an impossibly daunting and uncomfortable task.
Now, some philosophers just don’t speak to some people, and if you’ve read, internalized, and rejected a text or a system, fair enough. But oftentimes, the reputation of the text is enough to make reading it an impossibly anxious project. And this the reason that I can’t refrain from noting that every time you attempt to seriously grapple with the thought and legacy of a particular philosopher, you are obligated to find your own way in.
For some people, following the dictates of the canon is good enough. Capital is the big one, so they pick up Capital, read it, and call it a day where Marx is concerned. Again - fair enough. These are the kinds of people who will take up a list of the 100 Greatest Books of the 20th Century and read them in order, one by one. But that’s not at all the way I like to work. I much prefer to start by exploring epiphenomena. The bold predator charges right into the middle of the oasis to grab a zebra by the neck; the sly predator circles the pond around a few times first to check out the scene. Philosophy very rarely makes me anxious anymore, but my reading habits were born in the days when the thought of attacking something like The Phenomenology of the Spirit filled me with absolute dread. And that’s where I find it incredibly useful to remember that there is almost always more than one text. For every Longinus, by whom only a single treatise survives, there are dozens of philosophers whose archive includes book-length works, essays, critique and reviews, drafts, and letters. There’s absolutely no reason you have to start right in the middle - there’s nothing wrong with making a slow, careful approach.
For many of the more difficult philosophers on my list, I find that letters are an incredibly useful introduction. Not only are they informal in tone and hence easier to read, they often give you all kinds of insights into the personality, values, and reasoning of a thinker that are hidden or papered over in their “public” texts. Spinoza, Leibniz, and Descartes are all examples of philosophers I first became comfortable with through their letters, which made it much easier to read the Ethics, the Theodicy, and the Meditations. Another good place to start are alternate versions, whether later revisions or earlier drafts. Often, a draft will be more transparent than a finished text - though it might be less convincing and less conceptually air-tight, it shows a mind at work rather than a masterpiece of philosophical thinking. The Short Treatise is not the Ethics, and if all you read is the Short Treatise, you won’t have a very clear understanding of Spinoza’s mature thought - but reading the ST before or alongside the Ethics can definitely make it easier to understand what Spinoza is up to in some of the more obscure proofs and scholia. Likewise, later revisions can reflect the kind of explanatory clarity and restraint of the ego that often only comes with age and experience. Hume’s Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals is basically a revision of Book III of the Treatise of Human Nature, greatly shortened and deliberately clarified, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t read that one first.
There are always options and alternatives; if you’re determined enough, there’s always a way in. Just don’t let anxiety blind you to that fact. It’s just a book. If you’re really nervous, keep a lighter next to you while you read just so you can keep telling yourself that it’s more afraid of you than you are of it.