Reading the Great Philosophers vs. Reading Academic Criticism


Well-Known Member
Aug 21, 2010
Bryan Magee's Confessions of a Philosopher: "Time spent with secondary literature is life lived in the shallows; time spent with the great philosophers is life lived in the limitless depths of the ocean."
Or "time spent with secondary literature is time spent with a wise Sherpa before climbing Mt. Everest" or "time spent with secondary literature is time spent in conversation with a friend about a subject of shared fascination" or... :) I get what he's saying and no secondary work is a substitute for going to the source (and some is frankly a waste of time) but I think he phrases it a bit too negatively.
The only great philosopher I could say I "know" is Plato. As regards Plato I would agree with Magee. Plato is generally very readable (in translation, such as the Penguin Classics). I've sampled some scholarship on Plato and it's generally been harder to read than Plato himself. But maybe one should start with a Sherpa before reading, say, Kant.
How does Camus' The Outsider fit within this framework? It's secondary literature to the philosophies of Sartre and the existentialists, but also forms part of the overall existential thesis given its reception, standing and clarity of expression. I like the book, in any event.
Bick, I would take it that The Outsider/The Stranger is a "primary" work. It's not a scholarly commentary on a topic with the setting-out of context, the interpretation of closely-read passages, and so on, but a work in its own right.

A problem with secondary writing (critical commentary, etc.) is that it's often concerned to answer questions you've never had, to participate in a scholarly conversation that's been going on while you were doing other things, and so on. Many primary works may need some brief editorial helps -- identifying persons and places named in the book and so on; but the work will often be intelligible enough as not to require readers to sit down with a pile of commentaries.

I don't mean to disparage the whole genre of scholarly commentary. To take an example that will be familiar to many Chrons people, Tom Shippey's Road to Middle-earth is a splendid work of secondary writing.

Again, I haven't read enough philosophy to know, but my hunch is that many pre-modern philosophical works do not require the reading first off of whole books of secondary commentary. A good translation with some brief editorial notes suffices (I have found) for Plato, Augustine, Boethius, the Tao of Lao Tse, Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici etc. -- "suffices" in the sense that one can have a very worthwhile reading experience. I imagine the same would be true of Aristotle, Confucius, and many others. But I wouldn't be surprised if I'd need to read something like one of those Very Brief Introductions from the OUP if I were going to try to read Kant or later philosophers.

Speaking for myself, I'd generally rather read another primary book than, having read a primary classic, set myself to read a great deal of secondary commentary. I have a few books on Plato, but the only one I've read in its entirety was short.

In short, I think the majority of the world's great philosophical works were not written "only" for grad students and academic philosophers to read. Philosophy is now often taken to be a matter for academic specialists. But, as one of the young C. S. Lewis's friends said to him, and he never forgot it, Philosophy wasn't a subject to Plato; it was a way.
I have been building up a relatively comprehensive selection of Western (and to a lesser extent Eastern) philosophy over the past 12 months in particular. Philosophy was never something that interested me that much in the past but ever since I began to be interested in the influence philosophers have had on fictional authors that I follow, my enthusiasm on the topic has risen somewhat exponentially.

To this end I like to collect and read so-called literary criticism on authors and various literary movements I have an intense interest in that have been influenced by philosophy but as far as the field of philosophy is concerned I tend to gravitate more towards generalist or overview texts on philosophy rather than purchase critical works dedicated to specific philosophical writers or movements. I prefer to delve directly into the philosophical texts themselves with the understanding that I am unlikely to gain a truly in-depth understanding of the philosophical ideas being discussed but enough to relate back to my interest in fictional works.

Having said this a number of the generalist texts on philosophy still do a good job of covering the key ideas of specific philosophers (including someone as complex as Kant or as unreadable as Hegel) which I would recommend as a general approach to practically all the philosophical works, notwithstanding the fact many of these primary texts include their own helpful introductions written by various academics anyway.
Isnt this question analogous to those about the benefits of literary criticism v literature, or art history v art?

Neither is a replacement for the original but they can serve as a good introduction, summary, critique or overview, to put the subject in context, make it accessible etc.
Of course there is good and bad criticism, but it can have its own intrinsic value, and to dismiss it as secondary is silly and snobbish.
"Secondary" is a standard term in English studies -- or anyway it was when I was an undergrad in the 1970s. Perhaps I am showing my age. Primary documents: contemporary diaries, novels, poems, etc. Secondary: bibliographies, literary discussions, books by historians, etc. That's what I was taught. Our Mutual Friend by Dickens is primary, Cockshut's little book on Dickens is secondary, etc.

Yes, in literary studies there's a place for (brief) books or articles to help you with topical references and so on. But I have the impression that a lot of what passes for English study now requires students to read fashionable theorists who write bizarre, esoteric, convoluted, nihilistic fantasias that refer to primary works the student has never read. If I ran the zoo students would read relatively little literary criticism (as assigned reading; what they do on their own is up to them, and I would be happy to make recommendations if asked) and very little theory as undergraduates, but would read widely and deeply in canonical works plus works of interest to them. And nearly all of what they do as English majors should involve books, not movies, TV programs, YouTube videos, etc. They should be discouraged from using cant phrases in their papers and in class discussions, with the teacher bearing always in mind Orwell's "Politics and the English Language."

This posting is a bit of a tangent for the thread focus on philosophy, but the thread has been idly for several months and perhaps is worth perking up.
I do not disagree that fatuous modish secondary works can be painful, and that laziness on the part of the student is unconstructive ( one reason why universities have invested in plagiarism spotters)

I also suspect that English and philosophy departments are populated with academics trying to squeeze diminishing returns from Shakespeare, Chaucer, Socrates and Plato.

There are however some majesterial "secondary" works which add to the subject.
I don't know, Hitmouse. My own experience, for example, is that having read most of the Shakespeare plays, some of them quite a few times, and having taught about ten of them, I feel I've just begun to experience the riches. Lucky you if you went to a university where you actually had good classes on Socrates and Plato.

I'd certainly regard C. S. Lewis's The Discarded Image as a magisterial secondary work.
What I meant by university depts was not teaching, which can be wonderful ( and is a secondary source if you like) but rather some academic research which seems to go over very well worked ground with sometimes specious and flimsy pretext. I should be clear that a great deal of original academic work in the arts and philosophy is of high quality.
I have real doubts about the value of the "research"/publish or perish mode for the humanities. Maybe valid for the sciences.
Just to offer a slightly different point of view: I didn't read all of The Madwoman in the Attic but the parts I read offered some interesting insights I hadn't come to as I read but which made sense in retrospect.

One of the things I realized when I started taking low level graduate English courses was that I had been taught to read, but not necessarily to observe and think about what I read. Some of that may have been a growing maturity, but I also think the skills of what used to be called "close reading" really are useful.

As for theory, I only dipped a toe. Hegal was indeed unreadable as was Lacan. Kristiva was intriguing though I wasn't sure I understood the gist of what she was saying. On the whole Marxist criticism was occasionally insightful but also seemed tunnel-visioned, but feminist readings I found productive.

All of which is a bit tangential to the point I meant to make: Reading some criticism can be instructive in how to read literature, and how to think about it. Especially for young readers it's easy to be so caught up in a story that logic lapses, implausibilities and errors are ignored or unrecognized. One of the joys of, say, Mark Twain's "The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper" is how it relates the events of Cooper's novels to reality. (And proves that writing about something doesn't have to be dry and boring, which I wish more academics would notice.)

Randy M.

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