Reading the Great Philosophers vs. Reading Academic Criticism

Discussion in 'Literary Fiction' started by Extollager, Nov 16, 2016.

  1. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    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."
     
  2. J-Sun

    J-Sun

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    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.
     
  3. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    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.
     
  4. Bick

    Bick A Member of the Forum

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    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.
     
  5. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    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.
     
  6. GOLLUM

    GOLLUM Moderator Staff Member

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    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.
     
  7. hitmouse

    hitmouse Well-Known Member

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    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.
     
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