…and so ends another academic year. As I related in an earlier post, it has been a thrilling term in some ways, with an uninterrupted flow of ideas, questions and confusions. My only complaint has been not enough leisure to try to pursue a few of the items with greater care. I hope over the summer to do that, as well as work out (in this somewhat public space) my view of Spinoza’s religious metaphysics as I complete a book ms. on the topic.
Meanwhile, while walking to school today, I came to reflect on what one should do if one wants to become a philosopher:
1. Read as much as possible. Then read some more. And this advice is given with utmost generality: read science, literature, poetry, history, politics, and everything. As we shall see (in step #3), you will be expected to dream up possibilities. No one wants to dream up possibilities that turn out not to be really possible, or claim real possibilities to be impossible, or neglect alternatives. A broad base of knowledge, or experience, will inform the possibilities one is able to dream up.
2. Learn the historical texts of philosophy. “Reading” them isn’t quite enough. One needs to grapple with them, assault, retreat, regroup, and assault again. One needs to become used to those texts, in the way one might become used to a morning run or a set of exercises. The domain of philosophy is a field of questions, and the only way to get a feel for the field is through the historical texts that have made philosophy what it is. If you are a genius, you will uncover a new question in the field that hadn’t been noticed before.If you aren’t a genius, you will at least develop a sense for the sorts of questions philosophers ask, and the outlines of possible answers.
3. Dream up possibilities. One does this principally through writing, I think. As a rule of thumb, one should spend about half as much time writing as reading. It’s in the act of writing that new possibilities emerge. They won’t emerge on their own — you need to hear yourself announce them, or read them as you write them. This component is especially under-emphasized in philosophy classes, I think. Teachers will give writing assignments to test the students’ success in understanding texts, but rarely will they test the students’ abilities to dream up their own possibilities. That’s because it’s really hard to do, and because ideas don’t come along by sheer effort of trying to think them. But each philosopher, and a student especially, needs to keep a running notebook of possibilities from which one might be able later to draw more promising and developed ideas.