It might seem daunting to read philosophy. Giants of thinking with names like Hegel, Plato, Marx, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard loom over us with imperious glares, asking if we are sure we are worthy. We might worry that we won’t understand anything they are telling us; even if we do think we understand, we still might worry that we’ll get it wrong somehow.
So, if we’re going to read philosophy, we need to begin by knocking those giants down to size. Every one of them tripped and burped and doodled. Some of them were real jerks. Here’s Arthur Schopenhauer on his fellow German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, for instance: ‘a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan, who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense.’ I’m not sure whether this paints Schopenhauer or Hegel as the bigger jerk.
The point is that each giant of philosophy was a human being trying to figure out life by doing just what you do: reading, thinking, observing, writing. Don’t let their big words intimidate you; we can insist that they make sense to us – or, at least, intrigue us – or are left behind in the discount book bin. They must prove their worth to us.
Really nice read. As a philosophy major from way back in the 80s, this is spot on, and exactly how I remember going about it. It turns out this is a useful skill in other fields of endeavor, one that not everyone is able to develop as well–nowadays I use it to interpret environmental regulations. Strangely enough, I don’t ever remember being “taught” how to critically read philosophy (or anything else for that matter) but I’m sure many of today’s students would greatly benefit from the approach in your essay and others like it. Your points about following and reacting to an author’s argument were also good – I remember just plodding along at times, constantly checking to make sure I truly understood what was being said. At times that was undoubtedly the hardest and most time-consuming task. And Schopenhauer’s take on Hegel was fun, too….lest we forget that philosophers can be pretty darn entertaining!