I’ve read quite a lot of philosophy over the past five years.
One small problem: philosophy doesn’t give you much, on its own.
The thinkers that have staked out the largest territory in my mind are people like Hans-Georg Gadamer or Charles Taylor who, while having sophisticated systems of thought, are ultimately quite deflationary about the power of philosophical reflection on its own.
Philosophy of law is no shortcut to understanding law. Hermeneutics is no shortcut to understanding literature. Moral philosophy is no shortcut to understanding right and wrong. Political philosophy is no shortcut to understanding either politics or political institutions as they exist and function in life. Epistemology and philosophy of science are no shortcut for becoming a competent scholar or scientist. Metaphysics is no shortcut for understanding reality.
So Truth and Method or “Interpretation and the Sciences of Man” gave me some strong opinions about social science, but then I found I had very few concrete, specific observations to make on the matter. I was stuck at a very broad, abstract level, the very thing such texts are meant to dissuade from engaging in.
Then I began to read Nancy Rosenblum’s work, and it all clicked.
The first book of hers I read was her most recent, Good Neighbors. In analyzing the experience, the norms, and the mythology of neighborliness in America, Rosenblum read philosophy (and in fact cites the Taylor paper on the sciences of man mentioned above), social psychology, and history, but also memoirs, testimonials, and even novels and poetry. The trick is, she read an enormous amount. There are eight years between the publication of her previous book and Good Neighbors, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it took her seven of those eight to navigate the absolutely gigantic corpus of works she not only cites, but draws from and synthesizes masterfully.
For Rosenblum, there was no shortcut for gaining an understanding of the neighbor experience in America. She had to draw not only on a plurality of types of sources, but an enormous quantity of each type, and to patiently wrestle with them all to draw out a coherent whole. Her other works run along the same lines; Membership and Morals in particular draws heavily on case law among other sources. Reading Rosenblum, you get an appreciation for the rich texture of the subject matter she wrestles with.
But you benefit from her expertise; you do not gain it. Reading Rosenblum is not a shortcut for gaining her understanding of the subject matter she discusses. I’m afraid it takes the same level of work she put into it in order to do that.
The number of newspapers, letters, pamphlets, and other documents that a Gordon Wood or a Joanne Freeman must read in order to produce their works on the founding and early republic boggle my mind. The amount of case law a practicing trial lawyer must know – and often learn under difficult time constraints – is astonishing. The quickest way to make a fool of yourself is to issue pronouncements on criminal justice reform to a public defender, on the basis of a few popular nonfiction books you have read.
What I am saying, I suppose, is that I have known for a while that it is high time for me to dial back philosophy – however much I love it – and invest more of my time in history, law, political science, and other works focused on concrete particulars.
There is a line from Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country, one of my favorite books that I read in 2018, that has stuck with me:
The difference between this residual Left and the academic Left is the difference between the people who read books like Thomas Geoghegan’s Which Side Are You On?—a brilliant explanation of how unions get busted—and people who read Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. The latter is an equally brilliant book, but it operates on a level of abstraction too high to encourage any particular political initiative. After reading Geoghegan, you have views on some of the things which need to be done. After reading Jameson, you have views on practically everything except what needs to be done.
I do not share Rorty’s politics, but I’ve set myself up to argue with the Jamesons rather than the Geoghegans (assuming I would disagree with the latter, which I do not know for a fact as I have not read him)! What is the point of disagreeing with cultural philosophers who will inspire no practical action in anyone? If we’re to move beyond a culture of negation, we need to aim to participate in communities of conversation where the push and pull is over what to do, not what position to occupy in abstraction.
So I need to read more Geoghegans and fewer Jamesons. But, taking Gadamer and Taylor (and Rosenblum and McCloskey and many others) seriously, as I do, I also need to be reading more prose fiction and more poetry. This may sound like a contradiction – poetry in particular is reputed to be as far from concrete living as you can get, beyond metaphysics perhaps. But both disclose aspects of the human experience, as it is and as it can be, that other sources do not. And I have read more philosophy alone—never mind nonfiction in general—than either fiction or poetry, 10 to 1 at least, these last five years.
I’m not putting down what I have achieved so far. Five years ago I decided there was no shortcut to understanding philosophy, and began to do the hard work, still deeply incomplete, of filling that understanding out. But I’m not a philosopher, and I have interests that extend beyond its boundaries. Even a well fleshed out philosophy cannot be a shortcut to addressing those interests. It’s time to branch out.