How to Read Philosophy in Order to Write Philosophy, Composing, 03/08/2013

Some of my friends who read the blog may take this personally, and I hope they aren’t offended. But as I was researching yesterday evening, an idea occurred to me about what might be the best ways to approach philosophical research. And I thought of it in contrast to the research habits of some friends of mine, and how those habits tend to get in the way of what I consider the most productive way for a philosopher to engage with research material.

However, it’s also a weekend post, and it seems no one pays attention to a blog roll on the weekends. So it’s possible that no one who’d be offended, or who could stand to learn from my speculations, will read it anyway.

The profession of philosophy asks a lot of people. In particular today, I mean a very radical shift in your self-image in order to transition from a student of philosophy to a philosopher. Through our undergraduate degrees, our masters-level training, and in many cases even our doctorates, which are meant to be our transitional degrees where we become professional philosophers, we are told to be humble. Not simply in the sense of a general humility and awareness that we can make mistakes. That’s just an attitude that makes someone an ethically reasonable person. I mean, we are taught not to have a voice of our own. A student of philosophy reads the masterpieces of the discipline, and even the day-to-day contemporary articles by working stiff professional philosophers, with the attitude of figuring out what this person being read is trying to say. I’m almost finished reading Hegel’s Philosophy of History, so if I were reading it as a student of philosophy, I’d be continually asking myself what Hegel means, what Hegel is trying to do, why Hegel is doing what he’s doing, whether my understanding of Hegel was correct.

But that’s not how you create an original philosophical project. Even if my project were simply a historical study of Hegel’s philosophy (which it is nowhere near!), I wouldn’t get anywhere with this attitude. Because with that approach, you never escape the shadow of the person you’re reading. 

Instead, researching like a philosopher means that you’re researching because you’re looking for material from which to craft your own idea, your own project. In fact, it isn’t even that raw. A philosopher researches because she already has a project in mind. She’s reading her research material already in a dialogue with it, interrogating it, plotting its ideas in relation to the ideas she has from her other research for the project. What’s more, she’s confident that her thinking doesn’t have to be faithful to any Hegelian project to use it. My own project on political temporalities is crazily complicated, weaving several disparate philosophical traditions into a single investigation. I’m reading Hegel to see how his ideas can fit into my own work. I’m reading Hegel’s Philosophy of History not as a student of Hegel, but as a peer of Hegel. 

That’s the difference between a student of philosophy and a philosopher. 


  1. I am in complete agreement, but I think this is probably true of most creative fields. The training does not prepare one for the task, just creates the resources to do the task if you happen to train yourself. But I think that's more or less inevitable, since the alternative would be sophistry -- teaching people how to present themselves as experts rather than teaching expertise.

    Adam, here's where you dual careers can really be used to create some unique insights. Is this how you felt training to be a novelist vs becoming one?

    1. I've been thinking about this for a while, because I'm starting to see some very bad habits forming in some colleagues of mine in the grad programs at McMaster. Some still write papers for grad courses, conference presentations, and even thesis chapters in marathon sessions until 4.00a. One is still researching an MA thesis, going into his fourth year of a two year program, and he's still reading books asking those very student-type questions, getting caught up in figuring out what author X is doing, instead of asking what the ideas of author X can do for him. Those aren't the habits that make for a productive university career. I think a successful university worker (and a successful writer of any kind, really) has to ritualize their writing as little as possible. Otherwise they become unadaptable and paralyzed when the least hitch enters their routines. I once said to someone who asked me about this that writing should be as ordinary an activity to you as taking a shit. Best advice I've ever given.

      Remember what I think of people who cry 'sophistry,' though. ;)

      The weird thing is, I never really trained as a novelist. I just read a lot of books, and made note of how people constructed stories. Reading Phil Sandifer's analysis of how genre collision works on his blog TARDIS Eruditorum was a big leap forward in my abilities, though. I practiced a lot at various points of my life, but mostly I just studied the narrative structure of the books and other media that I thought were good, developed a good sense of what made an interesting character (the same as what makes an interesting person, basically), and practiced enough on my own time that I became good enough. I never took a creative writing class, never joined a workshop or a group. I just developed my techniques on my own, and when I took it public, people thought I was really good.

      I was the same with philosophy writing in my undergrad. I never hung around the philosophy student society much, because my extracurricular focus was on my work at The Muse. So when I decided to go for graduate school work in philosophy, I started spending more time at the department in my fourth and fifth year of undergrad and won a couple of their student essay awards. Some of the folks in the society were a little shocked because they didn't know where this really talented undergrad had come from. I just keep my practice private.

    2. Re Sophistry -- an intentional slight, I'm afraid.

  2. I think it also goes without saying that most people in any field don't ever or at least don't consistently learn this sort of lesson -- those people are valuable and due respect but are not counted among the leaders of a field. The annoyance on the part of those others who do push themselves to get to the next level is that this has nothing to do with compensation. That's why we should never forget the lessons of Kafka's hunger artist, who really was very good at putting the best face on things.

  3. I like to keep in mind Massumi's imperative, in his preface to D&G's ATP, that we read the text like a record: find the cuts that work and jam on them; ignore the ones that leave you cold. It's not a question of accuracy, but of productivity. Not "what does this mean?" but "what does this do for me?" "does it work?" And when you think about it, this isn't even a radical claim: there is, after all, a marked difference between history and philosophy. But this is a distinction all too often misguidedly blurred. We ask ourselves how best to represent Hegel's concepts, and we forget the truly philosophical questions of where these concepts leave us, into which connections we might usefully plug them, what they do, and so on. By all means, I'd rather read a productive hack-job than a dry and uninteresting work of scholarly fidelity.