How to read (part five). Learning to read with Jay Rosenberg

When I studied philosophy in the nineties, there was no really helpful introduction to philosophy. Or so I thought back then. Most things came to me in a piecemeal fashion, either by being taught this and that or by imitating what I found in papers or books. My studies, then, were mostly unsystematic and felt slightly random. I didn’t have a particular view or set of views, and to this day I find it hard to make up my mind. How did I manage? – I developed a strong interest in methodology, i.e. the ways in which we can approach questions or texts. This way, I didn’t learn to form opinions. Rather, I learned to find out what I believe (often unbeknownst to me). So I always thought and think of philosophy more as a set of ways or a practice of thinking, rather than a set of views. This is probably why I also felt that doxographic surveys or histories didn’t do much for me.

The first introduction to philosophy that really spoke to me came very late and as a total surprise: I’m talking about Jay F. Rosenberg‘s The Practice of Philosophy: A Handbook for Beginners. I picked it up when I was already some years into my postdoc phase. Thank God, I thought to myself, I overcame my qualms about reading stuff for beginners. Here was an introduction that had everything I could ever have hoped for: a concise primer on arguments, a hands-on approach to writing and reading, garnished with brief insightful reflections on approaches and limitations. To this day, I recommend it wholeheartedly to students and colleagues. Rosenberg’s brief remarks on different ways to read a philosopher are spot on when you want to move around in the hermeneutic circle: going from what you deem the main claim or comclusion to a creative reading that allows you to appropriate the thoughts or turns of a philosopher.

I post this part of his book below and invite you to leave your own recommendations in the comments.

How to read (part four). Accepting confusion as the rule and understanding as the exception

Now that we have looked at how to get started, at some malpractices that might get in the way, and at some effects of reading for writing, I finally want to begin to get to the heart of the matter, that is, to the text itself. Looking at the eager faces of my students, I think many of them usually want to do everything well and present very smart ideas about the text. I was no different, but the first thing that needs to be done is to establish a rough understanding of the text. How is that done, though? Let’s get down to business.

Accepting confusion as the default state of mind. – Reading philosophical texts, I generally assumed that I would not understand very much. Confusion was the rule; getting something was a rare exception. The most impressive experience of that sort I had when I translated my first text from William of Ockham’s Quodlibeta. The title suggested that it was on the problem of universals, but I didn’t understand a word of what I had translated. By contrast, my students commonly want to grasp how things hang together. So they often ask how this relates to that. I love those questions and the eagerness to spot the system behind the remarks. But I often have to admit that I am not sure what the system is or whether there is one. My point is not to discourage consistent thinking. However, systematic consistency is first of all an expectation, typical for contemporary readers. There is no guarantee that a historical text will meet that expectation or meet it in the way we expect. Lowering expectations of systematicity, then, is what I mean by accepting confusion as the default. When opening a book, we often simply don’t know what to expect. So it helps to accept confusion and looking for islands that (seem to) make sense, rather than to start out wanting to get everything and see dark passages as outliers. Accept that you will understand very little. If you want to rush to conclusions, that’s very understandable, but you’re going to be frustrated much of the time.

What is the text about? The hermeneutic circle. – The first question that you will need to answer is: What is the text about? Assuming that you don’t understand much at this point, you will have to make a guess. That guess is usually prompted by the islands of understanding, i.e. some details that make sense. Perhaps this is the title of the text, although Platonic dialogues will be frustrating in this regard. Or it will be some line in the beginning, with some familiar words and phrases. Or it might be simply that your instructor has set the text as an instance of a text about a particular topic. The point is that, at this point, you’ll be hooked by some detail and draw a conclusion about the general topic. The projection of of such a general topic works like a hypothesis, to be confirmed or frustrated by the next details you’re going to look at. In any case, the move from some detail to a general assumption about a topic and back to further details back to the general topic or a refined understanding of it is what is called the hermeneutic circle.

Approaching details. – Once you decided that a text is about a particular topic, you will begin to see the details as relating to that topic. If the genre allows for it, you should try and see which general conclusion the text argues for. Typically, a conclusion is introduced by words like “thus” or “therefore”. But sometimes it’s more hidden than that. Anyway, once you think that a text is designed to make such a claim, you will begin to see arguments as an (attempted) support of that claim. In other words, your general understanding guides how you see details. If something doesn’t make sense or is not in keeping with your assumed topic or conclusion, you must either figure out whether this is owing to a deviation like special use of terminology or you must refine your hypothesis about the claim or topic. When you hit on something like this, try to analyse exactly where your understanding breaks down: Is it about an unusual term or the unusual use of a term? Try to search for such uses online! Is it a whole sentence? Or the connection between sentences? Try to analyse the sentence or find a paraphrase! Is it a whole section? Try to figure out the function of the section or paragraph! Is the author speaking sincerely? There are a number of questions you can ask. What helps me most of the time is look at related or similar texts. Do they have the same kind of oddities? – Above all, remember that understanding a text as whole is the exception, not the rule.

Placing your own steps in the conversation. – Many people think of reading as receiving what the author says or, perhaps worse, as receiving information. That is never true. When you read and begin to think or stumble along silently, you will have (at least) two voices. You’ll hear the voice of the author and your own voice. Your tacit questions, your despair or impatience, your paraphrases, or your nodding and occasional disagreement are present throughout. Take it seriously! Reading is a dialogical act. And your mumblings are the voice that engages with the text, making it come alive and vice versa. Keep a record of what you find important or strange in the text. But also keep a record of what you think and feel. A passage makes you feel uneasy? Note it and try to figure out what exactly makes you feel this way. You find yourself nodding agreement all the time? Why? Are there reasons in the text? Does it speak to your sentiments? You find yourself lost? Note what it is and start a search. – If you’re supposed to discuss the reading and you find that this is too difficult, begin by offering your own responses to the text. They are just as good as the other voices to enter the conversation.

How to read (part three). Reading for academic writing

While reading needs to be learned and practised for itself (see part one of this series), it also helps with the practice of writing. The more you read, the better you write. But what should you read, especially as an academic writer? One way of approaching this issue is to look back and check which works helped you in overcoming difficulties in writing. In what follows, I’d like to list and very briefly comment on some works that helped me greatly in solving problems as a writer. Please bear in mind that this list is decidedly not a “best of”, but emerged from my personal study path. This is also why I don’t include the work of colleagues at my current department. At some point, I realised that certain authors inspiried me in a special way. Be it in solving certain problems of writing or in how to handle different genres, i.e. book-length studies, typical papers, commentaries, and blog posts. The same will be true for you, but the authors in question will be different. However, what is worth figuring out is in what way exactly their work might inspire you. Anywere, here goes:

Dialogical style of reasoning. – There are two complementary problems I see in my own writing: I don’t want to sincerely state anything that’s untrue. And I can’t write everything that needs to be said at once. Sometimes not saying everything at once just sounds like writing untruths. (More on this issue in this video.) Reading Dominik Perler’s work, especially his Theorien der Intentionaltät im Mittelalter, taught me how to get around this. You state a position; then question it, then give a refined version, and repeat. This dialogical approach settles such issues most elegantly. Martin Kusch’s writing, especially his Knowledge by Agreement, taught me similar virtues. He also manages to get a grip on the most complicated theories, making them seem easy without simplifying. Someone who manages to push this style to the limits is Michael Della Rocca. Check out his introduction to Spinoza. A book which also shows that even introductions can be philosophically original.

Making examples work properly. – Examples do a lot of work, not least in the analytic tradition. In the often peacemeal way of approaching problems, Ruth Millikan’s work stands out for me as being highly systematic, a bit like Leibniz. But what I took home from her as a writer is how she constructs and works through examples. Especially in Varieties of Meaning, her examples and the way she explained them helped me understand the metaphysics, epistemology and various applications of teleosemantics. Much the same goes for the work of Donald Davidson, especially his paper “Rational Animals”. And, of course, for all of Wittgenstein. In the history of philosophy, crafting examples for theorising along is equally important. Check out Susan James‘ work, especially her Spinoza on Learning to Live Together.

Capturing relations in debates and thoughts. – As a historian of philosophy, you’ll often try and express how ideas and positions relate to one another. While much popularising work will reduce such relations to simple oppositions or agreements, it’s actually hard work to capture similarities within oppositions and to make sense of thoughts without simplistically actualising them. How do you relate thinkers or ideas to one another instructively without giving up on nuances? How do you chose words for that? Anik Waldow’s work is a great resource for me to rethink how I capture such relations, not least her first book David Hume and the Problem of Other Minds. Similar virtues are inspired by the papers of Jennifer Ashworth, check out her “Can I speak more clearly than I understand?”, and the works of John Marenbon, check out his Abelard in Four Dimensions.

Writing commentaries. – Commentaries on (primary) texts are well known in the medieval tradition as well as in the context of modern critical editions of texts. We would be better off, if we taught how to write commentaries to students again. In comparison to the now ubiquitous papers, commentaries are guided by the texts themselves. However, that doesn’t mean you cannot “think for yourself” in a commentary. How this art is combined with original philosophical thinking can be seen, for instance, in Robert Pasnau’s Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature. Something similar might be said of Kurt Flasch’s Was ist Zeit? Sometimes the virtues of the commentary approach are more deeply ingrained in studies that do not present themselves as commentaries. Something that can be learned by reading Ursula Renz, check out her The Explainability of Experience. That one can map whole philosophical debates and developments in this way can be seen in Katherine Tachau’s Vision and Certitude in the Age of Ockham. The same is true of Paul Spade’s Thoughts, Words, and Things, which was composed as teaching material but served the work of many researchers.

Research on terminology. – Perhaps it’s me, but I find few studies on terminology these days. Studying terminology and how it changes within debates and across time is crucial for understanding philosophy. It’s also a great way to arrange one’s writing. Besides the famous flagship project, the Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, there are a number of great studies guided by research on terminology. Among my personal favourites are Gabriel NuchelmansTheories of the Proposition and Stephan Meier-Oeser’s Spur des Zeichens.

Scholarly blogging. – Blogging did not just affect philosophical exchanges but also has an enormous impact on my writing. Besides blog posts aiming perhaps at quick interactions, I also find blogs and posts that are scholarly in that they employ this somewhat more free form for scholarly reflections. Among those that continue to inspire me are the writings of Agnes Callard, Eric Schliesser, Justin E. H. Smith, and Eric Schwitzgebel. I guess you know how to find their writings.

Looking at this list, I guess I am more of a book person. Anyway. more could be said about how exactly particular passages can affect one’s writing. So this is just a first stab.

Here is part four of this series.

Как читать. (Некоторые) основы. Первая часть

Автор: Мартин Ленц, Университет Гронингена, Нидерланды

Перевод: Мария Весте, Университет Линкопинг, Швеция

[Translator’s foreword: Translating this as well as the previous text by Martin Lenz is not only my attempt to translate philosophical texts (I have only translated fiction before), but also an attempt to translate into Russian at this difficult historical moment for Russian culture and Russian language (not “Russian” taken as the Russian Federation, identified with an imperialist, aggressive state, inwardly and outwardly). This text about reading and attention should appear in Russian because many people, fleeing from the Russian regime and the war it unleashed, have become close neighbours and because Russian remains the language of international communication and cannot be left to be devoured and slaughtered by the anti-human Russian officials and, finally, because the appearance of Russian translations offers hope to those who are left behind: the hope of engaging in dialogue. Reading texts on the Internet, on the small screen of a mobile phone, is also reading. Reading helps Ukrainian refugees not to lose touch with their homeland and find each other, it saves me during panic attacks, it helps Russian refugees to cope with feelings of guilt and with adapting to new conditions. But reading social media messages also requires the basics that Martin writes about: paying attention, analysing the structure and context of the text, and checking one’s own expectations seem to me to be universal techniques for thoughtful, dialogical reading.]

Предисловие переводчицы: Перевод этого так же как и предыдущего текста Мартина Ленца не только моя попытка перевода философского текста (раньше я переводила лишь художественные тексты), но и попытка перевода на русский в этот тяжелый для русской (отметьте, русской как противопоставление российской, отождествляемой с империалистическим, агрессивным внутрь и наружу государством) культуры и русского языка исторический момент. Этот текст о чтении и о внимании должен появиться по-русски, потому что много людей, в бегстве от российского режима и развязанной им войны, стали близкими соседями, и потому, что русский язык остается языком международного общения и нельзя оставить его на растерзание и умерщвление антигуманным российским чиновникам, и , в конце концов, потому что появление переводов на русский даёт надежду тем, кто остался. Надежду на участие в диалоге. чтение текстов в интернете, на маленьком  экране мобильного телефона тоже чтение. Украинским беженцам чтение помогает не потерять связь с родиной и найти друг друга, меня оно спасает  во время панических атак, русским беженцам помогает справляться с чувством вины и с адаптацией к новым условиям. Но и для чтения сообщений в социальных сетях, нужны те основы, о которых пишет Мартин: внимательность, анализ структуры и контекста сообщения, и проверка своих собственных ожиданий, кажутся мне универсальными приемами вдумчивого, диалогичного чтения.

Среди преподавателей распространено мнение, что студенты больше не умеют читать. Виновных часто находят быстро: почти во всем виноваты социальные сети и мобильные телефоны. Я не уверен в этом, но думаю, что было бы неплохо уделять больше внимания техникам чтения. Когда я был студентом, мне часто говорили, что нужно читать или даже точнее – читать внимательно. Однако никто не говорил мне о том, как это на самом деле делать – внимательно читать. Эта ситуация напомнила мне разговор с моим коллегой Андреа Санджакомо, который заметил, что нам часто говорят “сконцентрируйтесь”, но никто не говорит, как это делается на самом деле. Просто сидеть и смотреть на то, на чем вы должны сосредоточиться, вероятно, не является концентрацией. Этому нужно учиться и это необходимо культивировать. То же самое относится и к чтению. Спросите у философа или студента философского факультета, что они делают. “Я читаю большую часть времени”, – ответят они. Тогда спросите их, как они это делают. На этот вопрос я часто получаю лишь ответ: “Ну, я просто, ну, читаю”. Далее я расскажу немного больше об основах чтения. Философы не должны стесняться констатации или осмысления очевидного. Поэтому я уверен, что это чтение стоит вашего времени.

Устроиться поудобнее и приготовиться.  Это может показаться очевидным, но когда вы начинаете читать текст, скажем, первоисточник по философии или реферат, сначала нужно устроиться поудобнее. Выберите хорошее место, где вас ничто не будет мешать или отвлекать (слишком сильно), и достаньте свой текст. Опыт учит многих из нас, что чтение реальных печатных текстов, а не виртуальных компьютерных файлов дает лучшие результаты. Но вне зависимости от того, как вы собираетесь читать, убедитесь, что у вас есть чем подчеркивать или выделять слова и фразы, а так же то, где и чем  вести записи. Я настаиваю на этом, потому что вижу, что многие студенты приходят на занятия без текстов, не говоря уже о заметках. Хотя некоторые люди обладают удивительной памятью на прочитанное, смысл выделения фраз и ведения записей заключается не только в том, чтобы запомнить части текста. Выделяя слова или фразы, вы сможете увидеть связи, которые, возможно, в противном случае останутся для вас скрытыми. При чтении мы часто сосредотачиваемся на “смысле”, но важно также видеть некоторые материальные аспекты текста: слова и фразы, расположение абзацев и т. д. Это позволяет понять, как термины повторяются в следующем предложении или разделе, как фразы появляются или перефразируются другими словами, как одно предложение связано (или не связано) с предыдущим. (Как примеру того, что я имею ввиду, обратимся к Фреге, кто разработал свой формальный язык представления мысли, Begriffsschrift, для визуализации логических отношений, которые часто остаются незамеченными в обычных формах письма, несмотря на свою выпуклость). Более того, один из простых способов понять тему или стратегию текста – посмотреть, какие слова встречаются чаще всего. В конце концов, выделение фраз или ведение заметок вовлекает вас в диалог с текстом. Каким образом? Например, если вы подчеркиваете слова, вы можете подчеркнуть их, а потом вернуться и задаться вопросом, почему вы подчеркнули именно эти слова, а не другие. Вы замечаете и начинаете задавать вопросы о том, что вы обнаружили в тексте. Так что доставайте карандаш или включайте режим комментариев в вашем pdf! Ведь это также способ сделать текст вашим собственным. Вернувшись к тексту через пару лет, и увидев то, что вы выделили в свое время, вы увидите старую копию себя и улыбнётесь или обеспокоитесь о том, почему вам именно это казалось важным. И ещё, если вы забудете принести свой аннотированный текст на занятия, вы не сможете обратиться к этим, вами обнаруженным, материальным связям при обсуждении текста.

Что вы, собственно, читаете? – Теперь, когда вы все подготовили, пришло время посмотреть, что вы собираетесь читать. Разве это неочевидно? Автор и название текста указаны на обложке, не так ли? Так что не о чем волноваться. – Отнюдь! Если вы возьмете в руки знаменитую “Волю к власти” Ницше и подумаете, что это книга Ницше, вы сильно ошибетесь. Книга “Воля к власти” была собрана из записных книжек Ницше, приведена в порядок и приписана Ницше его сестрой Элизабет Фёрстер Ницше. Да, Ницше долго размышлял над этой идеей, но книга является подделкой. Вот почему очень важно ознакомиться не просто со старым, а с академическим (критическим) изданием, которое было тщательно исследовано на основе подлинных рукописей. (Здесь приводится краткое описание критических изданий древних текстов, но эти вопросы происхождения относятся ко всем текстам). Если вы не читаете по-немецки и поэтому не можете изучить оригинал, вы должны знать, что читаете перевод. Огромный труд переводчиков часто остается непризнанным, но его нужно видеть, и видеть таким, каким он часто является. Перевод – это не просто “тот же самый текст” на другом языке. Это новый текст, созданный на основе оригинальной версии. Чтобы почувствовать это, попробуйте перефразировать небольшой текст. Вскоре вы столкнетесь с неопределенностью и/или необходимостью выбора одного из возможных вариантов. Такой выбор бесшумно и незаметно появляется перед вами, когда вы читаете перевод, а переводов часто бывает больше одного. Могут существовать целые различные традиции переводов. В идеале вы сравниваете разные переводы и выбираете главные понятия из оригинала, чтобы посмотреть, как они воспроизведены в разных переводах. В любом случае, следует выбирать перевод, основанный на надежном критическом издании. – Вы можете подумать, что подобные вопросы относятся в основном к историческим текстам, но это было бы ошибкой: разумеется, труды по современной или новейшей философии также могут быть в различных версиях и переводах. Более того, вопрос о том, что вы на самом деле читаете, позволяет вам критически отстраниться от тенденции отождествлять текст с автором, который якобы его написал. И обратите внимание хотя бы на то, что даже правильно опознанные  авторы не всегда осознают, что они опубликовали под своим именем

Почему вы читаете? – Опять же, этот вопрос кажется очевидным. Вы читаете, потому что вам так или иначе дали текст. Возможно, вы даже читаете для удовольствия. Но это не то, что я имею в виду. Задолго до того, как вы начнете читать, у вас появятся ожидания относительно того, с чем вы столкнетесь. Эти ожидания могут быть достаточно конкретными и подробными, если вы знаете об авторе или слышали о данном произведении. В любом случае, сейчас полезно сделать две вещи. (1) вы должны четко сформулировать для себя свои ожидания, чтобы заметить, когда текст отличается от ваших ожиданий. Это сразу говорит вам о том, как автор может отклоняться от того, что вы предполагали от них услышать, и о того, как вы думаете по этому поводу. Это интересно, потому что это настоящая встреча умов, противостояние ваших ожиданий и того, что говорит автор. Затем вы можете задаться вопросом, в чем причина такого различия. (2) В любом случае, вы должны четко определить для себя, что вы ищете. Вы просто изучаете высказывание автора? Отлично. Но, скорее всего, при чтении у вас будет (скрытый) вопрос на уме, например: Что автор говорит об X? Где X – это тема курса (связанная с ней идея), который вы изучаете. Чем яснее вы понимаете, что вы ищете, тем легче следить за соответствующими ключевыми словами, концептами или аргументами, а также отличать то, что важно для вас в данный момент, от отступлений или разделов, которые просто освещают другие вопросы. В идеале, при чтении вы отслеживаете свои ожидания и те аспекты текста и в тексте, которые вам неясны. Важно отметить, что (1) ваши ожидания и (2) то, что вы ищете, сами по себе не создают интерпретацию текста. Но они будут определять, часто негласно, то, что вы выделите в своей интерпретации или в своем понимании. Поэтому полезно прояснить эти вопросы. Однако не стоит слишком беспокоиться об этом в самом начале чтения. Чтение, особенно внимательное чтение, – это очень медленный процесс, не линейный, а включающий в себя многократные возвращения туда и обратно, попытки, неудачи и новые попытки.

How to read (part two). On making and searching for mistakes

In part one of this introduction to reading techniques, I tried to focus on what I find crucial in getting started: underlining and taking notes, paying attention to the edition of a text, and making explicit the (tacit) questions that guide your reading. Today I want to focus on what I take to be a widespread malpractice especially among philosophers. The malpractice consists in trying to find mistakes in a text rather than trying to establish an understanding of it. It’s not just bad because it is an uncharitable approach; it’s also bad because it actually jeopardises our of understanding of texts. So seeing this malpractice for what it is seems to be crucial for paving the way to sound reading practices. Let me begin with a bit of ranting before moving on to more practical advice.

Shame and mistakes. – Arguably, many of the current reading practices in philosophy revolve around mistakes. There are two crucial aspects about mistakes I encounter in my courses: Most students will do everything to avoid making mistakes. At the same time, most students are enormously eager to find mistakes in others, i.e. the texts they read. It’s perhaps no surprise in a (pseudo-)meritocratic culture that we don’t want to be seen making mistakes. Shame is a strong emotion and thus avoiding reputational costs is common. But the triumphant attitude in people who claim that, say, “Kant is wrong about this and that” often surprised me. It used to surprise me for the simple reason that it is highly unlikely that canonical philosophers made mistakes in reasoning that can be spotted by beginners in philosophy. I stand by that sentiment, but I had to revise my attitude about beginners. It’s really not your fault, dear beginners, that you think so highly of yourselves, given that you are surrounded by drivel according to which “neuroscience proves that there is no free will; thus, Kant is all wrong” or “Kant is a racist; therefore, he can’t be an authority on moral philosophy” or such like. So what’s gone wrong? – With regard to avoiding our own mistakes, I think we just need to be less risk averse and understand that we can’t move foreward without making what we consider mistakes. With regard to searching mistakes in Kant and others, we need to rethink our appreciation of what counts as “thinking critically”. Let me address these issues in turn.

What are mistakes and why should we stop avoiding them? – When I lecture on a given text, say Anselm’s Proslogion, I strongly sense the students’ desire to get the right interpretation. Even if I say explicitly that there is no such thing, my students don’t believe me. Why is this so? Dearest reader, this is not because there is, after all, one single true way of reading Anselm. It is because students have to write exams for which they can receive a failing grade. It is our common educational practice that commonly gets taken as a binary of failing or succeeding. What’s the solution to this situation? As a grader, you cannot grade interpretations. All you can grade is whether an interpretation is well supported or not. But what can you do as a learner? ­­– There is much to say, but let’s just get some rules out for now.

Rule one: Make a concrete connection to the text. Whatever you say about the text, find some support for it in the text. The point is NOT to hit on the right thing. The point is to see whether you can provide reasons (support) for what you’re hitting on. I often notice that students are very good at giving highly elaborate interpretations. I also notice that they have much difficulty to pin down which precise term, phrase or paragraph in the text is evidence for that interpretation. So whatever you claim, say what in the text supports it and how it supports what you say. If you can’t find it, look again or change your interpretation. With this basic premise in place let’s establish some more rules:

What is an interpretation? Dealing with your own mistakes. – An interpretation of a (philosophical) text consists in two steps: Firstly, you need to figure out what the main claim or conclusion of the text is. Secondly, you need to figure out what the question is that this claim is an answer to. How, then, do you figure out the right claim and question? Again, this is not a matter of right or wrong, it’s a matter of whether you find support for your points. This leads to a further rule: Giving a particular interpretation of a text can never be right or wrong. Rather an interpretation is something that gives meaning to sentences in a text. In a common manner of speaking, then, an interpretation is reading a text as … That is: you read a text as evidence for your interpretation of it as …  So an interpretation is not in itself true or false; it is a framework that makes certain sentences true or false. That means: If you read a text as an instance of F, individual claims about the text will be true if they corroborate the text as being F. Your interpretation might be more or less plausible, but what is crucial about it is whether or not you have reasons for such an interpretation. In other words, stop worrying whether you have hit on the “right” interpretation. The only thing to worry about is whether you can provide reasons for the way you read something. (Pro tip: Usually, there are reasons for the way you read something.) So don’t assume your reading of Kant is wrong just because it doesn’t coincide with that of your lecturer or the secondary literature. Rather, give reasons why you have that reading, even if it might sound strange.

What is an interpretation? Dealing with the mistakes of others. – Now that we have seen why we should not worry about our own mistakes when interpreting a text, let’s establish a simple rule for dealing with the mistakes of others. If the crucial point about arguing for your own reading is not to shun mistakes but give reasons for it, the same goes for dealing with the texts themselves. Provide reasons for supposed mistakes you think you have found. If you think you’ve found a mistake in some text, don’t ask what kind of mistake it is. Ask: why would someone think that (what you consider a mistake)? That means: try to find a reason that makes sense or would have made sense for the author, even if it doesn’t make sense for you. Finding such reasons is what generally counts as providing context. Providing context is simply a way of providing reasons for why someone could think something. So don’t say that Kant or Anselm or whoever made a mistake. Rather, say what reasons they might have had for something that you deem strange.

Taking these two together, the reasons for why you think a certain reading is plausible and the reasons why someone might have said something that sounds strange at first, just is what we consider an interpretation. Just like for an improvising musician, what matters is not whether what we play might count as a mistake, but whether we find a way of making sense of what we play. That might require finding new ways of listening or finding reasons or contextualising. The point is never, repeat: never, to find fault in your own reading or to find mistakes in others; the point is to give reasons for why you and your (historical) interlocutor might think this or that.*

Here is part three


* Please note: This doesn’t mean that there are no differences between interpretations or that there are no interpretations that are “off the mark”. Such interpretations are not “false”, though. They are interpretations that have very little support through reasons. I try to avoid the right-wrong binary to stress that there are multiple possible readings – without one necessarily blocking others. On the contrary, interpretations don’t need to be competing but can be complementary in bringing out different possibilities. Just like there are different legitimate ways to play a piece of music.

As noted earlier, I think of interpretations not as true or false in themselves. Rather, I see them as systems or frameworks that make individual statements come out true or false. More on this in due course.

How to read. Some basics (part one)

It’s a commonplace among lecturers that students don’t know how to read anymore. The culprit is often found quickly: Social media and mobile phones are responsible for almost everything. I’m not sure about this, but I think that it might be a good thing to devote more attention to reading techniques. When I was a student, I was often told to read or even to read carefully. However, what no one really told me was how careful reading is actually done. The situation reminds me of a conversation with my colleague Andrea Sangiacomo, who remarked that we are often told to “concentrate”, but no one tells you how it’s actually done. Just sitting and staring at what you’re supposed to focus on probably isn’t concentration. It’s something one needs to learn and cultivate. The same goes for reading. Ask a fellow philosopher or philosophy student what they do. “I read much of the time”, they might reply. Ask them then how they do it. At this point I often merely get a “well, I just, well, read.” In what follows, I want to say a bit more about the basics of reading. Philosophers shouldn’t shy away from stating or thinking through the obvious. So I’m sure it’s going to be worth your time.

Getting comfy and preparing yourself. – It might seem obvious, but when you begin to read a text, say a primary text in philosophy or a paper, you should get comfy first. Pick a nice place where nothing disturbs or distracts you (too much) and get your text out. Experience teaches many of us that reading real printed texts rather than virtually on a computer file yields better results. But no matter which way you are going to read, make sure that you have some device to underline or highlight phrases and to take notes. I stress this because I see many students coming to class without their texts, let alone notes. While some people have an admirable memory of what they read, the point of highlighting phrases and taking notes is not just to memorise text chunks. Highlighting words or phrases makes you see connections that arguably remain obscure to you otherwise. In reading, we often focus on “the meaning”, but it is important to also see some material aspects of the text: the words and phrases, the way paragraphs are set etc. It gives you a sense of how terms reappear in the following sentence or section, how phrases are picked up again or rephrased in different words, how one sentence is (or isn’t) connected to the previous one and so on. (Frege, for instance, devised his formal notation system, the Begriffsschrift, to visualise logical relations that are salient but often unnoticed in common forms of writing.) After all, one simple way to grasp the topic or strategy of a text is to see which words come up most. Moreover, highlighting phrases or taking notes will draw you into a dialogue with the text. How’s that? Well, if you underline, for instance, you might underline words and then come back to wonder why you underlined those and not others. You notice and also begin to question what you find important in a text. So get out your pencil or the comment mode in your pdf! It’s of course also a way to make the text your own. Coming back after a couple of years and seeing what you highlighted back in the day will make you see your old copy and sometimes make you chuckle or wonder why you worried about that. Now if you forget to bring your annotated text with you in class, you cannot turn to these material connections when the text is discussed.

What are you reading anyway? – Now that you’re all set, it’s time to look at what you’re going to read. Isn’t that clear? The author and title of the text are on the jacket, no? So no worries there. – Far from it! If you pick up Nietzsche’s famous The Will to Power and think that it’s a book by Nietzsche you’re quite mistaken. The Will to Power was compiled from Nietzsche’s notebooks, put into order and attributed to Nietzsche by his sister Elisabeth Förster Nietzsche. Yes, Nietzsche had thought about this idea at length, but the book is fake. This is why it is crucial to consult not just any old version but the critical edition that has been carefully researched from the actual manuscripts. (Here is a brief account of critical editions of ancient texts, but such issues apply across the board.) If you don’t read German and thus cannot study the original, you should be aware that you are reading a translation. The enormously great work of translators often goes unacknowledged, but it should be seen, and seen for what it often is. A translation is not just “the same text” in a different language. It is a new text, developed on the basis of the original version. To get a feeling for this, you should try and paraphrase a bit of text. You’ll soon run into ambiguities or issues that require opinionated choices. Such choices silently come back to you when you read a translation, and there is often more than one translation. There can be whole different traditions of translations. Ideally, you compare different translations and pick central terms from the original to see how they are rendered in the various versions. In any case, you should pick a translation that is based on a reliable critical edition. – You might think that such issues apply mainly to historical texts, but that would be a mistake: Papers in modern or contemporary philosophy can also come in different versions and translations of course. What is more, the question of what you’re actually reading affords you a critical distance to the tendency of identifying a text with the author who purportedly wrote it. And note at least that even correctly attributed authors don’t always believe what they have published under their name …

Why are you reading? – Again, this question seems obvious. You’re reading because you’ve been assigned a text in one way or another. Perhaps you’re even reading for fun. But that’s not what I mean. Well before you begin to read, you will have expectations about what you’re going to encounter. These expectations can be fairly concrete and detailed if you know the author or have heard about the work in question. In any case, it helps to do two things now. (1) you should make your expectations clear to yourself, so that you notice when the text deviates from what you expect it to say. This tells you at once how the author might differ from what you assumed them to say and how you think about the matter. This is interesting because it is a real meeting of minds, a confrontation of your expectations and what the author says. You might then wonder what is responsible for this difference. (2) In any case, you should also make clear to yourself what you are looking for. Are you just exploring what the author has to say? Fine. But more often than not you’ll read with a (tacit) question in mind, like: What does the author say about X? Where X is (related to) the topic of the course you’re following. The more clear it is what you’re looking for, the easier it is to watch out for pertinent key terms or arguments, but also to differentiate what is currently important for you from digressions or sections that simply speak to other issues. Ideally, then, you watch out for your own expectations as well as for items that are unclear to you. What is important to note is that both (1) your expectations and (2) what you are looking for do not as such yield an interpretation of the text. But they will inform, often tacitly, what you highlight in your interpretation or understanding. So it’s good to get clear about these issues. However, don’t worry about this too much at the beginning. Reading, careful reading in particular, is a very slow process, not linear, but involving going back and forth many times, of trying and failing and trying again.


Click here for part two of this series.

Состязательная культура в философии не служит истине

автор: Мартин Ленц, заведующий кафедрой и профессор истории философии Гронингенского университета в Нидерландах.*

перевод: Мария Весте

Философские дискуссии, будь то в профессиональной среде или в баре, часто состоят из выявления ошибок в любом утверждении. Ответ начинается с фразы: «Все это очень хорошо, но…» Этот стиль, основанный  на противопоставлении и конфликте, часто прославляется как ведущий к истине. Устранение ложных предположений, казалось бы, приводит нас к истине. Хотя это довольно распространенная практика (даже я практикую ее прямо сейчас), я сомневаюсь, что это особенно хороший подход к философским дискуссиям. Отсутствие прогресса в такого рода состязаниях  на рынке идей в том разделении философского труда (в профессиональных условиях, таких как беседы, семинары и статьи), где критика (другой – чужой) идеи приносит больше дивидендов и меньший репутационный урон, чем выдвижение новой (собственной) идеи. Это систематически ставит в невыгодное положение сторонниц/сторонников (новых) идей.

Состязательная критика обычно обусловлена бинарным пониманием идей. Утверждения либо истинны, либо ложны; аргументы либо допустимы, либо недействительны. Если это понимание верно, то исключение ложных или недействительных утверждений, видимо, действительно оставляет нам истинные идеи. Если бы это было так, критика действительно была бы хорошим способом ответить стороннице/стороннику идеи. Но насколько хорошо это работает на практике? Философ Кэтрин Хандлби из Виндзорского университета в Онтарио проанализировала, как обучают студентов аргументации, то есть  построению  умозаключений, и пришла к выводу, что «исправление умозаключений» (argument repair), когда сторонницы/сторонники той или иной позиции пересматривают свои аргументы в ответ на критику, в значительной степени игнорируется. Вместо этого предпочтение отдается быстрым инструментам для оценки умозаключений путем наклеивания на них «ярлыков ошибочности» (fallacy labels). Это менее полезно, чем можно было бы подумать, потому что это просто негативная  критика.

Тем не менее, вы можете подумать, что если умозаключения или утверждения ошибочны, указание на слабые стороны в конечном итоге поможет. Как же тогда сторонницы/сторонники идей реагируют на критику? По моему собственному опыту, философы скорее просто защищают свою позицию, чем пытаются ее прояснить. Если утверждение подвергается нападкам, типичная реакция сторонницы/сторонника идеи состоит в том, чтобы ограничить охват, смягчить акценты или скорректировать перспективы. Идея сокращается еще до того, как на нее взглянут. Учитывая, что смелые заявления могут быть сопряжены с репутационными рисками, неудивительно, что люди заранее ограничивают ущерб и согласовывают свои заявления с тем, что они считают приемлемым. Как отметил Тим Крейн из Кембриджского университета в книге «Тон философa »( The Philosopher’s Tone) (2018), анонимное рецензирование (peer review) имеет аналогичный эффект, поскольку авторы пытаются предвосхитить все возможные возражения, оставляя все меньше и меньше места для создания оригинальных идей.

Вы можете возразить, что это не проблема. На самом деле контроль над ущербом может увести нас от более экстремальных догматов, оставаясь при этом на пути к истине. Однако есть веские основания предполагать, что люди придерживаются воспринимаемого как действительность положения дел (status quo) даже перед лицом противоположных доказательств. В 1950-х годах социальный психолог Соломон Аш провел свои знаменитые эксперименты о конформизмe. Испытуемым приходилось решать довольно очевидные задачи на восприятие, но многие давали неверные ответы, чтобы присоединиться к группе: они игнорировали прямые доказательства, чтобы не отклоняться от status quo. С тех пор эксперименты повторялись в различных условиях, показывая пагубные последствия социального давления.

Принимая во внимание эти психологические факты, трудно поверить, что беспощадная критика способствует установлению истины. Если общая цель академических философов состоит в том, чтобы хотя бы казаться соответствующими общепринятым мнениям, то нам следует ожидать именно того, что мы часто наблюдаем у сторонников идей: смягчения и согласования их утверждений с воспринимаемым здравым смыслом.

Но даже если враждебная (обозначенная как состязательная) критика часто побуждает к конформизму, это не делает ошибочным поиск ошибок. В конце концов, если мы знаем, что что-то ложно, мы знаем больше, чем раньше. Или так можно было бы утверждать. Однако обнаружение ошибки не делает автоматически противоположное утверждение верным. Если вы убедите меня, что p ложно, я просто узнаю, что p ложно. Но это не означает, что q истинно. На мой взгляд, идея о том, что критика ведет к истине, вырастает из идеи о том, что количество возможных утверждений по данной теме конечно. Если у вас есть 20 предположений  и вы отбрасываете одно из них, то, похоже, вы добились прогресса. Вам нужно прочесть только 19 других статей. Тем не менее, предполагая ограниченные когнитивные способности в меняющемся мире и варианты переформулирования и реконтекстуализации утверждений, я склонен думать, что количество утверждений и аргументов неопределенно.

Меня беспокоит не то, что перед нами слишком много открытых вариантов; дело в том, что мы слишком рано отбрасываем идеи. Как заметил философ Ральф Джонсон, также из Виндзорского университета, каждая идея уязвима для потенциальной критики. Если это правильно, то ошибок или вариантов их нахождения предостаточно. Напротив, философские утверждения, которые останутся без возражений, крайне редки. (На самом деле, я не могу вспомнить ни одного.) Это означает, что, в отличие от критиков, сторонницы/сторонники идей находятся в систематическом невыгодном положении. Но это не только по статусным причинам. В философии вероятность ошибиться выше, чем попасть в яблочко. Хотя высокая вероятность ошибок философских высказываний может огорчать, она же может объяснять природу философских утверждений: возможно, сутью философских аргументов является не истина, а, скорее, мудрость или что-то в этом роде.

Каким бы ни был смысл критики и аргументов, должно быть ясно, что состязательная культура держится на сомнительных идеях. Даже если мы отбросим более прагматические и политические опасения по поводу конформизма, вводящая в заблуждение идея о том, что исключение лжи оставляет нам истину, превращает философию в пугающий проект. Что мы можем сделать? Разумным ответом может быть истолкование критики не как противостоящей, то есть соперничающей  с самой идеей или ее сторонником. Скорее ее следует рассматривать как неотъемлемую часть идей.

Как мы можем реализовать такой подход? С одной стороны, он требует целостного взгляда на идею: идея — это не просто отдельное утверждение, а тесно связанное с рядом других утверждений, предположений и следствий. Хорошей иллюстрацией этого являются традиции комментариев средневековой философии. Комментарий в основном не критикует данное утверждение, но тем или иным образом обнажает и освещает аспекты утверждения. Комментарий Оккама к логике Аристотеля, например, явно отличается от комментария Фомы Аквинского. Но дело не в том, что кто-то из них был не прав; эти комментарии представляют разные высказывания и стали частью способов осмысления и возможных пониманий Аристотеля.

С другой стороны, это требует более гибкого отношения к авторству: если вы обсуждаете идею в кругу друзей, перекидываясь примерами и иллюстрациями, смеясь над критикой и размышляя о возможных применениях, чья это идея в конечном счете? Каждый мог внести свой вклад в первоначальную формулировку, от которой почти ничего не осталось. В этом смысле идеи очень часто имеют несколько авторов. В такой дружеской обстановке обычной реакцией на уточняющую критику является не защита, а что-то вроде: «Правильно, это то, что я действительно хотел сказать!» Дело в том, что дружеская, а не враждебная критика может быть воспринята как лучшее выражение своей изначальной попытки, а не враждебное уничтожение идеи. Это не означает, что никакая идея не может оказаться ложной или плохой, но это означает, что мы можем заранее убедиться, что она подверглась надлежащей проверке.

Таким образом, рассматривать критику как часть идеи означало бы изменить оценочную позицию по отношению к идее, а также к ее сторонникам/сторонницам. Чем больше мы можем играть и возиться с утверждением, тем лучше мы можем понять его последствия. Соответствующие метафорические ресурсы для наименования этой философской практики должны быть получены не на войне, а на игровых площадках, где переизобретение и интуитивная прозорливость направляют наши взаимодействия. Критическая природа философии будет процветать больше, если наша модель взаимодействий будет игривым обменом мнениями между друзьями, а не трибуналом, стремящегося свергнуть философа, у которой есть идея.


* Originally published at Aeon. Kindly translated into Russian by Marija Weste.

CfA: Symposium on “Socializing Minds: Intersubjectivity in Early Modern Philosophy”

I’m thrilled and grateful to announce that Tamás Demeter, director of the MTA Lendület Value Polarizations in Science Research Group, kindly invites submissions for a

Symposium on Martin Lenz’s Socializing Minds: Intersubjectivity in Early Modern Philosophy (OUP, 2022).

Venue: Corvinus University of Budapest

Date: 28/29 January 2023

NEW DATE: 27/28 January 2023

Invited are submissions discussing or inspired by any aspect of the book. Abstracts not exceeding 500 words should be sent by 1 December 2022 to:

Confirmed participants include:

Tamás Demeter

Martin Lenz

Susan James

Eric Schliesser

Kathryn Tabb

Charles Wolfe

The event is supported by Corvinus University of Budapest, Institute of Philosophy, RCH, Budapest, MTA Lendület Value Polarizations in Science Research Group


If you’re interested, here is a three-minute video about the book.

Reflections on the Philosophy Bachelor. A guest post by Stijn Geugien

Even after three years of studying philosophy, I often find it hard to explain what it is exactly that I do. When asked, I answer simply that I study philosophy in Groningen, but I often find myself embarrassingly unprepared for the salvo of questions that is bound to follow. For to be told that one studies philosophy is a rather nugatory and dissatisfying answer to many. And truthfully, I cannot blame them. After all, what does it mean for someone to study philosophy? 

I recall a conversation I had with a bus driver some time ago. How exactly we got to this point within the conversation currently escapes me, but after it had come to his attention that I was studying philosophy he seemed visibly confused and proceeded to express his uncertainty as to what exactly that would entail. “So… what is it that you do? Do you just read about what other people think?”, I seem to recall him asking. I told him that this was indeed a substantial part of what it meant to study philosophy; it does indeed involve a lot of reading. Encouraged by the fact that he was on the right path, he proceeded. “But how do you decide who to read?”, he asked me. A little confused, I remember asking him what he meant by this.  “Well…”, he said, struggling to find the right words, “I mean, a lot of people got one… don’t they?” Again, I asked him what he meant. “You know, in the end, there are so many people who have got a philosophy of their own.”, he replied. “That’s true,” I told him, “but we primarily focus on the more influential figures.” Initially, I thought I had settled the matter. It wasn’t until later, however, that I realized that this was probably not what the bus driver had meant. It seems idiotic in retrospect, but mine being the self-obsessed mind of a student, believed that the bus driver had asked about the composition of my curriculum. As one does… Instead, as I realized only later, he seemed to have conflated ‘philosophy’ with ‘having a particular view on something’. As almost everyone seems to have one of the latter, choosing to read one instead of another turns the former into a rather arbitrary and trivial endeavor. 

Though this might initially be thought of as a solitary and isolated encounter, it, nor the feelings it left me with were entirely unfamiliar. So much so in fact, that I initially believed myself to have had a similar encounter previous to this one that I must have forgotten about but was only now starting to remember. This sense of déjà vu was short lived however, as I quickly recalled that my encounter with the bus driver bore an almost uncanny resemblance to the scenario sketched in the open letter entitled ‘Wat is filosofie? – Brief aan de filosofiestudent’, published in the syllabus for Philosophical Skills all students of my year received in the very first week at the faculty.[1] In this letter, the now former teacher Philosophical Skills Thomas van de Ven, describes a hypothetical family reunion during which we are confronted by our imaginary aunt Martha, who asks us to explain to her what all this weird and mysterious philosophy business is all about.[2] With her question, aunt Martha seems to have touched upon a widely shared curiosity, as the other family members present, their gazes now firmly settled on you, all seem to eagerly await the ‘justification’ for your choice of study.[3]

With this hypothetical scenario, van de Ven manages to encapsulate almost exactly those feelings I found myself struggling with after my encounter with the bus driver. An almost gnawing sense of insecurity, resulting from the inescapable sense that one cannot possibly seem to justify what one has chosen to dedicate oneself to. Not just towards others, but perhaps ultimately not even towards oneself. For there are those whose choice of study seems to guide them almost directly to a certain profession. Amongst the hypothetical family that van de Ven’s letter bestows upon us, we need not look further than Cousin Bob. An engineer who will set out to build bridges and sluices. Or even better yet, take our imaginary sister Anne, who studies to become a doctor and will undoubtedly be saving lives in the near future.[4] I, on the other hand, cannot help but wonder. What is it that I am doing and who am I to become by doing it? More importantly, however, why is it that the more I seem to get a grasp on these questions, the more I seem to dread whatever answers I might find. For I fear that within them I will be unable to find a solution, stumbling instead upon an implicit acceptance of what I perceive to be the problem: the tendency philosophy has to look inward, at itself, has resulted in a sense of distance, isolation, and remoteness from the world outside of the faculty walls.

The act of raising questions is a heavily situated endeavor and I feel like sometimes it is forgotten, or perhaps not remembered frequently enough, that the act of philosophizing is done, for the most part at least, amongst other philosophers. This seems to turn philosophy into a discipline which predominantly engages with and within itself. A fact that I’m reminded of, quite painfully I might add, every time I try to talk to someone outside the faculty walls about the use, worth and relevance of philosophy. For to explain these things to someone who is unfamiliar or less well versed within philosophy is quite a daunting task. In my experience ‘they’, if you’ll forgive this gross generalization, have little idea what the study of philosophy would entail, and even less of an idea of how philosophy could ever be socially relevant. And how could they? Philosophers themselves don’t even seem to be able to agree.[5] Furthermore, how could you, a ‘student of philosophy’, perhaps not yet on the ‘inside’ but definitely no longer on the ‘outside’, ever manage to explain such things to them? After all, the only language you seem able to explain yourself in is one that is comprehensible only to those who already know how to speak it. What both confuses and frustrates me, however, is that ‘we’ (here I go again) have not only come to expect these painful confrontations, but almost seem to implicitly accept them. For why else would those who are tasked with educating the next wave of potential philosophers feel the need to forewarn their new pupils by writing them a letter in which they not only tell them to expect such confrontations, but also provide them with the ammunition they might need to save their own skin. Thought this letter is clearly intended to be educational, it does in my mind portray a rather troublesome pattern of expectation. One that seems to suggest that outside of the faculty walls one will predominantly be met with confusion and a lack of understanding. Something that will inevitably cause one to look for shelter behind the safe and understanding walls of the faculty. 

Granted, that same letter also speaks of “The philosopher who leaves his contemplative tower and takes on an active attitude (…)” (my translation).[6] But it must also admit that such a socially engaged philosopher is a rarity these days. Although one can identify within the letter the sentiment that this needs to change, to identify a concrete manifestation of such a desire within the curriculum of the bachelor philosophy is a rarity. The only real concrete example in my mind is the so-called ‘Buiten de Muren project’. A project during which second year students were tasked with finding a topic or issue outside of the walls of the faculty with which they could then philosophically engage with. Though initially appearing as the perfect antidote to the type of isolation and remoteness I fear philosophy has become subjected to, ironically enough, the results of these projects were shared almost exclusively within the walls of the faculty. 

This reluctancy to leave the faculty walls, for the discipline to engage with something that lies outside of itself seems so far removed from what I’ve repeatedly been told philosophy should and does entail. For when looking at philosophy etymologically, one can identify the Greek words Philo and Sophia which, when combined, translate roughly to ‘a love of wisdom’. Such a definition, however, appears to be closer to a state of mind than the job prescription for a professor. Nor does it seem to prescribe the apparent remoteness and sense of isolation I seem to be able to identify. Instead, these seem to be the result of philosophy’s place within the university, which in turn exposed it to processes of professionalization and institutionalization. This professionalization of philosophy, and the intense specialization that accompanied it, demanded of philosophers a quality of publication that required the restricting of one’s attention towards one specific area of the discipline.[7] As a result, the majority of what philosophers publish is gibberish to most, and comprehensible only to those specialized few.[8] Equally, whatever philosophers end up writing about seems minute and trivial to those who have not similarly dedicated themselves to a specific research program.[9]

It would seem then that philosophy has isolated itself from the rest of the world by surrounding itself with walls only those who are already on the inside know how to climb. Developments which, although they are both explainable and understandable, are regrettable, nonetheless. For in my mind, philosophy has much more to offer than it is currently providing. For the critical and skeptical mind of the philosopher, one that knows how to formulate clear and targeted questions should not be locked away somewhere it will go to waste. I think philosophy will be best served amongst the people, there where it can both teach and learn. Philosophers should be more socially engaged, where their ability to take on a meta-perspective and formulate critical arguments can actually be used to bring about change, instead of merely reflecting on it. In order to do so, however, I think philosophy will have to step outside of the university. Step outside of the faculties. If not entirely, then at least partially. This will cause philosophy to change, drastically I would imagine, and this will be a scary process. But then again, they say fortune favors the bold. And whatever philosophy is bound to lose, I truly believe it shall prove to be incomparable with what it stands to gain. 


  • van de Ven, Thomas. “Wat is filosofie? – Brief aan de filosofiestudent,” in Syllabus Filosofische Vaardigheden (September 2019 version), p. 6-9.
  • Flewelling, Colleen K. ‘Introduction,’ in The Social Relevance of Philosophy, p. 1-3. Lexington Books: 2005.
  • Tripodi, Vera. “The Professionalization of Philosophy and the Criteria of Philosophical Knowledge.” Transcultural Studies 12 (2016): 216-230.
  • Bransen, Jan. Waar filosofen van houden. Leusden: ISVW Uitgevers, 2016

[1] Translation: What is philosophy? – A letter to the philosophy student. 

[2] Thomas van de Ven, “Wat is filosofie? – Brief aan de filosofiestudent,” in Syllabus Filosofische Vaardigheden (September 2019 version), p. 6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Colleen K. Flewelling, ‘Introduction,’ in The Social Relevance of Philosophy.

[6] Van de Ven, “Wat is filosofie?” p. 9.

[7] Vera Tripodi, “The Professionalization of Philosophy and the Criteria of Philosophical Knowledge,” Transcultural Studies 12 (2016), p. 218-219.

[8] Ibid. 220

[9] Ibid. 

Diversity in Philosophy. Martin Lenz in conversation with Catherine Newmark (podcast)

[Catherine Newmark kindly invited me for a conversation with the radio station Deutschlandfunk Kultur. Here is a link to the audio file and a brief summary in German.* Below you’ll find a rough translation of the summary.]

Diversity in Philosophy: Who is read, who belongs?

How diverse is philosophy? The canon is still dominated by European white men. The establishment is remarkably homogeneous in terms of gender, origin and class. There are solid reasons for this, says philosopher Martin Lenz.

Is the history of philosophy really just a collection of “dead white men”? For some years now, criticism has increasingly been voiced against the canon of texts that are authoritative for seminars, curricula and public debates: The perspective is much too narrow. Female thinkers and people of colour, for example, are not represented enough with their points of view. Non-European perspectives are ignored.

Competition for very few jobs

The diversity of those who do philosophy is not balanced either. In the workplace, it is still predominantly white men, mostly of European descent, who set the tone, is one reproach. Moreover, in the competition for the few positions at universities, it is mostly people with an educated middle-class background who come out on top, while applicants from other social classes are left behind.

The philosopher Martin Lenz, professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, has himself had ambivalent experiences with classism in academia. In a short text for the blog “FirstGenPhilosophers – Philosophy in the First Generation” of the Free University of Berlin, he looks back on his educational path: how often he, whose parents did not study, was tempted to hide his origins, he says, he only realised in retrospect.

Reduction of equal opportunities

“When I studied, signs were pointing to permeability (Durchlässigkeit),” says Lenz. In the 1970s and 80s, there were “active attempts to attract people from all backgrounds to the university.” In the meantime, however, this development is being pushed back in the name of “elites”, “excellence” and competition. Today, the standard of “employability” is increasingly being applied internationally, i.e. the demand that studies must optimally prepare students for a specific profession, according to Lenz. The classical educational ideal is thus giving way more and more to a “training ideal”.

As far as the canon of philosophical texts and topics is concerned, Lenz observes that diversity in teaching itself is already quite advanced. For his students in Groningen, it is “now completely natural” to look beyond the horizon of Western philosophy. “They are growing up with the fact that philosophy is a global occurence,” says Lenz.

Too little incentive for discovery

The fact that the inclusion of new voices in the canon is progressing only very slowly, however, also has very practical reasons, Lenz emphasises. For example, established figures of the history of philosophy simply benefit from the fact that their texts are critically edited, translated, annotated and flanked by extensive secondary literature, i.e. they are easily accessible.

In order to edit and publish texts that have received little attention up to now, one needs strong qualifications, experience and a great deal of time. However, this important work is hardly rewarded in academia. No one earns permanent positions or professorships with it. Another factor in the cementing of the canon is the tendency towards conservative appointment procedures at universities.

“We choose our past”

The current debates on diversity at least show that a canon is never set in stone, says Lenz: “Our commemorative culture is not designed to be complete. We don’t try to think of everything, but we try to think of what we take to be important.” And the question of what we consider important is definitely subject to changing insights and interests, so in this sense we “choose our past”.

So if today, for example, we want to remember a thinker like David Hume not only as “a great philosopher”, but strive for a more differentiated view and “just also remember that this is someone who was involved in the slave trade, then that is also a choice of how we want to remember.”


* Here the audio file can be accessed directly:

Diversität in der Philosophie Wer wird gelesen, wer gehört dazu? (Deutschlndfunk Kultur)