Why we shouldn’t study what we love

I recognize that I could only start to write about this … once I related to it. I dislike myself for this; my scholarly pride likes to think I can write about the unrelatable, too. Eric Schliesser

Philosophy students often receive the advice that they should focus on topics that they have a passion for. So if you have fallen for Sartre, ancient scepticism or theories of justice, the general advice is to go for one of those. On the face of it, this seems quite reasonable. A strong motivation might predict good results which, in turn, might motivate you further. However, I think that you might actually learn more by exposing yourself to material, topics and questions that you initially find remote, unwieldy or even boring. In what follows, I’d like to counter the common idea that you should follow your passions and interests, and try to explain why it might help to study things that feel remote.

Let me begin by admitting that this approach is partly motivated by my own experience as a student. I loved and still love to read Nietzsche, especially his aphorisms in The Gay Science. There is something about his prose that just clicks. Yet, I was always sure that I couldn’t write anything interesting about his work. Instead, I began to study Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and works from the Vienna Circle. During my first year, most of these writings didn’t make sense to me: I didn’t see why they found what they said significant; most of the terminology and writing style was unfamiliar. In my second year, I made things worse by diving into medieval philosophy, especially Ockham’s Summa Logicae and Quodlibeta. Again, not because I loved these works. In fact, I found them unwieldy and sometimes outright boring. So why would I expose myself to these things? Already at the time, I felt that I was actually learning something: I began to understand concerns that were alien to me; I learned new terminology; I learned to read Latin. Moreover, I needed to use tools, secondary literature and dictionaries. And for Ockham’s technical terms, there often were no translations. So I learned moving around in the dark. There was no passion for the topics or texts. But speaking with hindsight (and ignoring a lot of frustration along the way), I think I discovered techniques and ultimately even a passion for learning, for familiarising myself with stuff that didn’t resonate with me in the least. (In a way, it seemed to turn out that it’s a lot easier to say interesting things about boring texts than to say even boring things about interesting texts.)

Looking back at these early years of study, I’d now say that I discovered a certain form of scholarly explanation. While reading works I liked was based on a largely unquestioned understanding, reading these unwieldy new texts required me to explain them to myself. This in turn, prompted two things: To explain these texts (to myself), I needed to learn about the new terminology etc. Additionally, I began to learn something new about myself. Discovering that certain things felt unfamiliar to me, while others seemed familiar meant that I belonged to one kind of tradition rather than another. Make no mistake: Although I read Nietzsche with an unquestioned familiarity, this doesn’t mean that I could have explained, say, his aphorisms any better than the strange lines of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. The fact that I thought I understood Nietzsche didn’t give me any scholarly insights about his work. So on top of my newly discovered form of explanation I also found myself in a new relation to myself or to my preferences. I began to learn that it was one thing to like Nietzsche and quite another to explain Nietzsche’s work, and still another to explain one’s own liking (perhaps as being part of a tradition).

So my point about not studying what you like is a point about learning, learning to get oneself into a certain mode of reading. Put more fancily: learning to do a certain way of (history of) philosophy. Being passionate about some work or way of thinking is something that is in need of explanation, just as much as not being passionate and feeling unfamiliar about something needs explaining. Such explanations are greatly aided by alienation. As I said in an earlier post, a crucial effect of alienation is a shift of focus. You can concentrate on things that normally escape your attention: the logical or conceptual structures for instance, ambiguities, things that seemed clear get blurred and vice versa. In this sense, logical formalisation or translation are great tools of alienation that help you to raise questions, and generally take an explanatory stance, even to your most cherished texts.

As a student, discovering this mode of scholarly explanation instilled pride, a pride that can be hurt when explanations fail or evade us. It was remembering this kind of pain, described in the motto of this post, that prompted these musings. There is a lot to be said for aloof scholarship and the pride that comes with it, but sometimes it just doesn’t add up. Because there are some texts that require a more passionate or intuitive relation before we can attain a scholarly stance towards them. If the passion can’t be found, it might have to be sought. Just like our ears have to be trained before we can appreciate some forms of, say, very modern music “intuitively”.

5 thoughts on “Why we shouldn’t study what we love

  1. The things I was passionate about in my philosophical infancy were things whose meaning was so elusive that I couldn’t pull myself away from the search for it. So in some sense, there was no such thing as unquestioned understanding. There was only the deeply felt absence of understanding in the face of something whose meaning, I presumed unquestionably, would make everything in my Weltanschauung click into place, if only I could grasp it. This prompted work, for me, similar to the work you refer to as arising out of encounters with work for which you had no “unquestioned understanding.”

    (Glimpsing the promise of intellectual gratification in a work that to a “sensible” reader appears pretentious and obscure — this is an underexplored phenomenon. What is one glimpsing? Is one only apparently glimpsing something? How might the illusion of glimpsed promise prime one to invent depth where there is none?)

    But I take it that what you mean by “understanding” in the phrase “unquestioned understanding” is something more like “unquestioned intellectual kinship with the voice or sensibilities expressed in the text and perhaps also with the ideas— whatever those turn out to be.”

    So maybe I was drawn to excavate the meaning of my texts because I felt a prior, inarticulate intellectual kinship with their authors, so in your sense did have an unquestioned undertstanding. But, then again, I remember being drawn to the Tractatus precisely because of its alien sensibility, its alien voice, its alien vocabulary — and I still thought “If only I could understand this . . . .”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks! Once again, you express what I attempt to say so much better. Your phrase “unquestioned intellectual kinship with the voice or sensibilities expressed in the text and perhaps also with the ideas— whatever those turn out to be” couldn’t be more apt.

      Like

  2. This checks out! I’m nearing the end of my undergrad, and only now am I beginning to appreciate the importance and interest of analytic theoretical philosophy, after avoiding those surveys to do fun thematic historical and value theory courses. Now I’m seeing how getting a grasp of the core, of scholarly and philosophical methodology, helps to come to all that fun stuff with rigor and depth. Alas, the folly of youth!

    Liked by 1 person

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