Are philosophical classics too difficult for students?

Say you would like to learn something about Kant, should you start by reading one of his books or rather get a good introduction to Kant? Personally, I think it’s good to start with primary texts, get confused, ask questions, and then look at the introductions to see some of your questions discussed. Why? Well, I guess it’s better to have a genuine question before looking for answers. However, even before the latest controversy on Twitter (amongst others between Zena Hitz and Kevin Zollman) took off, I have been confronted with quite different views. Taken as an opposition between extreme views, you could ask whether you want to make philosophy about ideas or people (and their writings). It’s probably inevitable that philosophy ends up being about both, but there is still the question of what we should prioritise.

Arguably, if you expose students to the difficult original texts, you might frighten them off. Thus, Kevin Zollman writes: “If I wanted someone to learn about Kant, I would not send them to read Kant first. Kant is a terrible writer, and is impossible for a novice to understand.” Accordingly, he argues that what should be prioritised is the ideas. In response Zena Hitz raises a different educational worry: “You’re telling young people (and others) that serious reading is not for them, but only for special experts.” Accordingly, she argues for prioritising the original texts. As Jef Delvaux shows in an extensive reflection, both views touch on deeper problems relating to epistemic justice. A crucial point in his discussion is that we never come purely or unprepared to a primary text anyway. So an emphasis on the primary literature might be prone to a sort of givenism about original texts.

I think that all sides have a point, but when it comes to students wanting to learn about historical texts, there is no way around looking at the original. Let me illustrate my point with a little analogy:

Imagine you want to study music and your main instrument is guitar. It is with great excitement that you attend courses on the music of Bach whom you adore. The first part is supposed to be on his organ works, but already the first day is a disappointment. Your instructor tells you that you shouldn’t listen to Bach’s organ pieces themselves, since they might be far too difficult. Instead you’re presented with a transcription for guitar. Well, that’s actually quite nice because this is indeed more accessible even if it sounds a bit odd. (Taken as an analogy to reading philosophy, this could be a translation of an original source.) But then you look at he sheets. What is this? “Well”, the instructor goes on, “I’ve reduced the accompaniment to the three basic chords. That makes it easier to reproduce it in the exam, too. And we’ll only look at the main melodic motif. In fact, let’s focus on the little motif around the tonic chord. So, if you can reproduce the C major arpeggio, that will be good enough. And it will be a good preparation for my master class on tonic chords in the pre-classic period.” Leaving this music school, you’ll never have listened to any Bach pieces, but you have wonderful three-chord transcriptions for guitar, and after your degree you can set out on writing three-chord pieces yourself. If only there were still people interested in Punk!

Of course, this is a bit hyperbolic. But the main point is that too much focus on cutting things to ‘student size’ will create an artificial entity that has no relation to anything outside the lecture hall. But while I thus agree with Zena Hitz that shunning the texts because of their difficulties sends all sorts of odd messages, I also think that this depends on the purpose at hand. If you want to learn about Kant, you should read Kant just like you should listen to Bach himself. But what if you’re not really interested in Kant, but in a sort of Kantianism under discussion in a current debate? In this case, the purpose is not to study Kant, but some concepts deriving from a certain tradition.  In this case, you might be more like a jazz player who is interested in building a vocabulary. Then you might be interested, for instance, in how Bach dealt with phrases over diminished chords and focus on this aspect first. Of course, philosophical education should comprise both a focus on texts and on ideas, but I’d prioritise them in accordance with different purposes.

That said, everything in philosophy is quite difficult. As I see it, a crucial point in teaching is to convey means to find out where exactly the difficulties lie and why they arise. That requires all sorts of texts, primary, secondary, tertiary etc.

7 thoughts on “Are philosophical classics too difficult for students?

  1. Hello Martin,

    You raise a very important and interesting topic. As a former student of philosophy, I would argue that the best way to teach philosophy (at least history of philosophy) is, indeed, to study the primary texts. However, I’m not sure that getting confused is at all times the best way to proceed. It is indeed a way to approach a subject, but it might also backfire. In my opinion it might be good for confident and/or good students, but I’m not sure whether incertain and/or less good students will always appreciate it.
    On the other hand, I totally agree with you that (for instance) teaching Kant cannot be done alone with referring to his ideas, or even primarily. That is not philosophy but (intellectual) history , and it should only be done to contextualize the primary texts.
    Now, what kind of implications does that have for teaching (history of) philosophy today? I think we should read the classics, but to make another analogy (referring to swimming) we shouldn’t be thrown into deep waters immediately. We should get confused every time, but only to a certain extent and in a certain way; every time a bit more then we can at present fathom, so we will be challenged, but not too much. So reading Kant with 1st-year students is Ok, but only the Prolegomenon, and bit by bit, and in context. The Critique of PR can wait until the master. Spinoza’s Ethics is fine, but mainly his theory about the emotions I would say. But luckily some philosophers themselves provided ‘A short introduction to me’ (like Kant and the Prolegomenon); otherwise, I think below the level of real research we always get a distorted picture of the primary texts (although it depends on the level to what extent and in what way).
    This being said, to what extent has the level of the university declined? Maybe the analytical structure of philosophical articles has improved since the early 20th century. However, without wanting to insult any scholar in any discipline, how many scholars (let alone students) can still read Kant in German, Spinoza’s works in Dutch, Latin and/or Hebrew? Sometimes I reproach myself for not being able to read Descartes in French; nowadays we all read the primary texts in English.
    So I wonder; wouldn’t that make a wonderful challenge and for any (Research) Master student or PhD of philosophy? Gather in small groups and try to read a short passage of Thomas Aquinas in Latin, or even more accessible, Leibniz in French, or Kant in German. It would be my estimation that due to the philosophical jargon the number of words a student has to learn is far less then that of the original language. I have always wondered why in history courses students do study the original sources in the original language(s), but not in philosophy. Why not offer a 10-point course on (for instance) Descartes? 5 points for doing a contextual background and basic 17th-century French, 5 points for reading the Discourse in French? Or maybe the first two chapters of the Meditations in Latin? This works both as an estranging and challenging experience.

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  2. The questions and answers here seemed to be all over the place. Are the classics too difficult? For some, no; for all, yes. Whether the difficulty works as a barrier to entry, by way of losing a student’s interest, is what was brought up in another place, and what is being answered is what should be prioritized for learning a specific topic. In the beginning you asked, “Say you would like to learn something about Kant, should you start by reading one of his books or rather get a good introduction to Kant?” This question isn’t *necessarily* about the prioritization of study, as it’s a bit vague (though you expanded on it later). Do you want to learn “about Kant”, or “about Kant’s style of writting”, or both? Do you want an overview of his most important arguments, positions and contributions, or do you want to know everything he said about a topic, as he said it himself? How much time do you have? I think this last question is the important question here when discussing curriculum for students.

    An issue many fields have appeared to run into is the amount of available material to learn. As time progresses, more and more material is available to learn, making it necessary to sacrifice some areas/topics of study, for others. There are already categories of focus, from Western, to Eastern, to era, to history, and so on. It seems a good foundation of general concepts will offer students opportunity to follow what they find appealing, and choose what to further focus on from there; that’s already the idea, right? Reading all the source material from every philosopher ever is out of the question, and limiting the focus to only the handful one can fit in a study path (with full reading of all their material) will leave countless offerings from the past to sit in forgotten archives (with so many already there).

    The ideas are the priority. How they were intended to be conveyed is also important, but only in how the conveyance contributes to the sufficient understanding of the concepts (the original intention may not currently be the best). So, critical analysis is still important, and as time and language progress, new translations will be important, but this will require very focused study. It seems unreasonable for every student to simultaneously become sufficient in critical analysis for every work, following its path throughout linguistic history, along with whatever other focuses they have. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and we support each other. Experts from distinct fields must trust each other’s work. We don’t reinvent the wheel every time we learn to drive a car, and we don’t need to read Henry Ford’s words to become a mechanic.

    How many classics are we talking about though? Whenever we refer to arguments from any philosophers throughout history, should we have read the entirety of the source documents? What is potentially being lost if students don’t read, _Critique of Pure Reason,_ in its originally entirety? It’s already languages apart and cultures removed. If people keep up with the critical analysis of historical texts, and translations throughout time, sufficiently, we can refer to those. I would like to hear some specific arguments supporting the contention, that sufficient content would be missed if some source text wasn’t read in its entirety. How much time is being lost to the tradition of “reading the classics”, when we’re reading with modern minds anyway?


  3. Thanks for all your contributions! I’d just like to quote Maureen Eckert, who responded with the following comment on FB:

    “Maybe I’m just so old and jaded that I find that this sort of complicated pedagogical question works itself out over years for people dedicated to their teaching, on individual bases.

    I see my colleagues teach the ever-loving-hell out of the whole gamut of materials. I have been moved to tears at the profundity of a colleague playing YouTube videos. I have been astonished at the depth of interest a colleague inspires through close reading. I have, myself, performed an interpretive dance to explain the Apeiron of Anaximander.

    It’s not the texts, classic or other, it’s us.”


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