A review of ‘Handling Ideas’. Guest post by Timon Beeftink

As a student in Philosophy, you are expected to write some essays every now and then. You pick a topic, find some literature, design an argument, and write down your findings—preferably in a clear and organized format, with an introduction, three sections, and a conclusion. Looking back on my first essay in philosophy, an essay on the ‘Third Man Argument’ in Plato’s Parmenides, I clearly find a ‘scholastic approach’: there is no personal engagement—the essay is merely produced for the sake of fulfilling the assignment.

Of course, sometimes you have to write some essays on topics you are not really interested in. But in taking this scholastic attitude, you run the risk of extending this approach to anything you write: by distancing yourself from the content of the essay, you might produce something true—but what is the function of truth if it stood “before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I acknowledged it or not, inducing an anxious shiver rather than trusting devotion?”[1] What I often find lacking in my own essays, is exactly this personal engagement: I take truth as an external object, rather than something that is to be related to. But how do you write an engaged essay, without running the risk of falling into a non-academic subjectivism? As I see it, it is this question that countless students (and academics) struggle with, and the question that is at stake in various blog posts by Martin Lenz.

As such, I think that many students would be served by some thoughts on how to combine personal engagement with academic writing. Students commonly struggle with writing essays and theses, exactly because of this seemingly necessary lack of anything personal in academic writing. What I learned over the years, especially in Martin’s courses on Medieval Philosophy and Wittgenstein, is that finding your own voice is absolutely crucial: without your own voice, your essay lacks something crucial. Particularly the idea of thinking through the text and problems before consulting any secondary literature, is an approach that sticks to my mind: the problem is then not merely an abstract problem, but ‘your’ problem as well. It would have helped me when I had learned the following points in an earlier stage of the Bachelor:

  • Academic writing is no ‘scholastic’ writing: it is exactly your own voice that makes your academic writing vivid.
  • Formulate a clear question: engage with the texts and write down your own questions, before consulting any secondary literature.
  • Don’t be shy: have the courage to find and write in your own style—don’t think that you have to abstract from yourself in order to write something ‘good’.

In what follows, I’d like to focus on three of Martin’s blog posts, as they deal with the above points. They contain some thoughts every student could benefit from. I think that Martin’s future project of turning these and other blog posts into a book (Handling Ideas: Understanding, Expressing, and Applying Philosophical Thoughts) is a very good idea. A few questions that come to mind by reading your general idea of writing such a book, are the following:

  • What is the target group of the work? Is it particularly designed for students of philosophy, or for anyone writing academic, philosophical texts?
  • Are you planning to use an aphoristic approach in Handling Ideas, or do you want to offer a more ‘systematic’ approach in outlining this ‘handling’?
  • How are you going to structure the work? How do ‘understanding’, ‘expressing’, and ‘applying’ relate? Are you planning to write an introduction on what we are to understand with the ‘handling’ of ideas in the first place?

Anyway, these are some of my own experiences and thoughts on Martin’s general ideas. I will now turn to a more blog-specific feedback on the three posts.

1. How do you turn a half-baked idea into a paper?

The idea of ‘confidence’ that you discuss in this blog, is closely related to what I wrote on ‘Don’t be shy’ on the previous page: the idea that we lack the courage or confidence to actually write what we would like to write. This reminds me of a passage of Nietzsche you once quoted: “Was ist das Siegel der erreichten Freiheit? – Sich nicht mehr vor sich selber schämen”.[2]. At the same time, however, you primarily focus on “visible agreement with other ideas”. I think that this is indeed crucial for developing an idea, but that there is something else at play as well. As I told you in our chat a few months ago, and as you write in Don’t read! Or how to start writing, we might lose confidence in sight of secondary literature: faced with the countless ideas and commentaries, we think that our own idea is not worth pursuing. As the comments of ‘Anonymous’ on Don’t read! Or how to start writing indicate, we often want to say something ‘new’ in our writings. When faced with secondary literature, however, we find out that our idea lacks this ‘something new’, but contains something that is relentlessly discussed already. Even before consulting secondary literature, we might be plagued by insecurity: What if my idea is just a common idea? What if various people already had the very same idea? What if my idea is not original enough? I often ask these questions myself as well. In these instances, I try to be aware of the following fact: you are the person that has this specific idea, and as such, the idea is always something new—it is something new for you. This observation crucially relates to our initial reasons to pursue a career in philosophy: Do we want to teach others something new, or do we want to learn something new ourselves? If this first consideration is our reason for doing philosophy, we are going to have a hard time indeed.

Here in Copenhagen, they use an interesting approach for dealing with this feeling. In twelve weeks, we have to write twelve discussion board posts of 500 words. After four weeks, we take one of the four posts and elaborate on our observations in an 5-paged essay. We repeat this process another two times, and end up with three 5-paged essays that contain our own observations on a specific philosophical text. We pick one of these three essays, and expand it into a 10-paged paper. In this final paper, we engage with secondary literature on the topic, and try to formulate our own position in the debate. This might seem to be time-consuming, but it makes it a lot easier to identify your own questions, problems, and ideas. As such, it is closely related to the method you propose: try to narrow down your ideas, and start by writing an introduction containing a topic, problem, hypothesis, and question. We commonly think that writing is the act of writing—but it is equally well taking some time for thinking about what to write: taking a walk is just as part of the process as is the act of writing itself.

As such, having a half-baked idea might equally reflect the approach we take in writing philosophically. More often, we dive into literature in order to determine our point of view, but that is exactly the place where this point of view cannot be found. We should allow ourselves to take a considerable amount of time on developing our own questions—to actually think about what interests and moves us. Read the text, formulate your own questions. If an idea is half-baked, this might indicate that this idea is not actually yours.

2. Finding your voice in academic writing. Some practical considerations

The second blog nicely follows up on this point of finding your own voice in academic writing. As you express it here: “Rather, style is a result of something else: a result of emphasising those things that matter to you.”[3] Later in the blog, you explain how to find that what matters to us: “So your A and B are not authors or papers; they are two positions, isms, types of argument.” When reading this passage, I immediately had to think of Wittgenstein’s opening in Philosophische Untersuchungen: he uses the text of Augustine to illustrate a common way of understanding language.

At the same time, however, this approach worries me a bit. As you mention yourself, we have to be careful not to “build a straw man”. But as I see it, this is exactly what many philosophical texts do: they do not attack or defend an actual position, but an abstract position of some ‘-ism’. The problem with this approach, is that there is hardly anyone who identifies herself with this position in the first place. Let us take existentialism as an example. Suppose that we write a paper on why existentialism is short-sighted in approaching human life from an a priori concept of the subject. We might succeed in refuting this position—but whose position was it anyway? Camus rejects the label. Marcel rejects the label. Merleau-Ponty rejects the label. Heidegger rejects the label. Jaspers rejects the label. Nietzsche cannot be said to be an existentialist. Kierkegaard cannot be said to be an existentialist. Yes, we might only attack Sartre in doing so. But why, then, not responding to Sartre directly, rather than abstracting from his position in an ‘-ism’ which, besides him, nobody is willing to share? I sometimes get the feeling that this abstraction brings a certain form of artificiality in the academic debates.

But at the same time, you are right in saying that—in focusing on Sartre instead of existentialism, for example—we lose ourselves in details of a particular writer that are not at issue in the actual position we are willing to discuss. We might try to outline the meaning of, say, l’existence précède l’essence, and lose ourselves in innumerous details while doing so—but that in no means helps in the discussion of existentialism we were planning to perform. I feel that it is a difficult balance: not losing oneself in a particular author, nor losing oneself in a too general ‘-ism’. But yeah, it is always easy to lose oneself—as we might say in an Anti-Climacian spirit.

3. Alienation: On learning to talk philosophy

As with most of your blogs, this third blog post starts with something clearly recognizable: “Asking questions serves more as an opportunity to show off, making newcomers feel like outsiders.” I don’t know where this general urge comes from, but we all tend to do this—we only dare to pose a question if it is ‘smart’ enough. But in doing so, we prevent our questions from being genuine questions: they do not flow from a need to expose our very self (which a genuine question does), but from the need to show off ourselves.

Crucial to this post is the notion of ‘alienation’. That philosophy can indeed be alienating, is already clear from ordinary life. Once I told my hairdresser that I was studying philosophy, but she he had no idea what ‘philosophy’ was. So I had to explain—and I had a hard time in trying to do so. What seemed to be a normal way of thinking for me, was completely alien to her. The same applies to children—or even more so. What are we to make of this observation? Philosophy deliberately chooses to alienate from ordinary life, for it is exactly in this alienation that questions are to be found. As you write: “Moving within familiar territory generates no questions or ideas.” But at the same time, we can lose ourselves in this alienation: in posing too many questions, we become alien to ourselves. How do we prevent this risk of being alienated from existence? Might philosophy bring us too far?

To prevent this risk, we might speak of philosophy as having the task to bring about a ‘double movement’: it allows us to alienate from reality, to the end of returning us to reality with a new understanding. We might criticize Socrates for the lack of doing so: he merely asks questions. At the same time, we might use this to criticize overconfident philosophers as well: they never ask questions. As you write, “no one will learn anything if no one leaves the realm of mutual expectations”. Philosophy leaves this realm. But if we do not return to this state of mutual expectations and understanding, we lose ourselves in philosophy’s negative movement: the movement of alienation. The illustration on the Condemnation of 1277 clearly shows this process in a positive way: we leave the realm of expectation, but return to this realm with a new understanding. And it is here that philosophical writing has its place: express this very process of alienation and returning home again.

This brings me to another crucial point you mention: “You might end up having a real conversation.” As I’ve experienced it, it is difficult to have a ‘real conversation’ on philosophical matters when you’re a student in philosophy yourself. I tend to assume the position of ‘teacher’, rather than the position of someone who might learn something of the non-philosophical other. With other philosophers, I’ve no hard time in doing so. But with foreigners to the realm of philosophy, it is very difficult to ‘talk philosophy’. Where to start? What to say? How to depart from a common understanding? What I take to be crucial things, say, that we should not confuse Johannes de silentio with Kierkegaard himself, is completely non-crucial for the person I’m talking to. What to say, and what not to say? Is there a difference in the various ways in which we can ‘talk philosophy’? If so, what are the implications for the process of ‘handling ideas’? Who is the person that handles the idea? Do we ourselves do so? Or do we always depart from a common understanding of reality in order to handle some ideas? What is the relation between our handling of ideas and our relation to others? Can (our relation to) others shape the way in which we handle ideas? Who or what does the handling?


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Journalen AA (SKS 17, 24)

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, §275

[3] Your observation of finding someone “who encourages you to think that the things you find important can actually be said”, are clearly recognizable. It was only after reading Kierkegaard and Nietzsche that I felt the courage to actually formulate my ideas in my own terms.

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