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.

Why don’t we mine contemporary philosophy for tools to do history?

Philosophers often turn to the history of philosophy for instrumental reasons. The aim is not to ‘do’ history but to prevent reinventing the wheel or to mine historical texts for interesting arguments or ideas. This approach is common both in teaching and research. Undergraduates are often taught surveys in order to develop some ‘vocabulary’, and philosophical discussions are often prefaced with some big names when introducing, for instance, a “Humean account of whatever”. To my surprise, I rarely find any appeal to the converse approach, that is: historians of philosophy instrumentalising contemporary philosophical arguments or ideas to capture historial ideas or debates. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that this might be a fruitful approach both for teachers and researchers.

Let me start with a simple example. I’m currently running a course on Condemned Philosophy where I discuss attempts at condemning or censoring philosophy. While focussing on a particular medieval case (the condemnation of 1277) I also introduced modern examples (such as the letter against Derrida’s honorary degree at Cambridge). The topic of this course is certainly interesting for a number of reasons. But when thinking about such motions and trying to capture what’s going on more generally I find it helpful to turn to terms coined in argumentation theory and social epistemology. An obvious feature of both condemnations is that certain standards of rationality or evidence are said to be protected against the opponents in question (against pagan or continental philosophers). So why not discuss these cases as instances of what contemporary philosophers call deep disagreement or epistemic injustice? Arguably, such classifications give us a way of capturing what is at stake in condemnations and what sort of reasons we should be looking for when exclusionary moves are being justified. What’s more, the notions of deep disagreement or epistemic injustice are of course controversial in themselves. But their controversial status actually helps in thinking about historical sources in pluralistic ways and helps in trying to get a nuanced understanding of what it is we’re looking at when poring over different cases of condemnation.

In a way, historians do this all the time. Interpreting historical ideas or debates involves taking them as something. Taking Ockham’s account of mental propositions or Locke’s theory of ideas as accounts of mental representation, for instance, is a common move amongst historians. But usually such interpretations are seen as historical accounts of the material, that is, they are either taken as historically well defended or as anachronistic failures that miss the mark. In other words, such interpretations are not taken as merely instrumental, but as proper or improper readings of the pertinent texts. By contrast, my take on the condemnations as cases of deep disagreements or cases of epistemic injustice does not involve the claim that the historical agents themselves would have accepted such descriptions as a valid reading of their disagreements. Rather, it is a tool to decidedly enrich our means of understanding, classifying and evaluating what is going on.

The point I’m trying to make is, then, that we historians should approach texts not just by trying to find historically adequate interpretations, but approach the material with various instruments and make good use of the ample conceptual resources provided in contemporary philosophy. Just like a contemporary philosopher engaging Aristotelian accounts of ethics doesn’t need to care about Aristotle, historians don’t always need to care about the question whether there is a real historical relation between projects or authors of different periods when using current conceptual tools. We don’t need to connect historical dots between the shunning of Aristotelianism in Paris in 1277 and the shunning of continental philosophy in 1992 in Cambridge to see that these events share more features than might meet the eye.

But why, you might ask, should historians bother to use such merely instrumental devices? Well, first of all they allow us to update our grasp of the material. Whether we like it or not, when we refrain from employing contemporary terms it doesn’t mean we’re closer to the actors’ categories, but most likely just closer to the 19th-century surveys that still dominate our historical approaches. Moreover, it allows philosophy students to connect the dots between historical texts and their courses in contemporary philosophy. So rather than arguing over adequate approaches to history, I’d suggest we make ample instrumental use of all the devices at hand.

Don’t read! Or how to start writing

I had an intriguing conversation with a student today. He told me about the thesis he is currently writing and complained that he’s drowning in the literature. He had just rushed through a list of names in the secondary literature when I stopped him by asking what his initial interest had been. After a little moment of puzzlement, he began to tell me, with sparkling eyes, about how he got interested in social notion of the self. It was clear that he was fascinated but had already had a hard time trying to relate this to the secondary literature he was supposed to invoke. – When people start writing a philosophical essay or thesis they are often advised to get an “overview of the literature first.” The next step is to structure the paper by comparing two positions and eventually taking a side. I made this mistake myself for too long. Somehow it seemed natural to set out by doing “the reading”. By now I’m convinced this is a bad strategy. More often than not it crushes good ideas and leaves you with a half-alien set of positions that you’ll have difficulty to form an opinion about. In what follows, I’d like to explain why these problems arise and how an inversion of the order might help. (Spoiler alert: you’ll still have to read, but much later in the process.)

How things might go wrong. – Students are often asked to find a topic or even provided with a set of suggestions. In academic philosophy, this often amounts to finding a position or conclusion to be defended. How do you do this? Well, start reading (secondary literature) and something will come. But this way of beginning often means putting the cart before the horse. Firstly, in view of the vast literature, taking a position will always feel arbitrary. Secondly, given the overall unfamiliarity with the literature, students will likely feel unsure about whatever they say. – Of course, the advice to read first is understandable: it is designed to avoid reinventing the wheel. The incentive is to get an overview and develop one’s own position by ever so slightly deviating or contradicting the literature. Yes, the wheel won’t be reinvented. But the likely outcome is that good ideas get crushed under the wheels before they are looked at.

The problem of legitimacy. ­­– Why do ideas get crushed? Well, think about what reading authoritative texts (in the secondary literature) does to you. Even dry reports of the state of discussion exert normative force. You’ll be inclined to align your terms, your thoughts and your arguments with the state of discussion. This alignment makes your own piece sound authoritative but it will likely bury your initial thoughts. You will now think of them as immature beginnings that eventually led you to the actual discussion. In other words, secondary literature has a deligitimising effect on your ideas. Your ideas? Worthless musings… Of course not. But the effect of supposed authority is strong. Going this way, you’ll structure your piece in line with the actual discussion, you will hopefully tick all the right boxes, apply the hip terms correctly and forget about your early musings. At the end, you’ll note a small unclarity in the literature, improving the field with a valuable correction.

What to do? – Look, I don’t want to talk you out of this. Much of the time this works nicely, even if it leaves you a bit unsure about your aims and goals. If you’re in a hurry, it is good to go along with this advice. Why then change a running system? – Well, perhaps because it might work slightly better and because it might allow you to connect to your own ideas. So here is a suggestion of how to begin in a different way: Try to retain as much as possible of your original ideas. That doesn’t mean to stubbornly hold on to them. Rather, you should try to figure out what you actually think. Often that’s not altogether easy or clear. But you’ll get used to it. But what are your ideas anyway? Now, that is not so obvious. If you want to find your own ideas, you’ll have to watch your reactions. Observe how you react to other ideas! Be it in discussions or in (primary) texts. Something might stand out, upset or irritate you – that’s where your ideas lurk.

The beginning: locating an issue. – If you think you should start by finding some literature about your topic, you overlook that you already have begun with something else. But what was that? When the time comes for you to find a topic for a paper, you should not look ahead but back. Yes, you already have begun. Probably you were confronted with some funny idea or read a bit of primary literature that seemed interesting or puzzling. That is your starting point. Stick with a concrete formulation or the concrete passage that gave you pause. Quote that passage or sentence. Think about it by going through every sentence. Clarify any terms that are unclear with a dictionary. Then write a paraphrase in your own words. Start playing with it. Take out sentences and ask yourself what that does. Formalise it, if you like. Get a feeling for what the passage depends on. Create a map of where that passage belongs. What are other bits of text or associations that support it? Etc.

Understanding yourself through the text: seeing friction. – Remember you picked the passage because it stood out. Now try to spell out what exactly is so very interesting or puzzling and why. This has two parts: (1) You have to figure what the precise formulation is and (2) how it irritates or even counters your expectation. The first step means locating the precise word or idea that gives rise to the issue. It might sound trivial, but it is that term or phrase that your whole paper will be about. Because it is this piece that needs explaining. The second step is more difficult. First you have to see why this concerns your expectations: Well, if something irritates you or looks odd, it’s often because you expected something else to be said. Something is said that you would not have said or not have said this way. That is your expectations frustrated, as it were. But your expectation is not in the text. It’s in your head. Now, your expectation (frustrated by the text) is your entry point for the explanation or argument that your paper is to develop. Unfortunately, it is often not entirely obvious what gives rise to your irritation. Is there something in the text that sounds unfamiliar? Does it counter a belief you hold? What belief? Your task is to find out the assumption (you hold) that makes the text come out wrong, odd or unfamiliar. Once you see that, you have a friction between the text and yourself. Now you begin to understand how your reactions to the text arise. Now you enter into a conscious dialogue with the text. This dialogue arises out of your ideas; the friction makes them visible.

The next steps. – Now it’s still not time to read. Probably the temptation is enormous by now to search for bits and bobs of discussion on the web, but that has to wait. Once you have an understanding of the tension that guides you, it’s good to write an abstract (or introduction) and design a structure. What needs explaining? What is the friction or problem you see? As I have said in an earlier piece, you can employ a number of strategies to spread out your proposal. Only when you have done so, should you begin to dip into the literature. The upside is that now you will have concrete questions that you want answered. At the same time, the fact that you have written out your ideas will (hopefully) prevent you from feeling delegitimised by the discussions you are going to encounter. Rather you will enter the discussion with your own questions and worries. Those need answering.

Exploration. – As is perhaps obvious, the idea is not to discourage reading. Quite the contrary: you should read as much as you like, be it to explore or whatever. But if you want to write, you have to find a way to protect a space for your own ideas to unfold. Your ideas and questions are not your own because no one had them before or because they counter the secondary literature. They are yours because you find them interesting. They guide you. But you have to find them through the friction with others.

Oh no, not that!

Is it a good idea to publish rubbish on a blog? Perhaps it’s even a bloody privilege. Who knows? Anyway, I’ve been thinking through a number of issues I wanted to write about. But whenever I sit down to write, I end up wanting to write something different. So everything I attempt to say crumbles into something else.

The frustration of these failed attempts is so strong by now that I simply want to voice it. Here, now I said it. So what now? Might I not say something sensible while I have your attention? – Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Thinking about that is like plunging into the Kantian manifold – without the I accompanying anything. – So here is me trying to be clever when some important issues need addressing? Well, not now. I give up, I can’t write a thing now. Perhaps that’s worth saying.

In any case, take care!

Oh, and if you’re interested, here’s a piece of music that features this dithering impatience:

De boekenkast van … Martin Lenz. An interview with Ismar Jugo from our student magazine

[During this summer, Ismar Jugo from our student magazine Qualia kindly asked me to do an interview for their series on bookcases.* We talked for about two hours about books, philosophy, reading, my daughter Hannah, the principle of charity, and new media. Ismar wrote up a text condensing and commenting on what might have been the gist of our conversation. I am very grateful for this piece and would proudly like to share it here.]

Most of us who have had the pleasure of having Martin as a teacher, know him as a specialist in medieval and early modern philosophy. Thus, I was surprised when he said that the philosophical work that influenced him the most was Ruth Millikan’s Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories. The work came out in 1984 and, to use Martin’s own words, “it made quite a splash”. What made the book special for Martin is that is offered a systematic theory of almost everything. It touched upon topics of philosophy of mind, metaphysics, epistemology, normativity, ideology and so on. “It was as if you were reading Leibniz,” Martin said. Such systematic philosophy is not so ubiquitous in contemporary philosophy.

As I already said, I found it quite strange that a professor in medieval and early modern philosophy had book about philosophy of mind as one of his favorite books in philosophy. According to Martin, however, this is not strange at all. “I see the history of philosophy as a natural way of engaging with philosophy,” Martin says, and he goes on, “because you want to see where ideas come about and where they go. And Millikan’s theory was for me, and still is in some degree, a most encompassing and convincing approach. I see it on top of a long history of philosophical ideas that happens to result in something like this.”  From Martin’s perspective everyone who engages with philosophy, engages with philosophy’s past, in some way or another. And, especially, when you are working on questions of philosophy of mind in medieval and early modern philosophy, it is interesting to see how such ideas develop through time.

Talking about the past, I got interested in what book influenced him the most when he was a student. And again my expectations were proven wrong. Nothing about the philosophy of mind, medieval philosophy nor early modern philosophy. The title that influenced him the most as a student was Morgenröte from Friedrich Nietzsche. He had something to explain. “When I was young, around fourteen, I started to grab books from the shelve that I did not really understand. The first book I tried to read was something on paranoia by Sigmund Freud. Later, some people would talk about Nietzsche. Then I found the Antichrist and did not understand a word. Morgenröte was the first philosophical work that I started to make sense of.” Morgenröte is a collection of aphorisms, a style of philosophical writing that Martin still finds interesting. He gradually started to understand these aphorisms. What intrigued him was not only the content of the aphorisms, but also the beautiful style of Nietzsche’s writing. Martin is still interested in Nietzsche. “As with music and recordings, the first one can set the standard for what comes later and therefore be very impactful,” as he said. And then he quoted from the Gay Science: “What is the seal of attained liberty? To be no longer ashamed of oneself.” “As I grow older,” Martin said, “I find ways of overcoming my shame. That is a process of liberation, but also an ethical idea. It is about how you treat others as well.” And as I experienced, making the problem of shame a topic of discussion in a dialogue, gives liberty to both interlocuters. 

Leaving my shame behind, I asked Martin about other philosophical books he found fascinating. He mentioned two works of one thinker: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations. Both works were written by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Before reading Wittgenstein, Martin read a lot of Heidegger. Both thinkers are central in his web of beliefs. He started with the Tractatus and, again, did not understand a word of it. To be able to understand it, he self-studied a lot of logic and read many introductions to the work. Eventually he could make more sense of it.

However, there was something of what I could not make sense of. I could not make sense of the connection between the different thinkers we discussed so far and his own work in medieval and early modern philosophy. His answer: “I have problems with making that connection myself. As with a lot of things, there is a professionalized side of philosophy where I happened to be successful in. The things that you are interested in are not always found back in your professional work. It may be a driving force.” The reason why Martin became a professional in medieval and early modern philosophy is because of his teacher Kurt Flasch. “When I thought about medieval philosophy as a student,” Martin says, “I thought: “Oh my God… That must be the most boring thing one can imagine!””  He explained that Flasch gave a seminar about Nietzsche that he took. Martin started to greatly admire Flasch and he still does. “It turned out that Flasch was a medievalist by profession. He just did the Nietzsche seminar as a past time.” Martin asked me to see the resemblance with himself and his teacher. Maybe we were not looking for a connection but for a resemblance after all.

Nevertheless, there is a line that connects all these different titles and thinkers and Martin’s current profession as a specialist in medieval and early modern philosophy. Since he was young, he was fascinated with texts that he did not really understand. In these classes Flasch gave about medieval philosophy, Martin had to translate old Latin texts. “Flasch had a very hands-on approach to medieval philosophy. We needed to translate Latin texts and discuss these. So, I was again reading texts that I did not really understand. It was a bit like reading the Tractatus of Wittgenstein, a kind of medieval version of it. But, of course, if you start from such a low base, you can see your progress and that is something nice. It had also something pioneering and exciting, because in these Latin texts you get the sense that no one has looked at them before. Eventually, I could see my progress and that was very rewarding.” As a former history student, I can relate very well to what Martin is saying here. Accessing the past through old texts can feel like entering a foreign country that only you can see.

When I asked Martin what the role of reading was in his life, he answered: “Not quite the same as breathing, but it comes close.” I can well imagine that a professional academic has to read a lot of philosophy every day. So, I went on and asked what the relation was between philosophy and his daily life. “As a student I was all over the place and during my PhD I did not see myself as a philosopher. I was busy with playing music and other things that did not really relate. When I did my Post doc, I worked seven days a week. Closing the laptop rarely happened. That is a very unhealthy lifestyle. This is an important political aspect before we go on and talk about how ideas interfere with daily life.”  Now that Martin has a permanent job, he considers his relationship with the philosophical ideas he is engaging as very pleasant. “Philosophy helps making sense of my life. It also gives me new tools to think about music.” However, lately it works the other way around as well, according to Martin. “Everyday life creeps into philosophy for me. I feel a growing responsibility to respond to societal questions with the means that are given to me with philosophy. I do this in blogging and other ways of articulating ideas.”

I noticed that we wandered off from the books that were in Martin’s bookcase. I asked him what non-philosophical book made impact on him. It was not a book, but rather a story from a collection of stories. “If you’d allow for stories, I’d go with Ingeborg Bachmann’s Alles; it came out in the collection Das dreißigste Jahr.” He went on and said: “I would recommend it to anyone walking free.” The story Alles is about a man who will become a father soon. He asks himself what kind of father he will be when his child is born. The most interesting part of the story is an inner monologue of the protagonist, where the protagonist sees language as something that prohibits us of having a genuine relation with each other and the world. This part of the story brought Martin to one of his philosophical fascinations: “How do you move from what you think is within you to an articulation that still is in some sense true to that? There is a part that will fail and a part that still wants to go on pushing. The question of articulating what you want to say is one of the big questions in literature. And one of the questions in philosophy. It neatly binds the two together. It is actually a question for all of us.”

The protagonist in the story Alles had fears about failing as a father. I asked Martin if he had the same fears before his daughter Hannah was born. He laughed and answered that his worries were more of practical nature. However, Martin talks with a lot of love and fascination about his daughter who is now four years old. He reads a lot to her and is very surprised how she remembers the stories almost exactly word by word. So, there is no room for mistakes in misreading a word here. There is one book that does not contain any words, only very strong colors. The purpose of the book is to teach children how to deal with and express their emotions. Hannah is surprisingly good at doing that, according to Martin. “It was yesterday evening and Hannah was very tired and upset about something. With everything I said she responded with a way of impatience and whaaaa! And I asked her: ‘Can’t you express yourself in a nicer way?’ And she paused a moment and responded by saying: ‘Well…I am too tired to use nice words.’ I thought that that was amazing because she understood, obviously, something that I would not understand as a child, and even as an adolescent, that sometimes being tired is what does it for you…that blocks something.”  Martin thought it was very observant from his own daughter and, honestly, I think so, too. Being tired sometimes does it for you. In this way I am not only learning from Martin Lenz but from his four-year-old daughter, too.

The interview seemed to come to its end. We already covered a lot of Martin’s bookcase and even that of his daughter, Hannah. Nevertheless, there still were some questions to be asked about Martin’s reading. Many of the books that we discussed were philosophical works and even the non-philosophical works were interpreted in a philosophical way. Thus, I asked Martin if philosophy was also his favorite genre in literature. “Recently, I’ve written a blog post on how the paper model kills other good philosophical genres,” Martin said, “like the commentary and more experimental forms of literature. Going by a narrow notion of professional philosophy, I’d say no. Going by my wider notion I’d say it has to be yes, but then it includes literature, music and other forms of art; anything that is dialogical.” With “dialogical” Martin means a form of writing where there is not fixed form with only a thesis defended by some arguments. According to Martin, an engagement with a text is already a form of a dialogue: this text in the Qualia is saying something and you are interpreting it, talking back from your perspective. “The paper-model has a building block style: you have a claim that you want to defend against objections, and everything is already set. This is boring. The great thing about dialogues is that the unexpected might happen. Discoveries! Insights! That sort of thing. These things do not happen when you sit down to defend a claim. Of course, you might get ideas but these ideas you get from a self-dialogue.”

Martin thinks that the paper has its good sides, but people should keep seeing it in perspective. It is a way of stating results clearly and quickly, but it should not replace the dialogue. Martin tries to give that a place within his teaching: “When we teach philosophy, we teach students too much to insist on these building blocks. They look nice and shiny. But it takes away, to my mind, the crucial part of philosophy. For me that is, engaging in dialogue, learning something. There you get these moments of surprise where you say: ‘Oh! I wouldn’t have put it like that, but now you say it in this way, it makes perfect sense to me.’ You know these moments are the moments I live for.” He pauses and then goes on: “With these moments you get a step further because you see the light that you haven’t seen before. Sometimes you start to understand a position that you thought of as an absurd position. All of a sudden you get to grips with it. You even start to kind of embrace it because it is shining in a new light.”

            The last questions that I asked Martin were not about the books on his bookcase, but rather about the practice of reading itself. I got a specific interest in this topic and after what Martin said, I got interested in what he thinks about that. “Die Sprache ist das Haus des Seins,” Martin started with quoting Heidegger, and went on with saying that “if language is the house of Being, then reading along with music paved the way into the parts of the world I want to inhabit most.” Thus, along with music, reading is very important in Martin’s life. He sees reading as perceiving the world through language. To understand this, we need to go back to one of Martin’s favorite philosophers, Ruth Millikan. “According to Millikan,” Martin says, “language works a little bit like your eyes or your sense of smell or touch. It is another sense modality. It is a more abstract sense. Language gives you another mode of perceiving that same thing you would perceive if you would look at it or touch it.” What Martin likes about this perspective on language is that “it makes language more direct. Direct in the sense that when I am telling you something you really did perceive this. There is a level of immediacy that is also given in language. Language is not the stuff that is hovering above the world. Language is right there with your body and the rest of the world. It allows you different ways of perceiving, different from the other senses.”

            Being intrigued in what Martin said, I asked him about his thoughts on the rise of new media. Martin is happy to be able to vent on that. “The new media have a bad name without good justification because whenever there was a new technology people saw the world ending. Miraculously it didn’t. Amongst philosophers there is a lot of talk about fake news as something that is dangerous. And that is true and I would be one of the last to say that that isn’t a problem. But I don’t think that it is a problem of the new media, but a problem of literacy. It is a problem of not making good sense of the media. Philosophers are trained to analyze arguments, but for the new media something else is important. That is knowing what kind of effect they have on us emotionally. How they can build a kind of glue and the opposite of that glue; a kind of poison.”

            Martin thinks that we need to become more literate about the new media. “It is not a given that we understand what we read. The opposite is more of a given. That does not only apply to difficult philosophical texts, but it applies to everything. This works on so many levels. If I would ask you: “How are you?” And you would answer: “I am fine.” That could mean so many things. Of course, there is a literal understanding of that you are in a good mood, but we both know that it is a conventionalized expression to disguise. Contextualizing such a remark is something you need to learn. When we read stuff online, we need to do that, too. Perhaps someone writes this in despair, perhaps drunk, perhaps it isn’t even a person. We need coherence markers; we need to get a picture of the Other to understand who that is. We need to rebuild that person. Like a writer does that with a world in a novel, we need to build it from scratch. And if something is wrong, then we need to notice that. We need to check if something in our reading is wrong or that something in the story is wrong. All these skills need to be learned and I have the feeling that we need to spend more time on this.”

Like with his critique of the paper model of philosophy, Martin tries to incorporate this critique of illiteracy in his education by introducing his students to the principle of charity. In the first place the principle of charity is about interpreting a text in the best possible way, thus in the way that it makes the most sense. However, according to Martin, “the principle of charity has a deeper footing. Donald Davidson at some point says that the principle of charity is not optional. It is the foundation of rationality. It should be in place when you interpret your interlocutor as a fellow human, as a fellow rational being.” Martin goes on saying that “the more you give your interlocutor the credit of being rational, that is making good sense of your interlocutor, the more you see them as human. And conversely, the more you attack and are trying to find holes and a sort of downsize what your interlocuter says, the more you tend to dehumanize them. In the sense of trying to find ways into deeming your interlocutor as not rational. And in that sense, it is not optional.” The principle of charity is, thus, not only epistemologically relevant, but ethically too.

I think that I can speak for Martin as well as for myself that the time went very fast during our interview, or dialogue. We touched upon many topics both inside and outside the bookcase. I heard Hannah asking for her dad and I thought that this could be a moment for me to be charitable in a way. So, I grasped the moment, ended the interview and, by that, gave her Martin back.

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* Published in Qualia 17.3, a magazine edited by students of the philosophy faculty of the University of Groningen.

You don’t ever write about things; you write about what people say

Seeing that I don’t write about things or topics but about what people say about things was one of the most important lessons I learned. I’ve said this a number of times, here and here, but a recent chat with a friend made me realise that it is perhaps worth highlighting again.

So, when you’re writing about stuff like justice, language, the supreme good or whatever, you don’t write about these things or phenomena, as it were. Rather you write about what people say about these phenomena. Or about what you yourself say (or think) about these phenomena. The point I’m trying to make is that what you’re targeting when you write is a piece of language: you’ll be writing about a claim or a passage, a specific argument, an example or a specific question.

Why is this worth noting? – Let’s begin with a pragmatic reason: As long as you think that you write about, say, freedom and necessity, you will be paralysed by the vast amount of things you could look at. Things provide no focus. A string of sentences by contrast gives you focus. Sentences pick out something; they leave open something else; and they deny something at least implicitly. In this way, they give you a dialectical field of positions and neglect. You can start immediately by picking on a word or phrase and ask what precisely it means. So instead of fretting where to begin you can start immediately by thinking about the phrases and what they evoke, by what they miss and by how you feel about them.

What you enter. – Once you realise that you’re not embarking on a boat tossed across the vast ocean of being, you will see that the idea of philosophy as a conversation is quite literally true. You are always dealing with someone’s (or you own) formulation. You will want to understand and thus ask for clarification, offering alternatives or counterexamples. The point is that the kind of skill you first and formost need is the skill of zooming in on the language.

Play with words. – Now of course this doesn’t mean that you can skip informing yourself about things. It just means that, in beginning to write (or talk) about these things, you will always target a formulation. You can begin with your own way of phrasing something and take it apart, one by one, or with someone elses and ask them about it. The skills that you can train for this are reading, reformulating (in other words, other terminologies, in other genres or examples or in formal language), translating, and, generally, playing with words. When you sit at your desk or in a talk wondering what is going on, don’t focus on the things, issues or phenomena. Rather focus on the words. That’s where you’ll enter.

So it begins. – So when you begin to plan and write your text or talk, I’d advise you to begin by quoting the paragraph or claim you want to focus on. And if it’s not someone elses point you want to focus on, then offer your best formulation. Write it down and begin to wander around it.

You think that this whole idea is odd? Perhaps I am just an old Kantian who thinks that the Ding an sich is not available to us.  

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By the way, this month this blog is three years old. Thanks for bearing with me.

Repressed ideas? For an embedded history of philosophy

Over the weekend I posted a piece of news according to which one of the last representations of academic psychoanalysis in Germany is under threat. What I found particularly interesting were the somewhat heated discussions that ensued on various social media. While some regretted the prospect of seeing psychoanalysis pushed out out of academia, others saw it as an instance of scientific advancement. More than once was it claimed that, after all, we wouldn’t have chairs in astrology either.* Lacking expertise in psychology, I am not the right person to make a case for the current role of psychoanalytic research, but I was struck by the frequent and ready dismissal in favour of a current status quo. Yet, what this insistence on the status quo obscures is the likelihood that future historians will see many of our current ideas as similarly outdated. Our most recent neuroscience will become tomorrow’s astrology. In this post, then, I’d like to ask you, dear reader, to imagine that our current theories and even our own beliefs will be deemed outdated. The idea behind such an embedded history** is to historicise the present and pave the way for seeing our very own ideas like a historian of thought, that is: seeing our beliefs in their contingent relations to our (social) world rather than as items in the space of reasons.

Condemning ideas. –  What makes people condemn ideas or approaches? Our study of the mind has a long and complicated history. Many ideas are now outdated. Although Aristotle is held in high esteem, no one will want to maintain his views on the heart-brain system. However, controversial ideas present a different case. Disciplines like psychoanalysis are still evolving and are held in high esteem by many, but their precise status in the academic landscape has become dubious. The reasons for advacing doubts are varied: they might be internal to the discipline but also of a political or moral nature. Despite substantial criticisms, however, certain ideas not least from psychoanalysis pervade much of our current culture and are known, not only by experts, but the public at large. What’s interesting about ideas that are both common and controversial is that they present us with normative questions: They are held, yes, but should they be held (in the future)? Now the normative attitude according to which, for instance, psychoanalysis should be condemned to the past can itself be historicised. This is what a embedded historian would do. Rather than taking a side for or against a particular view, the embedded historian would try and historicise the controversy. For the embedded historian, discussions invoking perceived progress, then, would shed some light on our current normative historical attitudes, that is, attitudes about things that we begin to see as belonging to the past and that we (or some of us) think should no longer be present.

But how can we turn into embedded historians? – Peter Adamson once suggested seeing our current philosophy just as the latest stage of the history of philosophy. Naturally, I agree. As I see it, this approach not only helps us achieving a better understanding of the current philosophical landscape, it also shifts our attitudes in intriguing ways: Being convinced by an argument is quite different from explaining how someone like you (in your day and age) would encounter and be compelled by a certain argument in a certain context and style. This is what Bernard Williams called “making the familiar strange”. But how is it done? Having ideas is one thing. Rejecting ideas as belonging to the past is quite another thing; it carries the force of condemnation. But what if you find yourself on the other side? What I’d like you to imagine is that you hold ideas that future historians will think of as outdated. This, I submit, is how you can become an embedded historian about your own ideas. You can do this in two steps: first, you study a theory that is considered outdated, try to embrace it by looking at the best arguments for it, and then you look at the refutations. Second, you take the most forceful refutations and try to have them carry over such that they attack your own convictions. (The second move is of course much harder, but if you want to see it in action it might help to consider how Wittgenstein attacks some of his own ideas in the Philosophical Investigations.)

How can you attack your own convictions? – Somehow attacking your own convictions seems paradoxical, because they are your convictions. But are they (still) your convictions, if you can attack them? Here is a start: Think of the latest good idea that convinced you and try to give a reason for holding it. But now try to do this, not when you’re clear-headed, but rather when you get up at six in the morning, straight away. What I’m after is the difference between what we say on the fly as opposed to what we think we should be saying (i.e. our best version of our argument). This is the way many historians approach, not their own convictions, but the material they study: they take the explicit (badly formed) reasons, and then say what their author should have said but didn’t. (Historians shunning anachronism will then often go with the explicit badly formed reasons, while others opt for the best reasons because they apply the principle of charity.) Now just allow yourself the (bad) reasons you invoked on the fly. You can then imagine how a future historian will dissect your account easily.

Why should we do it? – Now that you have a beginning, you might still ask why such a thing is worth your time. Well, attacking your own convictions is the only way to create headspace for ideas that seem to be in opposition to your own. There are so many ideas that are out of touch with the current status quo that it would seem ridiculous to believe that we – we of all people – would have the best ideas and the best methods of approaching them or putting them to use. Rather than dismissing ideas quickly in the name of progress (= status quo), we should be triangulating for objectivity.*** And this we can do only with attempting to understand those who we consider controversial, outdated or opposed to what we believe. That said, there is yet another reason: Studying the ideas that we reject might uncover the reasons for rejections which, in turn, might uncover ideas that tacitly underpin our beliefs. After all, condemned ideas might become repressed ideas. But that’s for another day.

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* While David Livingstone Smith, for instance, presents substantial criticism against most psychoanalytic traditions, at least a quick browse through the research done at Frankfurt leaves me with the impression that abolishing this kind of work would mean a severe impoverishment of academic psychology.

** The term “embedded history” is reclaimed from the term “embedded journalism” which, though a problematic practice in itself, captures intriguing aspects of the way we are involved when doing history and thinking about ourselves and others.

*** I use “triangulating” as a term of art from Davidson. Here is a lucid passage from his “Rational Animals” (also quoted in Jeff Malpas’ great introduction to the term): “If I were bolted to the earth, I would have no way of determining the distance from me of many objects. I would only know that they were on some line drawn from me towards them. I might interact successfully with objects, but I could have no way of giving content to the question where they were. Not being bolted down, I am free to triangulate. Our sense of objectivity is the consequence of another sort of triangulation, one that requires two creatures. Each interacts with an object, but what gives each the concept of the way things are objectively is the base line formed between the creatures by language. The fact that they share a concept of truth alone makes sense of the claim that they have beliefs, that they are able to assign objects a place in the public world.”

Writing philosophy and avoiding the delete button. A brief conversation about blogging with Anna Tropia (video)

Writing philosophy and avoiding the delete button. A brief conversation about blogging with Anna Tropia

This is the fifth installment of my series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Anna Tropia who is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Prague. Following up on some earlier musings, we focus on issues of writing (philosophy) as they figure in my blogging. Here is a rough table of contents:

  • Introduction and the focus of “Handling Ideas” 0:00
  • How can and why should we avoid the delete button? 2:17
  • Dare to say something wrong! A general tip on writing 6:53

On shame and love in (academic) reading and writing

“What is the seal of attained liberty? To be no longer ashamed of oneself.” Friedrich Nietzsche

Like many fellow students around me, I learned writing by imitating others. How do I know about the others? Well, because there were no courses on learning how to write. So everyone was left to their own devices. Don’t get me wrong: there were and are many good guides on what desirable academic prose should look like. But these guides do not focus on the process of writing: on the despair, boredom, shame, and love that go into it. Actually, it was the lack of reflections on the process and the more doubtful stages that initially motivated me to start this blog. Speaking about these emotions is not meant as a form of venting or ranting about hardships (although they should have their place, too), but rather on the way these emotions can guide and inform our writing. In what follows, I want to say a bit more about this. I’ll start by looking at the way (emotional) experience figures in academic interaction and writing, and then zoom in on different forms of expressing thoughts.

Let’s begin with shame, though. – If you want to see how shame figures in guiding academic interactions, just start a course by asking what people did not understand in a set text. Most people will remain silent; the more experienced ones will point out passages that fail to be clear enough to be understood, passing the blame onto the text. – If you’re the odd one out who is willing to go for it, you’ll know that it takes courage to begin by admitting that you yourself do not understand. Shame is the fear of being seen or exposed in doing something undesirable (like making a mistake). When we speak or write, shame will drive us to avoid making mistakes. One way of doing that is remaining silent; another way is to pass the blame and criticise others rather than taking the blame. In writing or conversation, we can counter shame by developing technical skills, that is, by learning chops that make it look flawless, elegant, and professional. So we introduce technical jargon, demonstrating our analytical skills and what have you. While technical versatility is often equated with a sober or even neutral style, this asset might owe less to sobriety than to shame.

What’s love got do with it? – Iris Murdoch wrote somewhere that love is, amongst other things, the ability to see someone else as real. (See Fleur Jongepier’s great piece on Murdoch and love.) One way of taking this is that love is an ability, the ability to understand, not yourself and your desires, but the other. How do you do that? My hunch is that understanding others begins with trying to understand their experience. If you are able to express someone’s experience, the other might feel seen. In writing, this can be done in at least two ways. You can try to say what (you think) someone experiences or you can try to create an experience for the reader. Now you might think that this factor is totally absent from academic writing, but that isn’t true. Philosophers typically try to tap into experience by using examples or crafting thought experiments. What is rarely acknowledged is that these items do much more work than meets the eye. Strong examples and thought experiments often live on much longer than the arguments they’re supposed to back up. They are far more than mere illustrations of a point. Ideally, they allow the reader to experience a conceptual constraint on an almost physical level. Knowing a norm, for example, is one thing; being exposed (or imagining yourself) as having transgressed it is quite another.

How does this take on love as understanding the other play out in reading and writing? Returning to the example of asking people what they didn’t understand in a given text, it would be an act of love, in the sense explained, to acknowledge what you do not understand about the text. For if love is seeing the other as real, acknowledging the other’s reality would begin by acknowledging that there is something different, something you do not understand etc. In this sense, acknowledging the other (in the text) begins by admitting a weakness in yourself, the weakness of not understanding wholly. However, ultimately the point is not just to point out limitations but also to explore what constitutes these limits. This means that you also need to see what precisely blocks your understanding of the other (or the text). Seeing how factors in your personality, style, context and history enable or disable your understanding requires you to understand yourself. To use a radical example, if you have never been confronted with an optical illusion, examples of this sort of illustration wouldn’t work for you. Generally, if you never had access to certain kinds of experiences, these will constitute limits of understanding. Likewise, factors such as gender, race and class will inform the way a text speaks (or doesn’t speak) to us and limit the experiential resources available to draw on experience in writing. – It’s important to see that, in this sense, shame and love are in conflict. While love aims at seeing the other and involves the other (and thus ourselves, too) as being seen, shame drives us to disguise ourselves (at least in what we find undesirable) and perhaps even to blame the other for failing to be intelligible to us. In philosophical conversation, then, shame would make us avoid being seen (at least in undesirable aspects), while love would require us to lay bare our weakness of not understanding the other. As a result of this, shame and love play out in how we relate to (personal) experience. Arguably, shame blocks resorting to (personal) experience, while love as an approach to what constitutes borders between ourselves and others requires resorting to experience.

Expressing thoughts and experience. – If the forgoing makes some sense, we might say that shame and love inspire different attitudes in philosophical conversation: shame makes us shun (expressing thoughts by) personal experience, while love requires us to explore experience. Going from shame and love as two guiding emotions, then, we can easily discern two styles of reading and writing. Driven by shame, we find ourselves in a culture that often shuns resorting to experience and relies on techniques that correct for supposedly subjective factors. It is no surprise, then, that philosophers often highlight skills of so-called “critical thinking” as an asset of the discipline. More often than not these skills boil down to learning labels of fallacies that we can tag on texts. Looking at my student days, I often found myself indulging in technicalities to shun the fear of being seen for what I was: someone understanding very little. That said, such skills can be developed into a real art of analysis. Paired with patience, the careful study of arguments can yield great results. Then, it is no longer merely a way of avoiding shame but itself a set of tools for understanding. – Conversely, inspired by what I introduced as love, experience is crucial for understanding what sets us apart from others and the rest of the world. As I said earlier, this approach requires taking into account facors such as personalities, context and history. Crucially, such an approach cannot rely on the skillset of the writer or reader alone. It requires a dialogical readiness that might always undermine one’s own steps of understanding by what remains different. Perhaps it is not surprising that this approach is found mostly in areas that have traditionally enjoyed less acclaim, such as certain approaches in history, standpoint theory or experimental philosophy. – However, while it is important to tell such driving forces and styles apart, they are hardly ever distinct. As I said in an earlier post, if you open any of the so-called classics, you’ll find representations of both forms. Descartes’ Meditations offer you meditative exercises that you can try at home alongside a battery of arguments engaging with rival theories. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus closes with the mystical and the advice to shut up about the things that matter most after opening with a rather technical account of how language relates to the world. Yet, while both kinds are present in many philosophical works, it’s mostly the second kind that gets recognition in professional academic philosophy If this is correct, this means that experience doesn’t figure much in our considerations of reading and writing.

Can we teach failure? – Trying to pin down what characterises this sort of love as an approach in reading and writing, it ultimately seems to be a process of failure. Trying to understand others fails in that success is simply unthinkable. There is no exhaustive understanding of the other, a text, a person, a thing, whatever. Love, in this or perhaps in any sense, has nothing to do with success, but everything with dialogical trying and undermining. Of course, this can be taught. But it has no place in learning outcomes. As teachers of reading and writing, though, it might be helpful to point out that “analysing”, “reconstructing”, “discussing”, “contextualising”, “arguing” and such like are not success verbs. Showing how we fail in these attempts might go a long way in understanding and overcoming shame.

History is about you. On teaching outdated philosophy

Everything we take to be history is, in fact, present right now. Otherwise we wouldn’t think about it.

When I was little, I often perceived the world as an outcome of historical progress. I didn’t exactly use the word “historical progress” when talking to myself, but I thought I was lucky to grow up in the 20th century rather than, say, the Middle Ages. Why? Well, the most obvious examples were advances in technology. We have electricity; they didn’t. That doesn’t change everything, but still a lot. Thinking about supposedly distant times, then, my childhood mind conjured up an image of someone dragging themselves through a puddle of medieval mud, preferably while I was placed on the sofa in a cozy living-room with the light switched on and the fridge humming in the adjacent kitchen. It took a while for me to realise that this cozy contrast between now and then is not really an appreciation of the present, but a prejudice about history, more precisely about what separates us from the past. For what my living room fantasy obscures is that this medieval mud is what a lot of people are dragging themselves through today. It would have taken a mere stroll through town to see how many homeless or other people do not live in the same world that I identified as my present world. Indeed, most things that we call “medieval” are present in our current world. Listening to certain people today, I realise that talk of the Enlightenment, the Light of Reason and Rationality is portrayed in much the same way as my living-room fantasy. But as with the fruits of technology, I think the praise of Enlightenment is not an appreciation of the present, but a prejudice about what separates us from the past. One reaction to this prejudice would be to chide the prejudiced minds (and my former self); another reaction is to try and look more closely at our encounters with these prejudices when doing history. That means to try and see them as encounters with ourselves, with the ideologies often tacitly drummed into us, and to understand how these prejudices form our expectations when reading old texts. Approaching texts in this latter way, means to read them both as historical philosophical documents as much as an encounter with ourselves. It is this latter approach I want to suggest as a way of reading and teaching what could be called outdated philosophy. According to at least some of my students’ verdicts about last term, this might be worth pursuing.

Let’s begin with the way that especially medieval philosophy is often introduced. While it’s often called “difficult” and “mainly about religion”, it’s also said to require so much linguistic and other erudition that anyone will wonder why on earth they should devote much time to it. One of the main take-away messages this suggests is an enormous gap between being served some catchy chunks of, you know, Aquinas, on the one hand, and the independent or professional study of medieval texts, on the other hand. Quite unlike in ethics or social philosophy, hardly any student will see themselves as moving from the intro course to doing some real research on a given topic in this field. While many medievalists and other historians work on developing new syllabi and approaches, we might not spend enough time on articulating what the point or pay-off of historical research might be. – I don’t profess to know what the point of it all is. But why would anyone buy into spending years on learning Latin or Arabic, palaeography or advanced logic, accepting the dearth of the academic job market, a philosophical community dismissing much of their history? For the sake of, yes, what exactly? Running the next edition of Aquinas or growing old over trying to get your paper on Hildegard of Bingen published in a top journal? I’m not saying that there is no fun involved in studying these texts and doing the work it takes; I’m wondering whether we make sufficiently explicit why this might be fun. Given the public image of history (of philosophy), we are studying what the world was like before there was electricity and how they then almost invented it but didn’t.

Trying to understand what always fascinated me about historical studies, I realised it was the fact that one learns as much about oneself as about the past. Studying seemingly outdated texts helped me understand how this little boy in the living room was raised into ideologies that made him (yes, me) cherish his world with the fridge in the adjacent kitchen, and think of history as a linear progress towards the present. In this sense, that is in correcting such assumptions, studying history is about me and you. But, you ask, even if this is true, how can we make it palpable in teaching? – My general advice is: Try to connect to your student-self, don’t focus on the supposed object of study, but on what it revealed about you. Often this isn’t obvious, because there is no obvious connection. Rather, there is disparity and alienation. It is an alienation that might be similar to moving to a different town or country. So, try to capture explicitly what’s going on in the subject of study, too, in terms of experience, resources and methods available. With such thoughts in mind, I designed a course on the Condemnation of 1277 and announced it as follows:

Condemned Philosophy? Reason and faith in medieval and contemporary thought

Why are certain statements condemned? Why are certain topics shunned? According to a widespread understanding of medieval cultures, especially medieval philosophy was driven and constrained by theological and religious concerns. Based on a close reading of the famous condemnation of 1277, we will explore the relation between faith and reason in the medieval context. In a second step we will look at contemporary constraints on philosophy and the role of religion in assessing such constraints. Here, our knowledge of the medieval context might help questioning current standards and prejudices. In a third step we will attempt to reconsider the role of faith and belief in medieval and contemporary contexts.

The course was aimed at BA students in their 3rd year. What I had tried to convey in the description is that the course should explore not only medieval ideas but also the prejudices through which they are approached. During the round of introductions many students admitted that they were particularly interested in this twofold focus on the object and the subject of study. I then explained to them that most things I talk about can be read about somewhere else. What can’t be done somewhere else is have them come alive by talking them through. I added that “most of the texts we discuss are a thousand years old. Despite that fact, these texts have never been exposed to you. That confrontation is what makes things interesting.” In my view, the most important tool to bring out this confrontation lies in having students prepare and discuss structured questions about something that is hard to understand in the text. (See here for an extensive discussion) The reason is that questions, while targeting something in the text, reveal the expectations of the person asking. Why does the question arise? Because there is something lacking that I would expect to be present in the text. Most struggles with texts are struggles with our own expectations that the text doesn’t meet. Of course, there might be a term we don’t know or a piece of information lacking, but this is easily settled with an internet search these days. The more pervasive struggles often reveal that we encounter something unfamiliar in the sense that it runs counter to what we expect the text to say. This, then, is where a meeting of the current students and historical figures takes place, making explicit our and their assumptions.

During the seminar discussions, I noticed that students, unlike in other courses, dared targeting really tricky propositions that they couldn’t account for on the fly. Instead of trying to appear as being on top of the material, they delineated problems to be addressed and raised genealogical questions of how concepts might have developed between 1277 and 2020. Interestingly, the assumption was often not that we were more advanced. Rather they were interested in giving reasons why someone would find a given idea worth defending. So my first impression after this course was that the twofold focus on the object and subject of study made the students’ approach more historical, in that they didn’t take their own assumptions as a yardstick for assessing ideas. Another outcome was that students criticised seeing our text as a mere “object of study”. In fact, I recall one student saying that “texts are hardly ever mere objects”. Rather, we should ultimately see ourselves as engaging in dialogue with other subjects, revealing their prejudices as much as our own.

The children in the living room were not chided. They were recognised in what they had taken over from their elders. Now they could be seen as continuing to learn – making, shunning and studying history.