Jumping in the middle

In my recent review of Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction I said the following:

“[Cullen] puts forward a hypothetical situation where one friend says to another, “how can you claim to know about x if you haven’t read y?” when another pipes up, “ah, but you can’t possibly consider y without having read the rebuttal by z.” And so on. I have, from time to time been part of such conversations (see the comments below this blog piece from last year) and I frequently find them frustrating.”

Here I wanted to expand on that a little, as it is rather pertinent to some thoughts and conversations I have had of late. Having finished my formal education shortly before my 23rd birthday, I have spent most of the last decade being either taught for a professional post-graduate qualification or being self-taught. It is the latter of the two I wish to focus on here.

The main question is this: if you are to be self-taught, where do you begin?

If you’re reading this, you will probably know that I love reading. Yet I’m not the kind of reader who can pick up a book, find a comfortable spot in a nice chair and read a book cover-to-cover in one sitting. I read on trains, coaches and buses as I criss-cross the country, either to get to work or to visit family. It is this time that I have to teach myself. But I haven’t thought to myself: “I want to learn about X. So let’s devise a curriculum that will help me do that.” Rather, I just like to dive in.

The problem with this is that jumping in the middle means you’ve missed the start. But where is the start? If you follow the link above, you will see that the discussion there concerned Ludwig Wittgenstein. Though I now own a copy of Philosophical Investigations I haven’t yet got round to reading it. My intention is to start on it as soon as I finish Paul and the Faithfulness of God (of which I am currently up to about page 940 out of 1,520). To read Wittgenstein is to read a work of philosophy. But can it be properly understand as work in its own right, devoid of the background against which was written, ignorant of the target audience and oblivious to earlier work in the same field by others which Wittgenstein may be building upon or rebelling against?

The argument may go something like this: “How can you read Wittgenstein without first reading Hegel?” “How can you read Hegel without first studying Kant?” “Can you really understand Kant without considering Aquinas?” “Do you comprehend the relationship between the views of Aquinas and Augustine?” “Where would Augustine be if it hadn’t been for Plato before him?” And so on.

I have read some works of some of those thinkers, but by no means the majority of the works of any one of them. Others I have only read snippets about in secondary works where they are mentioned. Must one go back in infinite regress in order to understand the most recent thinking? If one tries that, one might be drawn to the writer of Ecclesiastes: “The making of many books has not an end, and much study is the weariness of the whole body.”

So we never end, it seems. If one wishes to be learned, then the age of human civilization (though but a single beat in the symphony of the history of the cosmos) is too great for any one person to master. I know things you don’t, things you will never know or comprehend. Yet you know far more than I. Your experiences, your emotions, your way of seeing the world has been honed over the period of a lifetime. To try to replicate that would take another lifetime, but we each have only one to live.

From philosophy to history. I have made a start at a recognisable beginning with Herodotus and Thucydides, but given the vast complexity of the last few millennia, but should that stop me from reading Hobsbawm until I worked my way through every nation state, every people, in all eras up to the start of the period that Hobsbawm looked at? I would argue that the answer to that is ‘no’. It seems right. It feels right. But why?

I might use the analogy of a scratchcard. If I am interested in one part of the card, I may scratch at it and learn something of what is underneath. To put it in some kind of context, I may scratch around it a little, but does one necessarily need uncover every portion of the card to get a true and fair view of the image on the card? Or can one afford to uncover the centre and bits around it, satisfied that that is enough to form a reasonably well-informed opinion?

I suppose the ‘informed opinion’ is what really concerns me. Most of us know that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” but how do we determine what is “a little knowledge” and what is “a lot of knowledge”?

The irony is, I would suppose that all these questions have been asked before, and others have put forward answers to them, but that I am ignorant of those responses.

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6 responses to “Jumping in the middle

  1. This post has great resonance for me at the moment. In real life, we nearly always join situations in the middle and have to work out the back story. But particularly in Philosophy, I have encountered those who tell me I cannot possibly read what I am reading without going back to Plato/Aristotle/insert-name-here. I’m inclined to ignore them, and to delve back as seems relevant, just as I would in life.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • I hadn’t thought how wide-ranging it might be, but as soon as I saw that you’d commented (before reading it, I admit) I wondered how the history of your new parish might play its role in the lives of those you now live amongst, yet be unknown to you at first. I know I can have a tendency to put my foot in it, unused to the foibles and idiosyncrasies of people who are new to me.

  2. Yes, I greatly sympathise but agree with Claire. Just be glad you aint me as I am like you but a VERY slow reader with multiple eclectic interests. We need to beware of feeling overwhelmed or getting obsessional about it. I take a serendipitous approach – dive in where something grabs me & carry on following up trails as they entice me. I have always found that that way, what I did learn became more integrated and relevant to my own interests. From my point of view I am content just to get an idea of the particular concepts which a thinker was grappling with and what was new and/or controversial. Then if some of those begin to fascinate me, I may choose to dig deeper. If not, it feels fine to move on. hth but we are all different in what we are aiming for , I guess!

    • When it comes to non-fiction, I find bibliographies very helpful. A good ‘further reading’ list is a great source of inspiration. It is also the the cause of a great outflow of disposable income.

  3. I didn’t mean to come across as haughty in any way, if that was the case. I just felt very strongly that, if you found those areas of interest, you must read Wittgenstein; in particular, the PI.

    The PI, I feel, can be read in their own right and, if and when you do get around to reading it, you’ll soon appreciate that L.W. has quite an unusual writing style. Considering that it aims to resolve all types of philosophical confusions throughout the West’s history, there are remarkably few references to any other works or specific lines of thought. This is because he is essentially saying that all problems as traditionally conceived have all resulted from the same fundamental linguistic confusions (Augustine to Frege, Russell, Whitehead, et al.; words corresponding to objects, etc.). It will be interesting and fantastically brilliant to read in its own right but I suppose would be all the more inspiring if familiar with the general track and trend of Western Philosophy beforehand. Only a rudimentary understanding of the basic progression of Western thought is necessary; you wouldn’t even need to have read the individual of certain authors: You would just need to see why Socrates was a turning point, why Descartes was another turning point, how this affected philosophy at the turn of the twentieth century, and then why Wittgenstein is the next turning point. I hope that this makes sense.