A Philosophical Headstart

A colleague of mine started reading a little booklet called Kant for Amusement. “And”, I asked, “is it actually amusing you?” He gave a grunting noise and asked me, if I hadn’t by any chance written an essay or a term paper that explained some of the basic thoughts of Kant in a way that he might understand. I had. His face lit up. Could I send it to him as a PDF? I could. This little episode reminded me of a similar experience with my dad who always wanted to do philosophy but couldn’t find a starting point.

image by IhsanDaldaban/deviantART

image by IhsanDaldaban/deviantART

So, the following tips are for people who are interested in philosophy but are already scared by the sheer magnitude of the field and simply cannot find a point to begin with.

#1 – Don’t read the classics (yet) but read

You’re a beginner. You don’t know the language yet, you don’t know the specific styles of different philosophers, you don’t know how to tell if they are sarcastic or ironic or presenting a genuine thought. You can learn all that but start smaller, if you don’t want to end up frustrated. Start by reading a term paper or an essay that got marked with a good or very good grade, preferably written by somebody you know personally and whose way of talking and presenting thoughts appeals to you. If that’s not possible, read small booklets that give you an overview over certain typical philosophical problems and issues, like determinism or intersubjectivity. They are about $3 in well sorted bookstores (not the problems, the booklets). I personally always recommend What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy by Thomas Nagel. It is indeed a very short introduction but it tells you all you need to know about the basic problems of philosophy and the different ways of trying to handle them. When you get hooked on one of the subjects presented in your booklet, grab another book about the same subject and see if you can read it without getting a headache. Work your way from there as if walking along a spider web, one thing will lead to another and soon you’ll find yourself in a position where you make the connections between different systems and thoughts automatically.

#2 – Write down questions. And try answering them.

A great deal of philosophying it not about finding (correct) answers but about asking the right questions. Get a log or a folder dedicated to your philosophical way of discovering the world anew. Then write down questions, no matter how dull they seem at first. For example: “When we both say, vanilla is our favourite ice cream flavour, do we actually mean the same flavour?” Somebody who is not as clever as us might roll his eyes at this question, but we know that we just entered the huge problem of intersubjectivity. When you have the question, try to answer it. You will discover that more questions come along the deeper you go. It’s called The Socratic Way: You think you found the answer, and another question pops up. When you’re done with answering one of your questions (or: run out of new questions) and realise that you know next to nothing, try to find a book or two that handle your very question and read it. You will see that you understand a lot of the book now because you had thought for yourself first. So, instead of just trying to understand somebody else’s thoughts, somebody else helps you trying to understand your question better. See how this works?

#3 – Talk to people

Just the above. Plus, which might be even more important: Listen.

#4 – Don’t be afraid of making up words. Or of abusing them.

Everybody did it. All the big fishes used words you will not find in a dictionary at all or you won’t find them in a dictionary that came out before the big fish was published, because nobody before him had thought about this particular problem. New problems need new words. Most of those words only make sense in the system of the one who made them up because they describe something very specific. Other times great thinkers (ab)used normal words that we might use everyday but gave them a new twist, which makes it easy to miss the whole point of a theory. This leads to…

#5 – Read carefully. Read it twice.

Sometimes when you read a text or a book, you understand a little in the beginning and more towards the end. Other times you understand nothing altogether, which usually means that this book and you are not meant to be yet. When you understand something at the end, go back to the beginning and read it again and you will understand even more. It’s called The Hermeneutic Circle. (Which is kind of wrong, it should actually be called the Hermeneutic Spiral, but whatever.) It means, everytime you ‘go round’ (read a text) you grasp more of what it means. Write down words or phrases that you don’t understand in a lose pattern in your log or, if the book is yours, onto the book pages. When you come back for a second round, you will understand a lot more and add to the notes – you can see what you’ve learned.

I hope those tips were a bit helpful in case you want to take on some chewy literature and/or try out a new thought system. Have fun reading, listening and asking questions!