How philosophers get to publishing their own thoughts

Posted: August 29, 2010 in Reading, Writing
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On reading and publishing of older philosophers

I personally like to read books or essays written by older philosophers. Having proved that they are able to comply with the rules of traditional philosophical publishing, they don’t feel that annoying urge to spell out every detail any more and thus they leave more room for my own thoughts.  This seems tremendously important to me not because I’m so vain, but because I firmly believe Schopenhauer is right to say that “in reading, our head is […] really only the arena of some one else’s thoughts. And so it happens that the person who reads a great deal — that is to say, almost the whole day, and recreates himself by spending the intervals in thoughtless diversion, gradually loses the ability to think for himself; just as a man who is always riding at last forgets how to walk. Such, however, is the case with many men of learning: they have read themselves stupid. […] Just as a spring, through the continual pressure of a foreign body, at last loses its elasticity, so does the mind if it has another person’s thoughts continually forced upon it.” Books by older philosophers leave, I say, more space for your own thoughts, they are less obstinate, less eager to convince the whole world that they are right and thus more inspiring and, usually, their subjects are of higher interest to me.

There was a time when « to publish » was still a success-verb in a more interesting than the grammarians’ sense. At that time, philosophers would usually have to write a lot of highly technical or highly historical papers before they got to publish deep thoughts of their own. In the « Analytic »tradition, the « rite de passage » seems to have been (and within some contexts still is) the publication of very technical papers, in the « Continental » tradition, it was the historical kind which would give an author the credibility to think some thoughts of his own. It would be easy to illustrate this, but it’s not my point. You could pick nearly any philosopher who’s as famous as you can get being a philosopher in the 20th century. I just let you check Bertrand Russell’s and Martin Heidegger’s biographies to see what I mean.

After some purely historical or technical papers, wich were obviously philosophical enough to be accepted as philosophical works by those endowed with the power to accept or reject works for publication, they would write a few more of each kind, and fifteen years after they first sat in a philosophy lecture, they would start to express a few thoughts of their own.

Apart from the approach (technical vs. historical), there was (and still is) also a limited choice of subject matter that was (and still is) automatically admitted as being philosophical: with very few exceptions, if you wrote about Hegel, nobody would have contested that you were doing (Continental) philosophy and it was the same if you wrote about knowing that and knowing how if you were after a chair in Analytic philosophy.

And as you grew older, had written a couple of difficult books, been published (you used to be published, really!) in a couple of important journals, and held a couple of chairs, you would start to think about Art or Religion, or about more ordinary questions, like bullshitting. Maybe you would hold some lecture and eventually have it published in a book or you’d write an essay on a subject you had never treated before for a book edited in your honor.

You wouldn’t be as strict (with yourself), or as precise as in the first 30 years of your career. But you would be more fun and insightful, your books would presuppose less interest in history and less technical skills and your (at least potential) readership would grow. In terms of potential reader (or viewer-ship), the ideal would probably be to be interviewed, like Deleuze, because videos have the highest chance of having high impacts today. Videos also seem to allow for the lowest imaginable standard for philosophical comment, and are ideal places for bullshitting as when Deleuze “argues”: “My fundamental reproach to dogs is that they bark. Barking seems to be the most stupid cry I know.” This quote happens to exemplify Harry Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit, which he takes to be characterized by a speaker “not caring about the truth or falsity of his assertions”.

Now the good thing about being an older philosopher is that you would be happy spelling out some good idea, not feeling you needed to develop each and every one  of them into an academic paper. Most of the times this is actually very nice to read for the reasons stated at the very beginning.

Nelson Goodman’s later essays like « Twisted Tales » or « How Buildings Mean » or Harry Frankfurt’s little book On Bullshit itself are some of the works of older philosophers that I like. And even so: had Frankfurt written On Bullshit when he was still young, before Writing On Truth and on Descartes, he might have ended being a popular, but probably not an academically successful philosopher. As opposed to writing on bullshit when you are young, writing on bullshit when you are old is pretty cool. And probably this makes book a little famous, and definitely more so then it’s content. In this sense, it is different from “What is it like to be a bat?” – which could have been, but isn’t an old philosophers essay – which unites coolness and philosophical relevance.

Or wait! Harry Frankfurt would not have published On Bullshit, because nobody would have published young Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit – or so we can suppose. To be published was a sign of success when Harry Frankfurt (born 1929) was young. On Bullshit is fun to read, but it’s not as systematic or as dense as it would have to be to live up to the high academic standards of publishable-from-a-young-philosopher. But now, as publishing is not a success verb (« as being a sign of success ») any more, I can publish an essay on bullshit – or bullshitting – myself. I can do it here and soon. And so I will.

N.B. I cheated a little. I quite consciously mixed up being a young philosopher and being young when Frankfurt was young, which is, say, until 1969. In 2005, it might actually have been possible for a young philosopher to publish a book on bullshit and the very same book Harry Frankfurt published, just because it’s subject matter was fancy enough. But it would have been much harder to do for me than for him. Now, one could ask if that’s rightly so, as when Karl Kraus says (something like) « The quote was supposed to be from Hofmannsthal and it was bad, but it finally turned out that it was from Goethe and quite good. »

  1. […] How philosophers get to publish their own thoughts […]

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