“Uh, uh, uh, apes don’t read philosophy.”
“Yes they do, Otto, they just don’t understand it.”
The quotes are from a dialog between two of the main characters from the film A Fish Called Wanda. Jamie Lee Curtis, Wanda, is arguing with her lover Otto, played by Kevin Klein. Otto believes himself to be something of an assassin-philosopher. Unfortunately, he gets it all wrong, but, it is all part of the joke. He is not terribly bright (we did not call you “stupid”, Otto) and he tends to misunderstand most of what he takes in. From Buddhist monks to Nietzsche, Otto, humorously, misses the central point of the texts.
So how does one approach philosophy, let alone understand it? Wait! What is the relevance between literature and philosophy anyhow? Well, from our perspective, one, dare we say, may be shared by other readers, writers and lovers of literature, is that stories are based on ideas. A poem is an argument. An essay is an argument. Being able to read a text philosophically can only bring a reader closer to understanding a writer’s intentions, an artist’s vision, a concept behind the art itself. A philosophical approach yields a certain comprehension.
This is all well and good, but Philosophy can be intimidating, initially. The field is riddled with stereotypes: snobbery, arrogance, and black turtlenecks. The reality is that Philosophy encourages thought and not simply pondering the ideas of someone else but, your own thoughts, your own ideas. A philosophical approach to literature will support a philosophical approach to life so, without further adieu, the Limping Devil Press Guide to Reading Philosophy begins.
1. Grab a writing utensil. Several of us at Limping Devil Press have had professors who have impressed upon us the necessity of reading with a pencil. English professors have insisted upon it. One professor in particular stated that one should “read with a w,” meaning that one should have a pen or a pencil in hand while she or he reads for note-taking. Philosophy is no different.
2. The Approach. Say you have danced around the idea of reading Nietzsche, but have yet to jump in, or Kant has routinely been set aside since you have no idea where to begin. If you have been reading literature then you are already accustomed to reading for comprehension, which is one of actions a philosopher would like a reader to do. When you do pick up that philosophical text, a goal is to simply understand what the author is trying to say, to comprehend their point from their point of view.
3. Use more of what you know. Do you recall writing essays in school? Remember the bit about writing an argument? The philosopher is doing the same thing, creating an argument. The author of the text is attempting to persuade you, to sell you on the plausibility, or implausibility, as the case may be, of an idea. Just as writers use creative rhetorical devices to deliver a narrative and drive a plot, the author of a philosophical piece of writing employs similar strategies.
4. Do you agree? Nietzsche would look at all sides of an argument. He would examine, rather intensely, all the possibilities before coming to a conclusion. This is something that philosophy will ask of its reader: to consider what is being said and coming to an agreement or disagreement. Disagreeing will ultimately require more of you than agreeing will.
5. Allow yourself time. Philosophy is not quick. It is not instant. Reading philosophy pales in difficulty compared to actually writing it, so give the author the respect she or he deserves. Allow yourself the time to sit with an idea for a little while. Feel free to read a page, put the text down and do the dishes, or better yet, go for a walk. When reading philosophy, sometimes one is challenged to reexamine much of what one knows, values and believes. This is no small task, so respect that and remember that this is not a competition, but rather, an invitation. The writer is prompting you to have a conversation with yourself, long before you have that heated debate with your friends and colleagues.
We hope that this is a helpful start for you. These are some of the tips and pointers we wish someone would have given us before Freud was dropped in our laps. For now, the only other thing we can say is that the more you like a philosopher, the more time you will spend with her or him. If you find yourself suddenly considering Simone de Beauvoir while searching for a film to go see or watch on the telly, that is a good sign something she wrote struck a chord with you and you are already on your way to reading philosophy.
Do you have any favorite philosophers or tips for embarking on the field of Philosophy?