Philosophy at a Gallop
Every summer I try and make a point of launching into a Big Fat Philosophy Book that I have, for some reason or another, not got round to reading before. My ideal holiday reading, in other words, is not a thriller or an airport blockbuster, but instead is something appetisingly dense like Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception. Merleau-Ponty is my choice for this summer, because this is a book that I have made use of, talked about and skirted round for years, but one that I have not actually ever read from beginning to end.
Big Fat Philosophy Books are always rather daunting things. One of the reasons I like reading philosophy is not that I turn page after page thinking, “Hmmm… that makes sense,” but instead that I turn the pages thinking, “What the hell’s going on?”, whilst being aware — somewhere just on the threshold of perception — that my insides are being subtly realigned. And one of the things I have come to appreciate is that reading philosophy is, in part, a way of making friends with bafflement, non-comprehension and bewilderment; it is a way of seeing that these things, too, are a part of what it means to think.
Every time I launch into a Big Fat Philosophy Book, I am reminded of the sage advice of the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, who has a lot of interesting things to say on reading and on thinking. Rosenzweig claims, in his essay The New Thinking, that when we read philosophy, we often make the mistake of thinking that what we are reading is “especially logical”, that ideas follow each other in neat chains of reasoning, and that each sentence leads on to the next. But then he says, “Nowhere is this less the case than in philosophical books.” Often, in fact, the sentences that follow make sense of the sentences that have come before. Or when you close the book, suddenly you get a sense of what was going on at the opening. Philosophy books, in other words, are often complex systems of thought that do not unfold proposition by proposition, but that require instead a kind of wholehearted engagement, a passage through them, before they begin to make sense.
How, then, to read philosophy? Rosenzweig’s answer is clear: Napoleonically. You launch in, at at gallop, “in a bold attack on the enemy’s central force”, in the hope that the smaller fortresses will fall once the decisive battle has been won. Of course, you don’t know at what point this battle will take place: and, Rosenzweig notes, it will surely not be in the same place for two different readers. But the important thing is this: “Above all: rush! Do not stop!” The worst that can happen is that you end out galloping out the other side, none the wiser; but usually, by the end, something has happened.
So this is how I will be reading Merleau-Ponty this summer. I’ll be putting on my Napoleonic bicorne hat of firm resolve, saddling up the horses of philosophical hunger, and launching an offensive on the citadels of Merleau-Ponty. I’d say “Wish me luck!”; but I won’t, because I bet Napoleon never said “Wish me luck!” before he galloped off on his latest campaign. He probably just said, “Adieu,” set his jaw nobly towards the horizon, and galloped off…