The Difficulty of Reading Classic Philosophy Books

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The most phenomenal cultural backward evolution could be observed in the area of theoretical philosophy, when nowadays professional philosophers could often shy away from reading some famous classic books, and get the information about those works only from the secondhand commentaries of critics.

In this short essay, I will briefly discuss the major challenges of reading classic works of philosophy.

For many readers, the first challenge of reading classic works of philosophy might not be the difficult and profound discourse of the main ideas, but those parts of the contents which are obviously in conflict with today’s common knowledge or nowadays social cultural norms. This is actually more of a psychological issue than an intelligent hurdle because the knowledge that is obviously out of date would frustrate the desire for getting cognitive ease, especially well educated young readers (who might be very eager to read some of the classics at the beginning).

The ignorance of the historical backgrounds when the authors composed the works could understandably be one of the major difficulties for many to read classic works of philosophy. Nonetheless, believe or not, the annoyance caused by the unfamiliarity of the historical background when reading a classic book might not be as bad as it would sound in an out of the context comment. This is because great authors could normally elaborate things with clear logical threads that would stand for their own to a great extent.

One category of the historical contents that might affect the comprehension of a classic work is the debates that the author had with the counterparts of his time, which for the most of the time might not be known to the readers or never been known to the world except for a very limited circle of interested audience. However, those debates might have meant a great deal to the author at the time of writing, and thus he might have spent a great deal in response to the debated issues in the writing, which sometimes might even take the major part of the volume of the book (e.g. Metaphysics of Aristotle).

The benefit of knowing the historical continuity of philosophical development could pose quite a significant challenge for most readers, and the philosophy professionals (who are supposed to have gone through the mandatory knowledge injection by the educational system) do not seem to have much advantage over many others without the formal educational background in academic philosophy, as attested by the frequent confusion showed in the professional philosophical discussions about the meanings and the use of some uncommon notions (e.g. the so-called Heidegger’s Dasein which was used by Hegel long time ago).

This could cause confusion about the motive behind the authors’ discussions on certain notions. For example, when introducing or discussing the Hegelian dialectics, the literature or the text books normally would not tell the readers that what Hegel did was simply discussing some typical metaphysical notions; consequently, the so-called Hegelian dialectics was portrayed by the academic philosophy as a totally different animal from the traditional metaphysics, and then cited as the opposite or even a replacement of the traditional metaphysics during a century long radical smearing of the metaphysics from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st century[1]. But the good news is that this is not an unconquerable challenge either. With a great effort, the readers could always grasp the meaning of the book by the text itself even without much knowledge of the historical background.

Closely related to Ignorance of the historical backgrounds is the literal difficulty of reading the classics, which is common to all languages, no matter within the same linguistic framework or between different languages. A very basic thing for which we might all have to count on the work of very few professionals is the addition of the punctuations to the contents of some ancient books, simply because punctuation was not available in the languages when the books were composed. This would be a very tedious and difficult task even for those who understand the ancient languages, and this alone could be a source of errors which might account for the difficulty of reading the text.

Of course, the logical profundity of those renowned thinkers of wisdom could be the most difficult part for many readers. Based on my personal observation, the most challenging hurdle that would make most philosophy audience (professional or nonprofessional, famous or not famous) to stumble is neither the strange vocabulary nor the tricky logical perplexity, but how to relate the literal meanings of some apparently ordinary sentences to real life dynamics or to plain logic that could be expressed in comprehensible terms.

Benefits of reading classic works of philosophy

As a matter of fact, today the public (including the academic community of philosophy) is still far from fully understanding the literal meanings of many classic works of philosophy. For example, it is still a debated topic among scholars whether language would impact the way of thinking or how much the impact might be. The fact that people are still debating on this issue tells that many people are still confused about the truth behind it. However, we might get help on this issue from a sentence in a classic written in 500BC, the Tao Te Ching, that “we can only sense those for which we don’t have names, but we can see clearly those for which we have names.” As long as we can agree on the truthfulness of that statement, we can simply draw a conclusion that our way of thinking would definitely be impacted by the language we speak since different languages could have very different structure of vocabulary.

Then what about reading secondhand introductory materials instead of the original works?

It is true to certain extent that classic works of philosophy could be appreciated by reading secondhand introductory materials; however, no one (no matter what kind of honorable professional title he might have) can claim to have truly understood the works solely by reading the secondhand introductory materials. First of all, it is a common thing for a secondhand introductory writing to misinterpret the original meanings of certain parts of a book or even the original theme of the entire work. In the meantime, it is very hard to know the real hands of a so-called secondhand introductory writing. It could be thirdhand, fourthhand, or even more, no matter whether the author put the original book in the reference list or not. Therefore, one mistake in a upstream non-firsthand reading could become the source of error for all those that get the information from that upstream reading, and the more downstream a reading is, the more accumulated erroneous information might there be.

Besides, a philosophical script is an organic whole for which the motive of writing and the logical thread of reasoning is the soul of the composition, and it is impossible to grasp this soul without reading the original text. On the other hand, reading the original text could help one to build up the writing capacity, especially the capacity of exposit complicated logic.

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[1] The academic community of philosophy seems to be trying to conceal this history, and thus most young people don’t have any idea about what happened to metaphysics more than two decades ago.


Rongqing Dai, Ph.D.

Rongqing Dai is an author who comes from a science and engineering background with a Ph.D. from McGill University. For the past decade, I have been devoted to philosophically bent fiction and nonfiction writing to explore the dynamic logic behind the cultural, economic, and political happenings around the world. Currently I am in the transition from my science and engineering background to the philosophically bent literature writing career.

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