Under The Sun

Friday, July 25, 2003


Micah Schwartzman comments on a remark by Isaiah Berlin:

"Third-rate historians, fourth-rate chemists, even fifth-rate artists, painters, composers, architects, may be of some value; for all these subjects have their own techniques and operate at their own proper level, which may be low, but remains a level. But there is no such thing as third-rate or fourth-rate rebellion, there is no such thing as a trivial effort to cause a major upheaval. That is why the third-and fourth-rate philosophers, who are really engaged in applying techniques of their predecessors who are dead and gone, as if they were practicing a science, as if they were being chemists or engineers, are not so much unsuccessful or unimportant, or unncessary or superfluous, as positively obstructive. [...] In philosophy alone the plodding, competent, solid workers who cling to accepted methods, and half-consciously seek to preserve familiar landmarks, and work within a system of inherited concepts and categories, are a positive obstruction and a menace--the most formidable of all obstacles to progress."

This clearly is not precisely accurate, as the comment thread points out: those who can't, teach. (And Berlin himself gestured in that direction later in the essay: "Perhaps the answer is that, if they did not exist, the possibility of those great creative rebellions which mark the stages of human thought would never have occurred.") But that leaves the main question: other than merely passing down the sacred flame, is the actual philosophical work of the second-raters of any intrinsic value?

I agree with Berlin: it is not. The farther you get from a major insight, the less the details surrounding that insight matter. What lasts is the essence, the Big Idea, the Thought. The details are important, but only extrinsically, only to the extent that they help one understand the Thought. [What is understanding? To be able to make use of.--Wittgenstein.] Reading the primary source is one way to do that, and if the primary source is well-written, it's the best way. In other cases, a good secondary source may be better. But even the primary source, in its main bulk, is merely a crutch: if one understands the Thought behind the work, one ought, in theory, to be able to predict the philosopher's position on any given (related) question. If this fails in practice, it means either that one has not properly understood the Thought, or that the original writer was in error. (I have seen both cases. I have also seen cases of successful prediction.) But all such explanatory details are merely contingent; other details (other examples, other catch-phrases, etc.) might supply the same explanatory value, or more. There are many ways to discover a Thought. And to mistake the path--any single path--for its endpoint--the common endpoint--is exactly the kind of mistake second-rate philosophers are prone to make. And it is absolutely harmful, because it distracts attention from the Thoughts.

Which is exactly the problem with contemporary philosophy, on both sides of the Great Divide. The forest has been lost for the trees. Analytic philosophy, in particular, has in significant part come to believe that the problems that concern second-raters--problems of precision, problems of detail--are the only real problems! This is bullshit, of course, and wise philosophers realize that; but there are too few wise philosophers, because the work philosophers are being trained to do does not require, and indeed sometimes punishes, wisdom. On the Continental side, Thoughts have become Schools, with a similar effect: myopia is rewarded, wisdom is not. This is inevitable, but that does not make it good. And it should be roundly criticized, not because it can be helped, but to make clear to the true seekers of wisdom that it is not their vision, but their society's vision, that is false.

Yes, from the process of the Schools true insight emerges. But the Schools are merely facilitators, and rather inefficient ones. How many first-rate minds have been lost in the murk for want of wisdom? And how much better would we know and understand this era's Thoughts if our full attention were focused on seeking them?

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