Friday, August 07, 2009


Blessed are fools, for they are spared the absurdities of the learned.

Learning is a good thing. If anything goes without saying, that statement is as good a candidate for the honour as any other. But too much of a good thing can turn into a bad thing. I propose to defend the paradoxical claim that much learning is most of the time more bad than good.

I have been reading two learned papers read at two austerely learned conferences. Both papers treat of subjects that touch closely on some of the most ardent of my philosophical interests. Both papers are meticulously researched and carefully argued. Have I come out of them with anything, any insight, any understanding, any enjoyment? Not at all; not through any fault on the part of the author and not through any fault on my part, as I believe.

Let me schematize one type of such scholarly papers. Professor N argues that X (a philosopher, say, of the second century BC) believed that Y (of the fourth century) took Z (of the fifth century) to maintain that p. (The pattern can go to any degree of complication; but let us keep it at this simple level.) Now I would say that p, a given verbal formula, has no meaning in itself and by itself, since it cannot speak its own mind. By itself, p is a fish out of water; to vibrate, to send tremors to a receptive mind, it must be put back into the ocean in which it came into being in the first place. That ocean is the total context of a thinker’s life, circumstances, problems, beliefs. It is that living context that determines the meaningful content of p.

Now the context in which Z originally formulated p was unique t Z; the context in which Y sought to understand p was unique to Y; the context in which X sought to understand Y’s understanding of Z’s meaning was unique to X; and the context in which Professor N tries to grasp what X thought Y thought Z meant by p is unique to Professor N. The only way in which these diversely unique meanings can be related, compared, calibrated against each other is to turn the terms of the p formula into abstract tokens, lifeless counters.

This is a legitimate process for specific purposes, as legitimate as the process by which an employer translates the living energy of a worker into money tokens that are lifeless in themselves but can serve life in a specific way. In the same way, scholars, manipulating their token abstractions, can do useful work. But just as a worker would soon die if s/he thought that money by itself and in itself can provide her/his bodily and spiritual needs, so Philosophy would die – and in many academic circles she is actually dying – if we let the sophistications of scholars take the place of the living thought of original thinkers. Rather than arguing about what X thought Y thought Z meant, I would try sympathetically to envision what meaning, which point of view, each of X, Y, and Z was trying to convey, and I would not presume to say, even then, that I grasped what X or Y or Z meant, but only that I have found for myself some worthwhile meaning in the words of X, Y, and Z.

Again, the refinements of the learned may unravel the complications introduced by the learned, may correct the misunderstandings created by others of the learned, but they do not add to the insight that a naïve approach can find in the text of an original thinker.

Have I made my case, that much erudition can be a bad thing? Perhaps it is not without significance that the word ‘erudition’ comes from the Latin eruditus, meaning ‘instructed’. It is knowledge coming from outside. Plato in the Republic tells us that true education is the turning of the mind’s eye inside. So erudition and philosophizing are two distinct, opposed, things. Either is needed; either is good. But to put one in place of the other is bad.


Blogger Katharine Hunt said...

Dear Daoud,

Just read your latest blog while looking for philosophy websites to recommend to a colleague at work who is interested.

I remember at Uni I got so sick of reading commentaries on philosophical texts, because I ended up not knowing what my own views were on the original text, my head was so full of everyone else's views.

I think in my 3rd year I pretty much gave up reading commentaries and tried to concentrate on the original text instead. It didn't seem to do me any harm as I achieved a good degree.

I also remember when I attended a Philosophy with Children conference locally, that possible questions for discussion were proposed, and one young academic suggested we should select one of the more abstract questions, that would not lead to people just relating their personal experiences. I argued that it is terribly important that people should be prepared to talk about their personal feelings and experiences in philosophical discussion, as this is what keeps philosophy alive, connected with the real world. (It follows that we also need to be sympathetic listeners, so that people feel ok about revealing this personal information).

Best wishes,


3:23 AM  

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