Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Introduction to an Outlook for all Philosophical Interpretation

   I may have been the only one watching. He let the book fall from his hand, causing it to slam loudly on the table. Silence followed, but only for a moment. He spoke, his words continuing the shocked state provided us.
   "This is the most difficult book ever written. It is not because of anything that he says in it, but because he means everything he says."

* * *

   Above are the first moments of the first course I received on the Critique of Pure Reason under Prof. Gelven at Northern Illinois University. This manner of introduction inspired my approach to the interpretation of philosophy generally, and it is important to acknowledge from the outset this formative moment in my study, as well as to make some remarks about this moment that intimate some of the proper goals and procedure for interpretations where the effort is made for philosophical purposes. This can be taken as a criticism of some typical procedures used that are mistaken for philosophical. These non-philosophical procedures have merits; among these merits are understanding the history of a text, or the psychology of the writer, or the correctness of an argument, yet, as important as these ends are, these are not the ends of philosophy which constitutes an entirely different engagement.
   A number of elements in this moment in class produced a rather sublime effect on me: Firstly, my respect for Prof. Gelven; next, the noise was shocking viscerally and enhanced the claim that was made, true or not, regarding Kant's first Critique; and finally, the object of some sort of ideal of humanity, found in Kant's work, that I was standing in comparison to by the daunting task of facing up to it. All these led to a certain feeling that I had of being faced with a noble challenge and a need, which I thankfully fulfilled, to see myself as capable of achieving an understanding; yet what was the most important part of those moments for the development of the interpretation that guided my reading of the Critique tacitly, was also the most difficult part to understand immediately.  It was the last part of Gelven's statement - that the text is difficult precisely because Kant means what he says.
   The immediate product, in me, from this moment was dedication in the study of Kant grounded in trust. Trust can be seen as a bias, surely, but the trust here that is so crucial for interpreting texts philosophically is trust in the sincerity of the author's concerns - that for all the error and inconsistency that may exist in a text, it yet is addressing problems that were of essential importance to the author. Once we recognize that what is essential to authors is what is necessarily the same for all authors - their humanity - we can begin to interpret their texts as philosophical: as revealing something essential for all humanity.
   To expand on the above paragraph rather glibly: philosophical truths, as essential to humanity, are not up for disputation; they do not come in and out of fashion and are not dependent upon culture or other factors of our intellectual development - in fact, as essential, they are precisely those things that do not develop. The interpretation of a text for philosophical purposes, therefore, examines it to discover in it that which is entirely uncontentious. This does not mean that philosophers are unable to err in practice as to what is essential, for being limited is part of our humanity as well, but insofar as we trust that sincerity of a thinkers engagement with his own essential problems, we can expect to find the essentially true revealed in the manner of attaining to answering these problems, even if the answers given are themselves entirely fruitless, even wicked. When driven by sincerely essential problems, these matters of answers being incorrect or even evil add to the ability to interpret a text philosophically by revealing how one errs in relation to these essential problems. The truth of philosophical inquiry found in philosophical interpretation is the uncovering of the essentially human at all points.
   From this, interpreting a text merely in terms of the truth or falsity of the arguments contained in it is unphilosophical, for it takes as its end the discovery not of what is essential, but what is only the product of the inquiry: there are a vast multitude of arguments, both true and false, so that none of them in particular need be essential. However, the essential condition of humanity from which these problems arise is not a vast multiplicity, but is a universal condition, and here we can find what is of essential interest to humanity - the problematic - and distinguish it from what is of interest to the humanities - the particular answers to these questions.
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