Trust in reading

I’m caught at the moment in something of a philosophical dilemma. I can think of two ways of reading a text. First, there is the architectonic way or the structural-functional way. This way is built on immediate intuition of text-parts into a whole, regardless of minutiae. Second, there is the close-attentive way, built on one’s looking on each piece of the text as uniquely given and necessary. The first way does not do this; once it’s found a certain “structure” as thus given, it seeks to subordinate all further reading to this structure.

I just finished reading Elizabeth Anscombe’s paper modern moral philosophy and, on reading it in the second manner, I found it to be quite dry and confusing. On the first, it is quite lively but, so far as I can tell, nothing exciting or new! How is this possible? On the first reading, the structure of Anscombe’s thinking is clear – modern ethical philosophy lacks a ground which ancient philosophy had. The historicism here is quite obvious. Indeed, to me, it seems rather banal. Of course ancient ethics had a different ground – its ground was the person AS SUCH. Aristotle’s ethics, as Plato’s, was grounded in a sum total account of human existence – obviously! Of course modern ethics also has stiffer ground – it takes place after the demythologizing of the world by the scientific revolution and enlightenment – obviously! But on the second reading, this obviousness crumbles into a dense array of minute and niche arguments which I find too damn boring to follow! I don’t care that Henry Sidgwick can’t justify his moralizing because he can’t adjudicate between intended consequences and unforeseeable ones, thereby making all actions permissible. What is permissibility? What is a consequence? What does any of this mean? What’s the ontology of these terms? Is permissibility something existent in reality, or something socially constructed? I can’t bring myself to address Sidgwick, let alone Anscombe’s critique of him, on clear terms until these matters are clarified! But of course, this is Anscombe’s structural critique — there is no means to clarify these.

Why, then, does she deign to argue with Sidgwick, Kant, and Hume on their own terms when these minutiae are, while not irrelevant, flourishes on what is already a well-established case for criticism? Why, in fact, must she go into Hume’s notions of matters of fact and relations of ideas to show that “in the depths” of his reasoning he is wrong when she could, quite simply, reject his entire project as failing to meet the requirements supposed by her broader philosophical structure? Of course the only answer can be because the broad structure is not her only intention! She intends indeed to work through the minutiae of Hume and Sidgwick for some reason over and above obvious externalist criticism.

But then what do I make of this? I already know Hume is wrong – this was obvious to me when I read him! What do I gain from suspending what to me was already obvious so as to view Anscombe pick apart the anatomy of his wrongness? Why? What does it serve me? Perhaps it edifies me in how not to think and yet also how to pick apart someone else’s thought. But why pick it apart? The externalist criticism does the work for me – Hume lacks a philosophical anthropology. Done. Case closed — I won’t bother with Humean reasoning except insofar as it does have positive merit. Where is this merit? In all such places as I can find the lack of philosophical anthropology not interfering. How do I know this? I don’t know, I just do!

This is something that so grievously annoys me about philosophy — what to some philosophers needs take pages to discuss in minute terms for me was obvious as soon as I read the damn thing they’re analyzing! That’s not to say I’m superior to these philosophers, but that their mode of exposition is so roundabout as to deny any engagement with their ideas. If the point of Anscombe’s paper is that a philosophical anthropology is necessary, she should’ve damn well said so! And, of course, she did, but she ought to have said so in terms which positively, instead of negatively, elucidate why exactly this is needed. “Here’s what Hume lacks. Here’s how it can be provided.” How clear is that? How certain is its proposition?

On watching a lecture or two so as to see what anyone else made of these minutiae, I again found myself in the same spot. Albeit this time, however, the lecturers aimed to place anscombe in her thomistic context. This is fine, but it once more brings to light the same damn issue I have with her writing! Aquinas is a fine system-builder, as was Aristotle. I can look at the term “practical wisdom” and consider it immediately in me – I need not define it. Of course, i can do so if need be, but I know what it is intuitively. Such intuitionism has been largely loathe in all modern philosophy – it seems insufficient that one simply state man needs the wisdom to act practically to, therein, act morally. “Wisdom? What is wisdom?” Say the moderns. “It is that deposit of human understanding which has been handed down traditionally and which is modified by current scientific investigations,” I respond. “So you’re an empiricist!” Say the moderns. “Sure, why not?” I respond. “This is moral relativism! There’s no firm structure for your attitude!” Say the moderns. “Why need there be? How do you know that thought designates anything real? Prescinding from answering this question, relativity with respect to tradition and investigative results is all that one has!”

This much is my intuitive view of Aristotle and Aquinas. They can be rehabilitated insofar as their structures are compatible with anthropological footing on tradition and investigation. But this seems totally counter to the close-attentive method! “What terms does Aristotle use?” Ask the philologists, “what sets of propositions does he take up to argue his points,” ask the scholars of Ancient Greek philosophy. “What points of departure on the characteristics of the soul characterize the thomistic view from that of the Aristotelian?” Ask the medievalists. What difference does any of this make? I suppose if I want to be a damn scholar on each of these points a difference is made, but if I care about the uptake of their ideas, why would I bother with such onerous inquiries?

“How can you trust your intuition?” Say the moderns. “What if you’re imposing modern suppositions on an ancient text?” They exclaim. I respond with this — if I cannot trust me as I know immediately and with all power to justify, then, modern scholars, how do you trust your own scholarship? “Reliance on the method in which we’ve been trained.” They respond. But how is this to be trusted? “Through the trial and error and the refinement of practice.” But then this is no different from my intuitive understanding of texts! If your “methods” supersede human intuition despite being themselves grounded on intuition, you have no more grounds than I do to claim your method superior! For my method IS intuition! Your method merely stands on that which mine conducts!

All of this is to say — I don’t know how to proceed with reading. Intuitive decryption of complexities comes easy to me — I need not even try to perform it. But to attend closely? To step through the weeds of the dense jungle of another’s mind? This pains me and, dare I say, makes me sick to my stomach. I like Aristotle for the intuitiveness of his structure. His terms appeal to me. If I read Aquinas more completely, I’d say the same of him. But this being so, why does philosophy reject the intuitive method? Why does it painstakingly attempt productions unto the umpteenth detail when the ultimate answers, those which strike at the heart of the literature, are intuitively given?

I don’t know. All that I can say is this — the intuitive method of philosophy is far more enjoyable and rewarding than the painstaking close-attentive method. To hell with clarity. The aim of life is not to be understood “exactly,” whatever that means, if it means anything at all, but to get our point across. If I get the point while skipping over subpoints 1-10 which preceded it, why bother with the subpoints at all? I already have their conclusion.

I ponder these issues because I don’t know how to manage my own understanding of truth. My understanding of a text is an interpretation, surely. Others’ is their own interpretation. But if what I take to be subordinate to a broad point and unimportant is to them totally determinating, how do I argue my structural understanding against their attention to minutiae? “This is unimportant because of the broader point,” I might say. But then I feel as if I’m being dismissive, as if I haven’t read closely enough, as if I’m saying “my broad view overcomes the minutiae you’re looking at; don’t look so hard, the answer is easy.” But then aren’t I being egoistical in relying on such ease? Perhaps.

But if I get the point, what am I getting at? What is a “point”? What does it mean for something to “be the point” of a set of details? I must investigate this further.