Distance Between “Reading Philosophy” & Philosophical Theorizing

Ted Cohen said something amazing in class today.  Professor Cohen, who graduated from the University of Chicago in 1962, received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1972, and has taught at the University of Chicago since 1967–that’s 44 years–and is the author or editor of three books of philosophy and countless articles said he doesn’t do philosophy.  He leaves that task to people like Paul Guyer.  What Cohen does is read philosophy.

That brought to mind something another philosopher hero of mine, Mark Tazelaar, said a few years ago.  I was frozen solid downwind of his pipe smoke at the state-mandated closest-to-the-building-legal-smoking area straining to hear over the constant hurricane force winds of NW Iowa.  My mentor turned, smiled, and quipped that the difference between a Jesuit education in philosophy and a philosophical education from a research school is that the Jesuit student has been immersed in the founding documents of philosophy while the research student has been told that he has something to add to them.

Both these anecdotes address something that has been on my mind a lot these past few weeks.  Namely, the distance between “reading philosophy” and “philosophizing.”  If you were blessed to live on the other side of the Atlantic and further blessed to find yourself invited to attend Oxford or Cambridge (Oxbridge) you would proudly tell all who were willing to listen to your self-aggrandizing prattle that you were headed to university to “read philosophy”–or whatever subject you planned to study.  This curious turn of phrase is not some accidental oddity of the British vocabulary–like calling American “underwear” British “pants” or American “diapers” British “nappies.”  The phrase “reading philosophy” is the result of a pedagogical methodology which believes that one’s primary purpose at a University is to read widely and deeply of the founding documents of a discipline and–only many, many years afterward–contribute something to that discipline.

Now, certainly Prof Cohen has done more than simply “read” philosophy–though he certainly has done that.  His theoretical work on humor and in explicating Kant’s Third Critique certainly bears all the marks of both careful and original thought. However, the distinction that he seems to be making is one of emphasis–he considers himself first a reader and only then an innovator.

At least to this American’s ear there seems to be something disconcerting about a Professor of forty-four years still only “reading” philosophy as though perhaps the University of Chicago ought to be notified–just in case.  Similarly, all my time in undergrad was dedicated to the idea that I was “gonna do philosophy”–I was supposed to be “philosophizing.”  I was working at being a “philosophizer!”  Perhaps part of this can be laid at the feet of Heidegger.  He–sounding much like my mentor Taz in the contemporary philosophy class that first stole my undergraduate heart–told me that maintaining one’s reading of a text was more than reacting mechanically to the words on the page.  It was only through the factical, struggle of interpretive reading that one could maintain the posture of questioning in which one could live authentically.  (The previous sentence is best read in a cheesy German accent while gesticulating wildly and wearing an “existential” ski-suit.)  However, as Professor Tazelaar pointed out on that blustery winter afternoon three years ago, the burden of trying to contribute to one’s discipline too soon results in a great many half-baked and abortive attempts at philosophy.

I’ve already registered a certain amount of frustration with regard to the challenge of writing excellent analytical expositions at the U of C, but I absolutely love the fact that the MAPH program seems committed to the idea that we be able to adequately and generously read the great texts of our discipline before pressing us to contribute to their library.  There is a great distance between reading philosophy and philosophizing, but the latter is not more noble than the former and that is why I hope that forty-four years in I might still call myself a primarily a reader, rather than a writer, of philosophy.

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