Recently I found myself becoming aggravated when trying to fill in the many gaps in my philosophical and historical knowledge. It seemed that when I started reading one philosopher related to my current queries, it was often filled with references to others that I hadn’t read or could only recall foggily. So I’d stop and go start reading one of them, and find the same problem—needing to stop and go read earlier sources. Before long, I saw I was getting nowhere fast.
It’s sad, really, that after an unusually large number of semesters in colleges, I’d managed to avoid classes in things that most interest me now. It has mainly been in my own free time that I have, alone, muddled through the likes of Nietzsche and Camus and Plato and Hobbes and so on. Now I realize I didn’t pay close enough attention sometimes.
So I’ve decided that the only sane way to get through 2500 years of philosophical evolution is to start at square one and work my way chronologically up to now. It’s going to take a few years, obviously, but I think the journey will be rewarding.
I’m putting my trip online in hopes that other seekers of knowledge will come join me, and test my analysis as I challenge theirs—and to tell me how to pronounce some of these Greek names that I don’t get an opportunity to hear said in a class.
People of all expertise levels are welcome. I consider myself a novice, but I hope that I still have something to contribute to a conversation, if only a fresh perspective flying free of any established confines, or a good laugh if I get it horribly wrong, as no doubt I will from time to time. When you’re digging for buried treasure, sometimes you’re just going to find dirt.
So feel free to concur or to set me straight—as good-naturedly as possible. Knowledge cannot be obtained without the freedom to ask stupid questions (or to suggest stupid answers). I’m full of both. If you are, too, I won’t judge or be disrespectful. Don’t let the heftiness of the subject scare you off. I enjoy intellectually high-brow things, but tend to discuss them in middle-brow, non-academic language. You may talk at whatever level pleases you. If need be, we’ll just get out the dictionary–or ask you to elaborate or clarify.
Politically, you may have noticed from my website that I’m fairly hardcore right-wing. But if you stumbled into this area through some non-political route, please don’t let that scare you away. All political persuasions are welcome here, because if there’s ever a good time to have a Marxist around, it’s during a philosophical debate.
There’s no obligation or commitment required. You can come and go as you please. Feel free to jump in whenever and wherever you like. If we’ve moved on, you can still go at your own pace and add to the discussion that’s there. Consider this first post in the series to be my disclaimer.
As I am no expert, I needed to find one to be our guide. In evaluating the various philosophical surveys and histories, I discovered each had their own point of view that tainted the guidance they provided. Yet I found one that seems to be about as exhaustive of a survey as possible, while also striving to stay out of the way as much as possible. That one is Frederick Copleston’s 11-volume A History of Philosophy. (You don’t have to buy them all at once, and they are available in paperback. We’ll be starting with his A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome From the Pre-Socratics to Plotinus.) A Jesuit priest and renowned proponent of St. Thomas Aquinas, Copleston is honest in stating his influences and wrote the series so that seminary students would be exposed to the full breadth of philosophy.
When he published Volume I in 1946, in the Preface, Copleston explained:
My chief motive in writing this book, which is designed to be the first volume of a complete history of philosophy, has been that of supplying Catholic ecclesiastical seminaries with a work that should be somewhat more detailed and of wider scope than the text-books commonly in use and which at the same time should endeavor to exhibit the logical development and inter-connection of philosophical systems. It is true that there are several works available…but their point of view is sometimes very different from that of the present writer…. To mention a “point of view” at all, when treating of the history of philosophy, may occasion a certain lifting of the eyebrows; but no true historian can write without some point of view, some standpoint, if for no other reason than that he must have a principle of selection, guiding his intelligent choice and arrangement of facts….
Ultimately, he says:
I do claim that I have striven after objectivity, and I claim at the same time that the fact I have written from a definite standpoint is an advantage rather than a disadvantage. At the very least it enables one to give a fairly coherent and meaningful account of what might otherwise be a mere jumble of incoherent opinions, not as good as a fairy-tale.
For non-Catholics and the non-religious, don’t worry that Copleston is going to be presenting an 11-volume religious tract. I consider myself to be somewhat of an atheist (of the increasingly rare “highly tolerant of others’ religious beliefs and practices” variety), a former active Protestant that still enjoys the family celebrations of Easter and Christmas and occasional gospel music, as well as occasional invitations to events at synagogues, temples and whatnot. But I don’t enjoy having someone try to convert me. In what I’ve read so far, I don’t feel any dogma being pushed by Copleston, and instead find it as he wished we would: “an incentive to the study of the original philosophical texts and of the commentaries and treatises on those texts by celebrated scholars.” It would take him nearly 30 years to complete the 11 volumes.
To be sure that I’m (we’re) getting varied opinion, I also selected two one-volume (!) tomes:
- Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers
- Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy
There’s also a couple I picked up for good measure:
- T.Z. Lavine’s From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest(limited to just a few philosophers)
- Dave Robinson & Judy Grove’s Introducing Philosophy: A Graphic Guide (the history in pocket-size cartoon form. Fun!)
So these provide the road maps for the journey. They will be supplemented, of course, with the actual writings of the philosophers, and on occasion, with a specific analysis of the trickier ones.
One good thing is that if you are short on funds, most of the philosophers’ works are available for free online, until we get into the 20th century, so you’ve got a long time to save up to purchase those.
My plan is to try to post a daily thought regarding the writings of our current philosopher–something to turn the treadmill in my brain on and give it a good workout for the day, hence The Daily Tread. There may be occasion when I skip a day. Feel free to holler at me–or provide your own thought you’d like to put up for discussion. There will always be a Daily Tread tab at the top of the page that you can click to access just this section of The Prudence Paine Papers—with the most recent post at the top. When that becomes cumbersome, I’ll figure out some menu system for us.
At the end of this trip, we’ll be smarter, more enlightened and more intellectually nimble. Who knows? They made a movie out of one woman’s experience of cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1, based on Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously. Perhaps they’ll make one of our journey as we ponder our way through Frederick Copleston.
Tomorrow we begin with the Pre-Socratics.