Empty Days

Thursday, October 23, 2003

How to write on philosophy

First, here's a nicely designed blog though unreadable to me. And now...

My friend, soon to be published (I'm sure) by Cambridge University Press, gave this truthful answer to my question how not to feel small and lost when writing on philosophy:
About philosophy - I take pretty seriously the claim (by Whitehead?) that the history of philosophy is footnotes to Plato. I realize that almost anything I could say has been said before, probably better. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't need to be repeated sometimes. Many philosophers my age (most?) have a pretty shaky grasp of history. One thing I always try to do is to point out the historical roots of a debate or problem. In taking the past seriously, I feel I'm already ahead of most of my peers.

How to know when you're done enough background reading? It really is somewhat arbitrary. I doubt you really ever know enough to know that you've read enough. When I get interested in a problem, I look it up in philosopher's index. I read through all the abstracts and pick out the ones that sound interesting. If something is in an obscure place (say, a journal I've never heard of, or a grad student journal) I ignore it. I try to formulate the problem narrowly enough that I don't have to read too much. As I read through the abstracts and then the full papers, certain important names/papers will keep coming up, so I make sure I've read them too. Then I ask around - people who know the history - and find what else I should read. When I have a draft of the paper, I show it to people or read it at a conference. Usually, people will mention something else they think I should read. (I'm never offended by this, and I almost always look up the suggestion,) As I said, most people my age don't pay enough attention to the past (I think) so I feel I do enough. I've been lucky in that I've been writing on topics few others seem to care about, so I'm not
swamped in reading! (JB)
My question could have been - how not to get lost in the world at large... Well, that's how :-0





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