Now that I'm in school not as a student but as a teacher this fault hasn't gone away. Last week I was teaching Hume's Enquiry, but Hume got me thinking of other British Empiricists I'd loved and lost, and I ended up rereading Berkeley's Dialogues of Hylas and Philonous instead of focussing on class preparation. This week it's Kant's Prolegomena, and I find myself feeling the pull, which I haven't felt in a very long time, of the Critique of Pure Reason.
Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant were the first serious philosophy books I ever read, back as a fifteen-year-old novice. I might have glanced at a little Plato first, but I don't recall. Until then the extent of my philosophy had been largely C.S. Lewis and various things along the lines of Francis Schaeffer. At fifteen I hoarded my pennies until I could afford to buy a set of the 1952 edition of the Britannica Great Books. I read here and there as inclination and ability led me, but I knew I wanted to get to the philosophy. As I say, I don't recall how much Plato I looked at, but it couldn't have been much. A short acquaintance showed that Aristotle and Aquinas were too hard to start with, and I thought I'd look at the English thinkers. The Locke-Berekely-Hume volume was just right.
On the whole these guys weren't a bad place to start philosophy. Their great advantage is that they are very good and clear writers, a fact I've come to appreciate more and more after spending so much of my subsequent years with either Germans or scholastics. I read the empiricists avidly but never felt taken in by them. I couldn't at the time put my finger on where they were going wrong but I felt sure they must be; nevertheless my appetite was whetted. They incited my curiosity without settling my opinions or even my inclinations. When in the Introduction to his Principles of Human Knowledge Berkeley said
It were an endless as well as an useless thing to trace the Schoolmen, those great masters of abstraction, through all the manifold inextricable labyrinths of error and dispute which their doctrine of abstract natures and notions seems to have led them into
he didn't dissuade me from doing so myself. It turns out that following the schoolmen through their labyrinths - of error sometimes, of dispute always, of wisdom, I hope, occasionally - is indeed an endless thing, but not, I have found, a useless one. When at the end of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Hume said
When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact or existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion
I didn't take his advice. My volumes of divinity and school metaphysics have multiplied a hundredfold since then. But it was a start.
I have to confess that I didn't read Kant next because he was the logical step after Hume, but for a much stupider reason. Nickelodeon used to show a cartoon called "Rocko's Modern Life", and in one episode Rocko discovers that his friend, who he had always considered a dim bulb, is actually a prodigy. He visits his friend's house to find him reading the Critique of Pure Reason, decides that he can't be bested by his friend, and goes home to read it himself, resulting in an amusing montage of mental anguish and existential horror (this is how I remember the episode; it's been more than fifteen years). I took this as a challenge and started to read the Critique myself. Kant daunted me as it daunted Rocko - I had to take notes to follow the argument, the first time I had done that with a book, and I didn't finish it - but I took it as a challenge to come back to.
Of course, speaking of challenges to come back to, thinking of the possibility of picking up the Critique reminds me that I never did finish Hegel's Phenomenology. We spent many weeks reading sections of it my senior year in college, and at the time it didn't leave me wanting more. Some years after that it was the only book on my comprehensive reading lists in graduate school that I didn't finish. Last year I bought a commentary on it by my favorite undergraduate teacher, thinking that he if anyone would teach me to love Hegel as he deserves, but the commentary has so far gone as unfinished as its commentatum.
* * *
So, reading the opening sections of the Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics is filling me with an irrational desire to read Hegel side by side with a 500-page commentary. I think I'll manage to hold out for now. But I do the same thing with literature. Earlier this summer I was rereading The Canterbury Tales. I took a break to read The Faerie Queene for the third time, and when I was done, instead of going back to Chaucer, I've instead gone back to a series of Icelandic sagas. Right now I'm in the middle of a translation of Njalssaga which is more literally faithful than the last one I read, so I'm enjoying it. But I confess that I'm taking a break from it in order to read The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, a little book that I find improves with age. I've decided just now that the third poem, "Errantry", is an allegory of the philosophical life, and it includes an episode on the hero's attempt to win love and reward from that harsh mistress Academia:
He sat and sang a melody,
his errantry a tarrying,
he begged a pretty butterfly,
that fluttered by to marry him.
She scorned him and she scoffed at him,
she laughed at him unpitying,
so long he studied wizardry,
and sigaldry and smithying.
It turns out that the pursuit, like so many pursuits, is just a distraction. The butterfly squanders his gifts and falls to bitter quarreling; the hero abandons her and looks elsewhere, but in his journeying and tourneying forgets his message and his errand. I need to beware of distractions. The real thing is the study - the wizardry and sigaldry and smithying.