Saturday, September 26, 2009

Reading, Studying

In reading books that give me facts, I can always learn something of interest even if the penumbra of interpretation the author radiates strikes me as wrong. Interpretation is a species of valuation, to be sure; it is always possible that the author’s system of values has influenced his choice of facts; but in the realm of givens, many other sources are available to check that.

In looking at books largely about values—thus most philosophical works—I always first try to discover the author’s fundamental orientation. By that phrase I really only mean his epistemology. An example: let’s say that the author is a thorough-going empiricism. In that case the motive for going on—if on I go—will change. The only real content the author can possibly give me is the truth of empiricism itself, namely that nothing reaches me, or ever has, except through my senses. The logic of empiricism suggests that any other derived values will have a sensory basis. Such a book will attempt to persuade me, to be sure; the author will argue and reason; but his own starting premises suggest that reasoning itself has only a sensory basis. And, furthermore, I already know what such experience can teach me about values, as in “Don’t jump off five-storey buildings.” I may go on and read some or all of the work anyway, but for other reasons: to find out how people with such an orientation see things. But then I switch from reading about values to increasing my general awareness of people and society. The content doesn’t interest me as such. I become more open when the author’s epistemology makes room for reason and intuition as genuinely separate sources of knowledge. Then, possibly, all else equal, there may be something of interest in the opus.

Studying a work is the next level up from simple reading. Here I make distinctions between personal and professional study. I’ve studied a lot of things for professional or vocational reasons; the effort often requires the strong exertion of the will because the materials may not be pleasing. I devote personal study only to those works that pass my own test: I have to share their authors’ orientation.

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