Monday, September 30, 2013

Reading broadly

Eclectic selection

Once someone told me that my choice of books is quite eclectic. As soon as I had finished Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, I started to read an anthology of Simone Weil, which I happened to find in a book shop when I was on holiday in Estonia this summer. I must admit that Schopenhauer and Weil are very different kinds of philosophers, but does this mean that my choice is really so eclectic? For what kinds of books I read, already since many years the philosophy of mind and action is at the centre of my field of interest; and also a theme that I am concerned with already much longer: non-violence. As I see it now, this will still remain so for the time to come, although you never know what will happen. Alternatively, however, one can say that at the forefront of my philosophical thinking are the questions I have chosen as the subtitle of my most recent book: Who am I? What do I do? (which is expressed also in my blogs here). Seen in that light, books like Schopenhauer’s or Weil’s are not more than side-roads for me.
Be it as it is, I think that actually it would be better if many philosophers would have a wider choice of reading than they have. How often doesn’t it happen that I read a philosophical article or book and I think: What is asserted here is absolutely not according to the facts. This author trusts too much his intuition and if he had read a bit about the theme, he would have known that it is simply not right, what is said here, or at least it is doubtful and needs more discussion or it needs some evidential support instead of relying only on intuition. Often this happens when the philosopher concerned supposes something intuitively about how the mind works or about social behaviour. So many new discoveries have been done in brain research and so much has been discovered about how the minds works in recent years, that the days are gone, I think, that one can philosophize only or mainly on the base of intuition about such themes. And also society is often more complicated than an intuitive feeling can bring to the light. It would be good for philosophy, if it would be more eclectic in a certain sense. How the world is shaped cannot be thought out intuitively, to formulate it succinctly.
Coming back to Simone Weil, hadn’t I seen that anthology of her work in an Estonian book shop, maybe I would never have read a word of her writings, which has yet been so influential, although Weil was philosophically a bit of a loner. Her philosophy touches central themes of life and Weil herself participated in the main events of her time (the labour movement; the resistance against the Nazi occupation of her country France). While reading her work, again and again I discovered insights that I discussed here in my blogs from the viewpoints of other philosophers or researchers. Take for example this. In her “The Iliad or the Poem of Force” Weil writes: “… the conquering soldier is like a scourge of nature. Possessed by war, he … becomes a thing, though his manner of doing is so different – over him, too, words are as powerful as over matter itself. And both, at the touch of force, experience its inevitable effects: they become deaf and dumb.” And a few sentences further, she goes on: “It is not the planning man, the man of strategy, the man acting on the resolution taken, who wins or loses a battle; battles are fought and decided by men deprived of these faculties, men who have undergone a transformation, who have dropped either to the level of inert nature, which is pure passivity, or to the level of blind force, which is pure momentum. Herein lies the last secret of war …”. And I wanted to add: and of much of what we else do in life.
But isn’t this what Hannah Arendt has written down later when she discussed the banality of evil and in fact holds the thesis that what we do is determined to a large extent by the situation we are in? That we are carried away by the dynamics of the situation we are in, which tends to push away our individuality and our faculty of independent thought? Isn’t it the same as what Philip Zimbardo experimentally demonstrated in the famous “Stanford Prison Experiment”? That the situation often makes us do things we would never have done if we would (and could) have taken time for reflection? Reading “broadly” helps you see connections that you otherwise wouldn’t have seen. It helps you also to come into touch with authors who are interesting as such, irrespective of their wider meanings, like Simone Weil.

Note: The quotations are from Simone Weil. An anthology, Penguin Books, London, 2005; pp. 204-5.  What I wrote in my blogs about Arendt and Zimbardo can be found back by using the searching machine on this website.


Diana H. said...

Hi Henk!
Interesting indeed. Finding connections among the different things I read is often a source of pleasure to me. Is it the pleasure of brain exercise? The pleasure if feeling we can get a deeper insight of the world and ourselves?
I'm leaving you these questions as a possible topic for a post :)

HbdW said...

Thank you for your comment, Diana! I think that it's the pleasure of reading and getting new views and different views. Broad reading broadens your world, and, of course, gives a deeper insight in the world and yourself.
Well, maybe it can be the theme of a new post, indeed :) Thank you for the suggestion.