Monday, July 21, 2014

Criticism

Pyrrho van Elis

Last week I bought a book by Antoine Compagnon on Montaigne and I immediately started to read it. Compagnon is an authority on Montaigne and he has published several books and articles on this philosopher. The book I bought is titled “Un été avec Montaigne” (A summer with Montaigne). It contains mini-essays like my present blogs are. Originally the pieces had been broadcast on the radio for a broad public. I can recommend everybody to read the book, also if you have read already a lot on and by Montaigne. Montaigne’s Essays are so rich in content that any book on Montaigne reveals new aspects.
In one of the first mini-essays Compagnon shows that Montaigne was a man who was open to critical remarks. He even liked them, as long as they were to the point and didn’t come from a superficial attitude, from snobbery or something like that. This doesn’t mean that he always agreed with the criticism he received but he liked a critical stand as such and he liked discussions. Often he changed his writings under influence of the comments he received. Sometimes it was because he agreed with the criticism, often it was rather a matter of politeness, for showing that he took criticism seriously and for stimulating people to make comments.
The basis of criticism is doubt: the idea that everything need not be so as it appears to be. For Montaigne, who relied on the Greek philosopher Pyrrho (about 360-270 BC), doubt was a method for getting better knowledge. No wonder that his motto was: “What do I know?”. In this Montaigne was well ahead of Descartes, who is seen as the founder of modern philosophy and who is known for what we call now “Cartesian doubt” as a method for making progress in science. Nowadays critique is considered fundamental in order to come nearer to the truth. It was especially advocated by the Austrian British philosopher Karl R. Popper (1902-1994).
Everyone who advances ideas that are at odds with what other people think exposes oneself to comments and critical remarks, which may be appropriate or not appropriate. Be they of the former or of the latter kind, I think that one must take all criticisms seriously, anyhow. Critique doesn’t need to come only from other persons. Also self-criticism is an important way to improve your texts and ideas (and yourself!). Therefore I have developed a double strategy for coping with comments on my texts. My first rule is: Every comment is right, even when it isn’t. So every comment needs to lead to a change of my text. I think that some explanation is necessary. That a text must be changed when a comment is to the point is obvious, but what when it isn’t? Of course, it is possible that you and your commentator disagree. Nevertheless, I think that there is always a bit of truth in any opposite remark. What you can do then is trying to present your view clearer and better and maybe it is also good to skip some nuances of your stand that are questionable or not to the point, or just to add other ones. I guess that even inappropriate comments make that I change my texts in 90% of the cases.
And how about the second rule of my strategy to cope with comments? This is self-criticism. Often it happens that I reread a text and that I stumble over a word or a passage. I read it again and think: This word or passage is exactly correct. Nevertheless, I always change it, for how can I expect that another reader understands it if I, the author, needs to think twice before I know what I mean?

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