Broaching Impossible Thinkers

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Incomprehensible therapy, courtesy of Existential comics

This post is written for the Oriel Theology blog, which can be found here.

It’s that time of year again—students are anticipating the start of the school year, whilst we’ve already started in America. And it’s almost guaranteed that the start of a new year will bring us into contact with new thinkers, new writers.

Some of these thinkers will be relatively easy for us to get to grips with. Their arguments will fit quite neatly with our preconceptions of how such things should work, their style will be amenable and familiar to us, and we won’t have much difficulty discerning why they are writing what they write. They might be more technical, more dense than most of things we read for pleasure—but jargon can be learnt, density worked through.

Some of the names we come across, however, will seem impossible. To pick one concrete example, and one likely to be encountered by Oriel Theology students, Karl Barth can seem incomprehensible at best, deliberately obtuse at worst. His magnum opus, the Church Dogmatics, takes years (possibly decades) to read in its entirety. It can seem laden with irreconcilable contradictions. His habit of making the same point in five, ten, twenty different ways, repeating more or less the same sentence with only minor alterations (to say nothing of the fact that these sentences can sometimes consume half a page), can seem in ore hurried moments like a vindictive attempt to waste students’ time. And depending which part of the Dogmatics you happen to be reading, he can seem like a deeply, deeply unpleasant man—one who feels confident castigating human beings for the slightest of infractions who wields Scripture as a weapon against any notion of human dignity. At least, this is how he seemed to me when I had to read him for the God, Christ and Salvation paper.

Other thinkers can seem impossible for different reasons. Wittgenstein (who might not be encountered directly in an analytic theology department, but will always be lurking in the background) seems genuinely ignorant of the possibility that he might have some responsibility for making his work comprehensible. Derrida (who is highly unlikely to be encountered in an analytic theology department) seems to have considered this possibility, and to have quite consciously done the precise opposite. To say Aquinas’ style is jarring to read would be an extreme understatement, especially if we don’t have at least a passing familiarity with Aristotle. Augustine are Calvin, meanwhile, can seem in many ways easy to read—but that accessibility is complicated by the sheer volume of their work, the intricacy of their reasoning, and the extremity of their conclusions. (It’s worth noting that all the thinkers I’ve spoken of here are western males—this has more to do with my own narrowness than anything else).

How, then, are we to broach these thinkers? Because it’s often important that we do. It’s important in terms of grades; I for one got a 58 in that God, Christ and Salvation paper, in large part because I didn’t think it worth the time to try and figure out what Barth was actually trying to say and why. And it’s important in terms of overall understanding: Derrida might be anathema in analytic schools, whilst Wittgenstein has largely fallen out of fashion, but the core of what they are trying to say, however obliquely, is of extreme relevance to what many analytic philosophers are trying to say.

I’m not sure if there’s a single answer to this question—different things will work for different people. But I can say one thing that has made reading all the figures above considerably easier for me: reading their biographies.

There are several reasons for this. First, it’s easy to suppose that biography is inessential to argument; in terms of raw logic, at least, an argument is valid or invalid irrespective of history, and a philosophical truth is both the same truth and will remain true irrespective of the life of the one who expressed it. Whether or not these things are the case, however (and to claim that they are is itself a philosophical claim), it is easier to understand what a difficult thinker is trying to say if they are read against the context of their life. The apparent incongruity between Barth’s severity and his generosity, between his hostility against every form of natural theology and his awareness that every theology is at root a natural theology, dissolves when it is set in the context of National Socialism. Wittgenstein’s incomprehensibility becomes more comprehensible in the light of the awe he felt before beauty—when it is set in the context of his feeling utterly inadequate to say what he felt it most important to appreciate.

Second, biographies help to historicise a thinkers’ work. It’s easy to read a philosopher or a theologian as if they had entered the world as the finished article, as if their work at any given moment represented an essential unity rather than a historical progression. It’s easy to read the Calvin of the first Institutes as essentially the same as the Calvin of the third; the Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations as the Wittgenstein of On Certainty; the Augustine of the Confessions as more or less the same as the Augustine who wrote against Julian so many years later. But while there is an identity over time, as there is in all of us, the Barth who wrote Volume 4 of the Church Dogmatics is more different to the Barth who first wrote volume 1 than the first year student is to the finalist. Knowing how and why this is the case is an essential part of delving into impossibly large corpuses of writing. It is essential for understanding both the underlying unity of and the differences between works produced at different stages of a single life, making clear the tensions which are often essential for understanding the apparent contradictions within a particular text.

Third and finally, it is because a good biographies can be a joy to read. Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, and Peter Brown’s Augustine are both genuine tour de forces of their genre. Karl Barth: His Life and Letters, collected and written by Eberhard Busch and Calvin by Bernard Cottret, whilst less immediately accessible, serve not just as vivid portraits of their subjects, but also as inspired accounts of pivotal moments in history. I’ve just started reading Derrida: A Biography by Benoît Peeters, and it thus far promises to succeed in the seemingly impossible task of making Derrida (the man, as much as the philosopher) effortlessly readable. And this is no small thing—it is easy to forget what it feels like to read for joy when caught in the middle of either an undergraduate or a graduate degree programme. It’s easy to sacrifice such reading at the altar of the reading list. To forgo reading for pleasure, however, can make it harder to read for work; it can mean that the only reading we do is the reading which feels like effort, and so drains us. And if this reading for pleasure eventually makes it easier to read for duty, by making the work of these thinkers much easier to tackle, then so much the better.

To summarise, then; when we encounter thinkers whom we simply cannot seem to get to grips with, or thinkers who work is so extensive that we can never be sure quite where to begin, there are worse places to turn to than their biographies, if they indeed have one. These biographies make it easier to understand the thinker whose expression we find so difficult, and so easier to understand their expression. They help to historicise this expression, and so make sense of the underlying threads of development which constitute both the unity and difference within a given corpus. And they are often genuine pleasures to read, giving life to the soul rather than draining it.

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