The Education of Grown-ups

Impossible Objects is a collection of interviews with philosopher Simon Critchley, whose work has appealed to me for several years. His approach to philosophy is pragmatic and mostly comprehensible to those outside the academy. In the interview entitled Keep Your Mind in Hell and Despair Not, Critchley states,

I want to state that, at the level of method, I don’t want to make a huge distinction between philosophers and human beings. I think philosophy is the theoretical elaboration or elucidation of intuitions that are common to human beings. Philosophy just makes that manifest through a certain discipline of reflection. So philosophy, for me, is a way of relearning to look at the world, a world that is familiar to us, that we know, that is shared by all human beings. I think that when people are at their best, when they are thinking, reflecting, cogitating, then they are doing philosophy. So I don’t see philosophy as an academic exercise. If I did, I think I’d slit my wrists and go sit in a bath and die like a good Roman. For me, philosophy is an activity of thought that is common to human beings. Human beings at their best. Or, to use the phrase of Stanley Cavell, “Philosophy is the education of grown-ups.”

Socrates would have applauded the idea that philosophy should be approachable. I’ve been fascinated by philosophy since I was a Kierkegaard-obsessed teenager, but there are texts that are inaccessible to a lay reader. I recall being thrilled by Sartre’s Being and Nothingness though there was much in that wonderful book that was beyond me. That didn’t stop its formative influence. I’ve been less successful with Kant and Heidegger and long given up on Hegel.

I keep looking for a way into Derrida’s work, of whom Critchley says,

I think Derrida is simply the most intelligent philosopher that I have ever read or heard; his capacity to develop thinking, improvise thinking, assimilate concepts, and generate new ideas is absolutely extraordinary. I think he is exemplary as a philosopher. He’s a bit like Miles Davis in the 1960’s.

Nicholas Royle’s Jacques Derrida comes highly recommended, and will be my next step towards Derrida’s writings.

The first interview in Impossible Objects is a discussion that focusses on Critchley’s first published book, The Ethics of Deconstruction, which opens up an ethical reading of Derrida through the work of Levinas. Fascinating as it is, without prior reading of Levinas (and Habermas), much of the discussion meant little to me.

Continental Philosophy by Simon Critchley

Simon Critchley’s Continental Philosophy, like other VSIs that I have read, combines compactness, knowledge and, in this case, insight. Critchley explains how philosophy came to be divided into analytical (or Anglo-American) and Continental philosophy, establishes the critical differences and suggests a way forward for philosophical reflection. Philosophical history aside, all fascinating, Critchley afforded me a candlelight (dim but present) of comprehension into Kant’s work (a Scruton VSI to Kant sits forbiddingly, unread on my shelves), and illuminated my token understanding of Heidegger’s work on being and time. As a successful introduction should, Critchley also whetted my appetite to try some key texts of Continental Philosophy: specifically Habermas’ Knowledge and Human Interests and Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy?