To Read is to Listen

As Georges Clemenceau once famously said, war is too important to be left to the generals. Sometimes I despair that something of the sort must equally be said about philosophy: it is too important to be left to academics. True, generals kill their enemies, academics parse texts–one can only smile. However, if the phrase “life of the mind” is to be understood in all its fullness, the juxtaposition is apposite. What is required from academics, and generals, is a sturdier wisdom than what either seems able to muster.

Recently I was put in mind of this when perusing the entry on Albert Camus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The section on The Myth of Sisyphus begins with a quotation from its first paragraph, one of the most provocative openings I have ever read in a philosophical essay. Here is Camus’s text in the standard English translation by Justin O’Brien, whose great merit is that it hews closely to the French original:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.

Here is how the writer of the SEP entry quotes this seminal text:

“There is only one really serious philosophical problem,” Camus says, “and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.”

Notice not only the egregious emendation at the end, but also the change to a more casual tone. Far from arbitrary or justified by a need for economy, these changes support the unmistakably academic tenor of the parsing that follows:

One might object that suicide is neither a “problem” nor a “question,” but an act. A proper, philosophical question might rather be: “Under what conditions is suicide warranted?” And a philosophical answer might explore the question, “What does it mean to ask whether life is worth living?” as William James did in The Will to Believe.

From here on, after the unjustified and self-satisfied “gotcha!” that declares that suicide is neither a problem nor a question but an act, and the condescending rephrasing of Camus into acceptable “philosophical” form, the entry takes off into a series of well-formed propositions followed by lucidly stated conclusions—too bad it all has so little to do with Camus.

Let’s agree that to evaluate the soundness of an argument it is important first to parse it, that is, to understand all its premises and test whether its conclusions are valid. This is no less true of an essay on logic than on suicide. A good reader, however, also listens to the text by developing a keen ear for rhetorical precedence and by paying close attention to historical context.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus ends his first paragraph with this key observation: “These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect.” The sentence echoes one of Pascal’s most famous passages in the Pensées: “The heart has its reasons which reason itself does not know” (Sellier 680). For a reader attuned to rhetorical precedence and historical context, the text now opens up, disclosing a rich web of meanings not possible to glean from a mere parsing of the argument. This attunement to precedence and context could further point the reader to Pascal’s The Art of Persuasion, with its fuller examination of what he calls the “powers” of the heart and the mind, both gateways to knowledge.

In other words, there is in the background of The Myth of Sisyphus an unstated epistemology contextualizing fundamental ideas which, if I were to guess, Camus assumed his reader knew.

The flowering of philosophical thought sometimes depends on the discovery of the resonance between a later text and an earlier one. For this, it is necessary to be keenly attuned to both texts, to listen with care. This bit of wisdom is lost on the writer of the SEP entry, who no sooner is he done quoting Camus than he goes on to a supposedly clearer William James. Instead of care for the text, there is complacency and abandon. Philosophy is indeed too important to be left to tin-eared academics.

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