Gnawing on Books

14 Feb

I sometimes joke that the original meaning of the word “philosopher” was “really bad writer.” While philosophers do count a few great stylists among them–Plato and Nietzsche are the two that come to mind–some philosophers seem to struggle expressing their (admittedly complex) ideas. At any rate, there’s no chance of reading quickly through most philosophy books. And that is why my post this week will necessarily be short. I’m trying to get through a book of moral philosophy by Alasdair MacIntyre before interlibrary loan comes breaking down my door. I think I’ll succeed. Probably.

The book, After Virtue, reminds me of when I picked up C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man back in high school. I was fifteen and thought I ought to read one of Lewis’s more serious works and picked up Abolition because it was short and therefore, I thought, easy. Years later, I learned that it is considered one of Lewis’s more difficult works. I struggled with it, trying hard to follow Lewis’s train of thought, especially in the first third of the book, which deals with emotivism. MacIntyre writes on the same topic, opposing the same group that Lewis did–people who argue that statements of value are simply statements about personal feelings. (For example–to an emotivist, “That is good” would be more accurately phrased “That gives me good feelings” because goodness is not rationally demonstrable.)

MacIntyre’s book is proving a bit of a challenge to me now, just as Lewis’s book did when I was fifteen. But I no longer have so much trouble understanding Lewis, and I hope that I can grow enough to understand MacIntyre similarly well.

I’ve read that Mortimer Adler argued in favor of students reading difficult books, even books that they could not completely understand. It’s like a puppy gnawing on a bone, he said. The bone may not nourish the puppy yet, but it will strengthen the puppy, which is more important in the long run.

I want to keep gnawing.


Posted by on February 14, 2014 in Philosophy


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4 responses to “Gnawing on Books

  1. Steven Colborne

    February 14, 2014 at 4:13 am

    Hi there. I personally think that a lot of philosophers are bad writers. The philosophy I enjoy reading most is that in clear and simple language. When I studied philosophy at Uni I tried tackling some of the ‘classics’, and was just left frustrated. Schopenhauer is one example. Of course a lot of writing in philosophy depends on good translation.

    I believe it was Einstein who said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. I like that!

    Anyway, just a few thoughts, good luck with Alasdair MacIntyre!

    • A. Carroll Crowe

      February 27, 2014 at 11:51 pm

      Thanks for the encouragement. I think I got used to MacIntyre’s writing style about halfway through the book–either that or he got more into literature and history, which I’ve studied more than hardcore philosophy. At any rate, I got more out of the book than I expected. 🙂

  2. Elizabeth Johnson

    February 17, 2014 at 2:47 pm

    I have no interest in reading philosophy, but I’ve been doing something similar with theology books… gradually gnawing on more & more difficult texts, in hopes that I might savor a few pieces here and there. But it also trains your mind to appreciate those harder texts, and they slowly become easier to digest, so eventually you can move on to even deeper works. That axiom really is true – the more you read, the more you want to read.


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