A Meditation on the Perils of Reading Philosophy

It was about a two years ago, on a fateful and sunny day, that I made a terrible mistake: I decided to read Martin Heidegger. I admit that i did this of my own choosing, but no one warned me of the toil I would face when I innocently picked up a copy of Being and Time, Heidegger’s principal work.

The cover was beautiful—a picture of a leaf spread over a page of wispy script—but it was the title itself that won me over: two words that complement each other nicely, unified not by an “or,” “over” or “between,” but a solid “and.” I merrily carried it home, opened it to the first page, and thus my troubles began.

It seems that Heidegger resists translation in two ways: first, he is a philosopher, and second, he is German. Heidegger has this concept of Dasein, a quaint little noun to which he refers on every page of Being and Time without ever explaining in layman’s terms what it is. He strings together words with dashes, such as Being-In-The-World, which sounds interesting-if-a-bit-clunky but makes no sense.

So I went back to the library and picked up the original German book, Sein und Zeit. It was at this point that a philosopher friend of mine noticed my interest and shook his head.

“No, no,” he said, “you can’t just read Heidegger. His work is meaningless unless you try out the other Existentialists.”

Very well, I thought. I’ll read the other Existentialists. Undaunted, I picked up the colossal Being and Nothingness, by Jean-Paul Sartre. The title was slightly less attractive, and the introduction far less hopeful, but I gave it a shot anyway.

I managed to skim three pages before putting this mammoth tome away and reading his plays instead. When these failed to explain Sartre’s outlook (much less Heidegger’s), I read Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Then I really found myself in a fix.

As it turns out, The Stranger is often perceived as a depiction of the Ubermensch, or Superman, an idea thought up by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The Superman is only half-understood unless you have read about Arthur Schopenhauer’s concept of “Will to Power,” the can-do attitude that fuels the Superman’s spirit.

Of course this is sort of a tangent, my friend tells me, because Schopenhauer wasn’t as much of an Existentialist as Soren Kierkegaard, but I should read both if I ever hope to understand Nietzsche.

However Kierkegaard is a lightweight compared to Immanuel Kant, who really got the ball rolling in the 18th Century by inaugurating what is now known as Modern Philosophy. His Critique of Pure Reason challenged the world of theory, and so no philosopher in his right mind would think to avoid it.

So I picked that up, got a migraine in 10 minutes, and decided that if Kant was challenging the world of theory, then I should probably find out what the world of theory was doing that put him in such a tizzy.

So I flipped through the works of David Hume, whose theory of religion goes almost hand in hand with Thomas Hobbes’ theory of a purely material world. But what was the significance of a purely material world?

“You just don’t understand,” my philosopher friend muttered, pulling out a dusty volume of Rene Descartes’ Meditations. So I meditated on those, and learned, in not so many words, that we can’t be sure of anything.

“Oh, great!” I exclaimed. “You mean I’ve borrowed 16 books from the library and I can’t even be sure they’ll say the same thing tomorrow as they do today?”

“Don’t worry about it,” my philosopher friend said consolingly.

So Descartes posited to me that the existence of God can be proven, but this wasn’t enough. I had to read St. Thomas Aquinas for further details on the proof-of-God model, which is based, to my dismay, on Augustinian principles and Aristotelian logic.

So I tried out the Confessions of St. Augustine, which advised me to leave my wife, and then I attempted half the works of Aristotle. Aristotle was at least straightforward, but I ostensibly knew nothing of Aristotle unless I fully appreciated Plato, and to read Plato I needed to read about the trial and death of Socrates, who, it seems, is the origin of all human cognition.

In short, I read Plato to understand Aristotle, Aristotle for Augustine, Augustine for Aquinas for Descartes for Hobbes for Hume for Kant for Kierkegaard for Schopenhauer for Nietzsche for Camus for Sartre for Heidegger, and I still don’t have any idea what Dasein is.

If anyone can explain it to me, I’ll be very happy. In the meantime, I need some Advil.