Giving up on philosophy, a bit

I don’t know why I can’t read philosophy. I find the subject matter interesting. And I can read about philosophy. I like books pitched at a general audience and surveys running from Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy and Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy to Anthony Gottlieb’s more recent The Dream of Reason and The Dream of Enlightenment. But when it comes the primary texts I find I can’t get more than a few pages — and I mean that literally I’m lucky to make it to page 3 — into works like Spinoza’s Ethics, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and Heidegger’s Being and Time. Most of Plato outside of the shorter dialogues is a tough slog and Aristotle even harder. Hegel and Wittgenstein I’ve given up on. The Pragmatists are more approachable, but I still find myself just wanting a précis or a book about them so that I don’t have to bother reading what they actually wrote.

I wonder if this is why Existentialism became so popular. I do like reading Kierkegaard and Nietzsche most of the time, and Dostoyevsky and Camus were first-rate novelists. I read all these guys, and Sartre, because I enjoy them. The rest of the philosophical tradition comes to me by way of the aforementioned general histories and listening to lectures.

Some of this might be a temperamental difference. I didn’t care about literary theory or the philosophy of language when I was at school, and I still don’t. I found most of it both impenetrable and, what was even worse, irrelevant to any deeper understanding of the literature I was studying. But I do find broader questions about subjects like ethics and epistemology interesting. I’m at least curious about a lot of what philosophy does, or used to do.

I’m left to wonder though if I’m really missing anything by just reading summaries of these other major works rather than trying to engage with them directly. I think anyone who tries to get by reading a summary (most likely a Wikipedia page) on Paradise Lost is never going to understand the poem at all. Is the same the case with not reading Quine?

This is a question that bothers me a bit, but at this point I just have to accept that I’ve given up on reading much philosophy. I’m going to have to engage with these thinkers second-hand. Maybe I wasn’t smart enough to figure them out on their own terms. Maybe I don’t have the attention span necessary to follow them (I like to browse Schopenhauer’s aphorisms, but have never tackled The World as Will and Idea). Or maybe philosophers just can’t express themselves clearly enough, or in a way that’s interesting enough, to make me want to pursue them any further. Life is short, and getting shorter all the time.

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