The Accessibility of Philosophy

1. At Barnes & Noble today. It looked trashed from holiday shopping. There wasn’t much left on the Philosophy shelves. Very few volumes of Nietzsche or Plato; couldn’t even find a copy of “Twilight and Philosophy” (my favorite book, besides this).

The store was also reorganized. Philosophy was back in a corner that it took me a little while to find. I realize fully that sales have always been hard to come by. I imagine most of us have put our private collections together through a combination of “needed it for class,” Amazon, university presses, used bookshops.

But it didn’t take long for it to dawn on me that if the basic titles aren’t in print, philosophy as a discipline is going to have some serious issues. For myself: how can I write on philosophy if my readers can’t get access to the primary sources?

2. Ah, but one can say the issue isn’t accessibility. We have the web, where most of these works are public domain. Anyone interested probably will take a class and have an anthology which will contain a number of works. And there are online book retailers selling many works very cheaply. Heck, the philosophy major has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts. What’s the problem?

The problem is that none of that, strictly speaking, is the accessibility anyone needs for study. I loved Barnes and Noble and Borders when I first found them, because the public libraries with which I am familiar, for the most part, are full of crap. Nearly everything there is mass-market fiction: we’re not talking Vonnegut. The store I went to today has philosophy shelves. The public library nearest me, last I checked, pretty much has a philosophy shelf.

That’s not to say the library doesn’t have some virtues or some hidden gems. Rosen’s book on Plato’s Symposium is there. I could spend months with that. Last time I looked, he had tucked away in there a few pages interpreting Prometheus Bound.

Let’s say, though, I do as I was planning to the other day and write up a little something on Heidegger’s reading of Parmenides and Heraclitus. That would involve quoting heavily from “Four Seminars,” where Heidegger does his unconventional reading of Greek and argues they are both the same. Obviously, I can’t expect a bookstore or public library nowadays to have this on hand so someone can peruse it. However, that puts me in the ridiculous position of writing a more or less specialized secondary source which will be found far more easily than the primary source.

Do I have to start linking to primary sources when I write? If the shelves laid waste and thrown in the back of the store are an indication, yes, and we’re not talking about “Four Seminars” here. Where am I going to be able to link to those primary sources? 90% of the good translations with notes are for purchase only. What’s going to happen when a good copy of the Republic can’t be found immediately? We need our students to see things like the Cave for themselves: there are a million little details hiding that only the most detailed, over-exhaustive account could hope to convey the import of. It’s up to a serious student of philosophy to figure out for themselves what details they want to focus on.

3. Accessibility for the study of philosophy means quality and on demand. A translation of Plato from 1910 with no notes is not acceptable. I need the notes telling me about the Greek and the culture and I’ve been doing this for years. A student of philosophy needs to be able to access good primary sources fairly quickly, especially in this environment where the discussion is lively and thorough. You don’t read philosophy for class ultimately. You do it because there are serious people, past and present, who seem to have had serious thoughts and you want to think them through and see if they’re any good.

We’re going to need to figure something out. We can’t just insist everyone get a Kindle or buy Hackett editions. I suspect we’re going to have to dump a ton of quality primary sources online somehow. One other thing about philosophy: it may involve leisure, but it doesn’t exclude poverty. Poorer students, poorer people deserve the access to thinkers like Hume, Xenophon & Montesquieu, access people like Madison and Jefferson had. Asking them to learn Greek or French to make some sense of what’s online isn’t right. My feeling about all this: the business of academia has conspired with our populist, commercial tendencies to keep ideas which changed the world away from the people who most need the world to change.

1 Comment

  1. Let’s open source this. Many of those works *are* in the public domain, and I can very well imagine a wiki-like approach to building a corpus of more obscure works with commentary.

    If someone is interested in this project …

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