Why I reflect on conspiratorial thinking

I’ve written quite a bit here about conspiracy theories and the sort of thinking that leads to and reinforces them. It might seem like I’m just patting myself on the back, admiring myself in the mirror. “Look at me. Yay me! Thank you so much, O Lord, that I’m not like that ridiculous, pathetic little tax collector over there.”

I don’t want to defend myself too strenuously. I’ve had to fight actively against the temptation to be prideful since childhood, and I have no doubt that there may be an element of that still haunting my musings about the thought processes at work behind conspiracy theories. But I can confidently say that at the very least, that’s not my whole motivation. Certainly, that’s not the most important or valuable element of it.

My mindset is something much closer to, “There but by the grace of God go I.” I see myself reflected back at me in all the friends I see conspiratorial thinking in. The sorts of people who think like this are more similar to me than are most of the people who oppose them. I recognize many of the ways I have thought and talked, even in relatively recent years, in their positions and arguments.

Sometimes, observing a vicious person can be as much of an inspiration to self-improvement as observing a virtuous person. Seeing your own vices reflected back to you in a slightly more advanced form, or in a situation that emphasizes their destructive consequences, can be a real wake-up call.

As I’ve been reflecting on the problems revealed in the thinking of a conspiratorial view of the world, I’ve necessarily been re-examining the ways I myself think. It’s a natural thing to do; as we articulate the problems with another person’s thought process, we can’t help scouring our own convictions to see if we’re leaving ourselves open to being called a hypocrite, or if we’re taking away the argumentative foundation for some cherished belief of our own.

This exercise, over the past couple years, has been genuinely useful to myself. I get to see how people with similar views to my own, who are certainly not complete fools, manage to fool themselves into believing obvious absurdities while convincing themselves they’re the wisest people in the room. It really has changed the way I think about and justify my own conclusions, which improves me, not just in the present, but even more in view of the future, when I could use similar fallacies and mistakes to let myself be carried into self-destructive falsehoods, as has happened for me in small ways in the past.

I wonder if these mistaken tendencies often start off innocently enough. We take an argument that we know is flawed, and we embrace it in a spirit of good humour. “This will make my ideological opponents soil themselves in anger. Isn’t this funny?” And it becomes an argument we can laugh about with our friends and deploy against our enemies, and it doesn’t convince any opponents but that doesn’t matter since I wasn’t having any success convincing those folks anyway. And then very slowly, over the course of months and years, that little joke grows up to be a monster. Better to uproot such things now, before they have a chance to grow up and hurt us and our loved ones, wherever we might reside on the ideological continuum.

Rationalizations for the truth are a barrier to truth

I’ve noticed an annoying tendency in myself.

Often, I slowly work my way to a conviction about something. It might take years of gradually moving from a solid starting point to a conclusion that is uncomfortable or challenging to accept, and then from there to the next one, and so on.

What I find is that because the conviction took such a long time to build up to, I will forget the complex process of reasoning that took me from beginning to end. Where did I start? Which options did I consider, which did I eliminate and for what reasons, which did I accept at each stage of the process and for what reasons?

What I am left with instead is a belief in a thing, and a strong sense that it is a thing I have thought through carefully and have very good evidence for, so long as I don’t examine it too closely.

This is where the self-deception enters in. My brain looks for and seizes upon reasons, or better to say rationalizations, for the conclusion. Here’s a simple and straightforward and plausible argument for my conclusion. That must be why I believe it! And it must be a very powerful argument, since I know in my gut that my reasons for believing the conclusion are excellent, and obviously this argument has been the reason all along.

The thing is, even if the conclusion I’ve arrived at is true, such a way of thinking is likely to blind me to the best arguments for it, by substituting in weaker and easier arguments and investing them with an emotional impression of solidity.

This tendency has been present in me for a long time, I think, probably as far back as I can remember. But I’ve only recently become aware of it and become able to articulate it coherently.

I think there are two advantages which enabled me to see this tendency which my brain tries very hard to hide from itself. One is that I have worked my way to a nuanced and unconventional set of conclusions. I listen to progressives share their thoughts and I’m repulsed, and I listen to rightwing racism or conspiracy theorizing or libertarianism and I’m repulsed, and I listen to centrists of various stripes and I’m largely unmoved. I think that if there was an ideological demographic that I could fit into more easily, and if I could hear a variety of different rationalizations from many people who are smarter than I am, it would practically be all but impossible for me to break out of the bubble of rationalizations.

But that’s not enough by itself either. It has been the habit of writing twice a week for a small and invisible audience, clarifying what my convictions are and explaining why I hold them, which has forced me to think through what I believe and why. I remember I had a reason for this conclusion, but now, what was it? It’s been so long.

It is a reminder of how long and difficult is the path to seeking truth, and replacing opinion with knowledge. The project is a great challenge, but the difficulty is part of what makes it so attractive.

Reflections on AI

I’ve been thinking a lot about AI since I first tried having a conversation with ChatGPT in December of 2022.

Nobody knows for sure what the future holds or what place AI will have in it all. But I have a few guesses, because I can’t help trying to figure it out as well as I can.

My first guess is about the timeline. I’m guessing that for the first half decade there will be a lot of people talking about AI, thinking about AI, worrying about it, exulting over it, showing off cool tricks, but that it will not go much further than that. The force of inertia is a powerful thing; a body at rest etc. Most of us will mostly keep doing the same things we’ve been doing, sometimes with some AI-enhanced assistance. There’s also a lot of learning, tweaking, developing that needs to happen in these first few years. Scammers will get a bit more sophisticated and will have better grammar, but we’ll also get more sophisticated at spotting AI generated scams. We’ll be cautious to rely on AI too much, and rightly so considering some of its current limitations. So, no big changes. Something akin to what the past half a year has seen.

Years 6-10 will I think start to see bigger shifts. A lot of the bugs will have been worked out, and AI will have grown considerably more powerful. People will find ways to use AI that will save lots of money and be far more effective compared to human employees, and any businesses or governments that don’t adopt these emerging uses of AI will be working at a huge disadvantage. A great many jobs will evaporate, and I don’t really know where the workers will be relocated to. Many doctors could even possibly begin to be replaced, and lawyers, and teachers, and civil servants. Think of the public apprehension such changes could inspire.

I think years 11-20 is where we could see a real social transformation, though. There will be big economic questions confronting us, such as how to tax AI “workers” and how government will support what could be a growing unemployed demographic. There will probably be moral and legal questions about the personhood of artificial intelligences and their rights. There will be big questions about the use of AI in governments.

I think in some ways we’ll effectively begin to be governed by AI, at least to a point. Political campaigns will have their strategies, their slogans, their campaign promises, their policy proposals, their news releases and political speeches suggested and then written by AI. Sitting politicians will likewise come to rely on it. This could conceivably be a very good thing, although it’s not hard to imagine scenarios where it could just as plausibly be very bad.

I think the confluence of AI and robotics technology will lead to many jobs being permanently lost. At some point, probably within our lifetimes, if progress continues, it is not hard to imagine the robotic economy becoming self-sustaining; if humans continue to hold consequential positions within the way the world is run at that point, it will not be because we are needed in those positions but chiefly because we will want to have redundant safeguards against AIs being able to decide (or to be manipulated in some way) to do something that’s not in our best interest.

I also think it’s absurdly shortsighted to say, as some are saying, that human-generated artistic and intellectual content will continue to be meaningfully different from and preferable to AI -generated works of art and entertainment and scholarship. That will certainly be true for a time. But I’d guess that within two decades (and possibly much sooner), the advantage will turn decisively toward the AI. Imagine a future Netflix where the AI generates a movie never before seen by human eyes, tailored to your history of personal preferences and the mood or desires you express in the moment. The Netflix homepage will have a list of boxes to check and sliders to move, and you can tell it exactly what sort of movie you feel like watching, and how long, and you can be as specific or as vague as you want to be, and it will come up with its best guess at what you will enjoy watching. If, as you watch, you start to feel less enthusiastic about the way the movie is going, you will hit the space bar and the direction of the plot will change. Or if there’s something in particular that you want to adjust in the movie, you might hit the space bar twice and then type an instruction into the dialogue box that’ll open and the movie will seamlessly go on with the requested changes.

Likewise, rather than searching for academic papers that have been written, you’ll be able to generate a brand new perfectly argued and sourced scholarly article on any topic, that you can then cite with an easy link.

Early on, these sorts of things will be a novelty and people will try to come up with all sorts of weird and awful movies and essays etc, just because they suddenly can. Eventually, though, it’ll just be how we entertain ourselves and how we learn or argue.

This isn’t the full extent of my guesses, but these are some of the big ones that come to mind offhand. Perhaps if I think of more later I may soon do a follow-up to this post.

How to deal with expert consensus

I realized recently that there are two main ways of rejecting what expert consensus seems to recommend. One option can be really interesting and worthwhile, and the other is almost always a waste of time.

Let’s start with the latter. The wrong way of rejecting expert consensus is just by saying that the experts are wrong, from a standpoint of non-expertise. This can often take the form of saying, “I’m aware of one or two or three studies [and, by implication, unaware of all the others], or of one or two or three experts, and what I hear from them confirms what I want to believe, so I feel justified in rejecting whatever I don’t want to believe.”

That’s just not a smart way of determining what we should believe, and it will certainly not be an effective way of convincing anyone who doesn’t want to be convinced. By that standard, everyone can be justified in believing virtually anything we might want to. In other words, by choosing this as our standard, we are replacing the possibility of a quest for truth with the sheer assertion of will.

The problem is that we aren’t in a better position to judge those studies or those experts than is the community of people who have been studying the topic at a high level for a lifetime. If we think that we are, then we’ve just made a very elementary and embarrassing mistake. That’s not to say that such bets will never turn out to be correct! Maybe in the long run the side we’re hoping is correct will actually turn out to be correct. But when that happens, it won’t be because we knew better than all the experts did. It will be nothing but luck which will have placed us on the winning side. We’re just as likely to get the right result if we picked our decision based on our horoscope or based on a dice roll. If we want to be on the side with the best evidence as it currently stands, we should always lean to the side of the expert consensus.

So then, what’s the other option? To me, this is where things get interesting. What we can do is accept the testimony of the knowledgeable, and then ask in what different ways we can act on that consensus. Usually, if we reject what the experts are saying, it’s less because of our allegiance to some vision of the truth than because we don’t like the practical implications that seem to follow from it. By rejecting the facts we don’t like, we can reject the actions we don’t want to take. But instead of willfully rejecting the facts, we can re-examine the apparent connection between the facts and the consequent actions.

The question of climate change is a good example. People who really don’t want to have to pay a gas tax, or who really don’t want to see the oil industry hurting, might just say that climate change is a big hoax, and damn whatever the supposed experts all want to say. There’s no way to have much of an intelligent or productive conversation with people who approach things in this way.

But we can have some interesting conversations, on the other hand, if we first all accept that to the best of our current knowledge, human-driven climate change is a fact and it will have damaging effects on the world and on society as it now exists. Having accepted a common starting point, then we can disagree on what to do about it. There are a great many economists who accept climate change as a reality but don’t accept that there is a simultaneous imperative to halt climate change as fast as humanly possible no matter the cost. They would have us invest our resources instead in a way that might be more realistic. If we devoted part of our efforts to replacing current technologies with existing greener alternatives, as the environmentalists advocate, that could be worthwhile, they say; but we can also devote some of our resources to trying to curb the harms climate change will bring about (eg by moving people away from coasts, further inland), and some to developing even more advanced technologies that might be able to make a bigger difference in the future when we need it. This is more likely to succeed, and will bring about better outcomes for humanity, they think, than just by trying as hard as we can to hit the brakes on carbon right away.

Are they right? I’m not qualified to judge. But I know that is a much more interesting and worthwhile conversation, and is much more likely to help us think about the things that need consideration.

Kids and screens

I think that it is a bad or even very bad idea to give kids (and most of us adults too, for that matter) unfettered access to the internet and to the electronic tools that are available. We’re more likely to waste our time on games and amusements that do not improve us and that distract us from more important things.

However, there are also resources there that are available that can be a huge help to us in learning and in bettering ourselves. The trick is directing our time and attention toward the good things and away from the bad.

I have two toddlers with no screens of their own to use. At this point it is very easy for me to decide on their behalf which things they will have access to when they use a screen, since they use my screen and I am present the whole time they use it. As they get older, I’m sure I’ll need to find more sophisticated ways of limiting their access.

I’ve begun trying to let my older child use some apps that I think will help him learn age-appropriate skills, and while most of the resources aren’t that great, a couple have really impressed me.

One is a Duolingo for Kids app. It actually has nothing to do with learning a second language — it’s all about learning letters and sounds and words, and beginning to develop some reading comprehension. I’ve needed to help my three-year-old out with some of the lessons, suggesting that there are gaps in the curriculum that ought to be filled in. Still, overall it has been amazingly effective for helping him begin to sound out syllables and recognize words.

When we reached the end of what he could do in the Duolingo Kids app, I began looking for what he could do next. That’s when I discovered how many apps that are highly praised seem not to be great for him, at least at his current level of ability. But I have found one that I think will carry him along a bit further.

The second app that I’ve just started using with him is Khan Kids. There is a section with logic, memory and pattern games, which seems to be perfect for his current abilities.

I dream of continuing to have fun with him on apps of this sort, trying to find a path through different apps to the point where he will have attained a good enough level of literacy and numeracy to begin to benefit from more advanced resources. As we continue to progress, I’ll keep you posted on what I find.

Bronze Age Exotericism

There’s a book that was published, I believe, about half a decade ago, that has become a sort of cult classic within the online far right, and has been justly condemned everywhere else. Straussians are not its exoteric audience, but the pseudonymous author is, allegedly, a Straussian himself, or is at least someone who was deeply and extensively formed within the Straussian tradition of thought. I first encountered the book a couple years ago and have been reflecting on it again recently. Several other Straussians have already offered their thoughts on the book, often quite insightfully (and not always approvingly), but there were a couple things that stood out to me about the book that were not as clearly expressed by those reviewers.

I take an interest in the book since, although I have much to say about my frustration with the inexcusable conspiratorial and crypto-racist thinking which is too often characteristic of rightwing politics today (q.v. here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), there are aspects of the book that are clearly relevant to a political question I’ve been trying to think through for some time now (e.g. here, and also here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

If we are trying to be good Straussian readers, we may begin with the surface. The book in question, as a whole, forcefully articulates the quintessence of conspiratorial thought. There are shadowy figures in power, those true rulers that hide behind elected leaders and business tycoons, tirelessly working to fill our minds with enervating deceptions, desiring that we be weak and easily satisfied, who are themselves motivated by no desire for wealth or fame but only by a desire to impose their biologically determined brand of mediocrity on humanity as widely as possible, making the mere defence of normalcy a duty of strong and clearsighted readers. The book sets forth no particular conspiracy theory for the reader to accept; rather, it is general enough that, once accepted, it can accommodate and invigorate any readers who are already convinced of one conspiracy theory or another. And those readers who do not yet subscribe to any particular conspiracy theory, but who exist in the grey zone where such theories could appear plausible or somehow attractive, are drawn by this book further down the rabbit hole. In short, the entire range of rightwing conspiracy theorists, and also of potential rightwing conspiracy theorists, makes up the exoteric audience of the book.

What is the message which the book presents to that audience? It is fundamentally an exhortation to virtue, to a piratical, militaristic, manly virtue. Be strong, be beautiful, be swaggering, be skillful in the ways of war and propaganda. When the moment is right, seize control of political power so that your virtue might radiate out to all the weak and directionless drones of modern society, who secretly, perhaps unknowingly, long to worship and to follow one such as you. This is a welcome message to a conspiratorial audience, many of whom are already convinced of the wisdom of forming small military brotherhoods to prepare for (or work toward) the sudden collapse of our civilization.

It may seem strange to say that the author is exoterically doing something as unexceptional as telling conspiracy theorists to act like conspiracy theorists. It is no more strange, however, than Spinoza telling liberal Christians to be liberal Christians, or Locke telling the commercial class that unlimited acquisitiveness is their duty, in societies where such views were not already taken for granted. Our book is not only telling conspiracy theorists to be conspiracy theorists, but is also counselling them how, by being true to the best part of who they already are, they might one day take their rightful place as lords.

In order to be confident that this exoteric project has a chance of success, the author has fascinatingly taken up the proven Cartesian/Hobbesian strategy of founding a fresh dogmatism upon a newly unearthed skepticism. He does so, this time around, by making use of a skepticism that manages to undercut even the older modern foundation, and which hearkens back in some ways to that distrust of authoritative teaching which was present in the first beginnings of philosophy itself. Distrust whatever you have not witnessed directly, the author instructs the conspiracy theorists and potential conspiracy theorists, who are of course again the ideal audience to receive this lesson. Be ready to distrust what you are told, all of it, even about history and geography, about who holds political power, and about what modern science has supposedly discovered. Everything is questionable but your experience. Who could possibly shake the convictions of a person who adopts this starting point? Indeed, who has ever succeeded in convincing conspiracy theorists to trust in something they have decided to suspect?

The thing that makes the teaching still more potent is the possibility that there is a grain of validity present in the paranoia of its audience. I cannot help thinking of Strauss’s comments about the militaristic young German nihilists who preceded the Second World War. Strauss knew well the faults of their thinking, but he also recognized the legitimate concerns underlying their passion, their concerns rooted in the difference between the closed and open society, concerns which are continuous with those that our book taps into.

One prominent Straussian reviewer has complained that the blueprint of the proposed new political regime is far from clear in the book; the author later replied with a note that communicated, if I remember correctly, something along the lines of, well that’s not really a fair criticism, how could I be expected to spell it all out, such wasn’t the point of my book after all. I have to say, however, that to my mind, the outline of the new regime shows itself in the book more than has been allowed for.

Let’s begin by thinking about the new ruling class, since, as we know, “The politeia is . . . the factual distribution of power within the community.” Who will rule? It will be not, as now, the commercial and industrial elite, nor, as per classical political philosophy’s prescription, the landed gentry; the new rulers will be, quite clearly, the dominant warriors or the commanders of the (reformed) military, those who have most faithfully conformed themselves to the book’s exhortation.

By itself this is a somewhat vague and formless vision, if we stop short of saying anything about the warriors except that they are warriors—but even just this much could serve as the basis of a valid description of a regime from the classical standpoint. Still, the author does not stop there. The way in which the book is itself written begins to direct us toward an understanding of the educations of the people of the new regime, that is, the education of the vulgar and the education of elites. If we think of how a society shaped by those inspired by this book would raise its young, we get a valuable glimpse of the new political order proposed in the book.

Take the vulgar or religious education first: the indoctrination into the myths of the city. The faith of the new regime will be, as the author indicates, one that is appropriately proportioned to the skepticism of its origin. It will be a creed more primal and human and inescapable than even the Savoyard Vicar could manage, an inborn catechism which can be taught simply by never habituating it out of a child in the first place. The religion would have as its basis a kind of instinctive animism or nature mysticism which emerges as the overflow of a rich emotional life. It is a religion that accepts more than base materialism but which is at the same time reflexively horrified by any suggestion of a conceptual separation between soul and body. Out of this first faith, there next appears hero worship, directed toward the greatest warriors and the greatest beauties, and also a modest doctrine of reincarnation that is morally much closer to Nietzsche’s eternal return of the same, than to anything that would smack of karma or theodicy. This cave is a realm of myth and splendour and magic; science and technology will present themselves as “big magic,” but by the same token, not as the totality of magic. The world here will be re-enchanted.

This version of faith, if accepted, will effectively undo the Enlightenment work of making fear of violent death the strongest passion. We need not fear death because, though our memories may vanish, our selves will live on for as long as there is humankind. We will not desire a long life so much as a glorious death at the height of our powers.

What of the education of the elites? Most obviously, there will be a martial character to their upbringing. They will train to become physically fit, powerful and graceful and quick. They will study combat sports and survivalism. This regimen is not the end of their preparation, however.

Think of the texts invoked by the author to justify, defend, clarify, and beautify his political vision. By firing the convictions and imaginations of his readers in this way, he implicitly predicts or counsels that those same sorts of texts may come to serve as the core of an elite education in the new order. In other words, our author has not strayed so very far from his Straussian roots here: the education of the elites is to be a Great Books program, particularly saturated with selections from classical literature and the books of the philosophers. The educational texts will of course be largely chosen and interpreted to promote piratical virtue. As in Strauss’s project, here also such an education would form the elites to rule, and may simultaneously serve as a preparation for those who will later be able to graduate into a life of philosophy.

Another undoing of modernity implicit in this work is the replacement of rational law with a kind of natural law. The virtue praised is not a morality of negotiated contractual obligations but of fidelity to the character of human nature, which has never changed since before there were records and which is or will be confirmed by the discoveries of biological science. By extension, what holds the community together and fuels it is not, as in modernity, a collection of carefully crafted institutions which could make a functional state out of the most degraded population: no, it is nothing else but a common life built around the pursuit and attainment of virtue, of piratical virtue.

There will also be a place, if a lower place, for math, science and engineering in this education, which is entirely fitting, since, as we are plausibly told, true mathematical or scientific genius is much closer to the experience of the mystic than of the factory worker. A political community that prizes military dominance can hardly, of course, allow other communities to gain too much of a technological advantage. It is too late to reverse the technological momentum of modernity, and yet it seems as though this reality may not need to be an insuperable obstacle to those who wish to replace modernity with something thoroughly unmodern.

The author, in calling us to cast off the failings of modernity in favour of ancient glories but without fully being able to jettison the political situation of modernity, stands in the tradition of thinkers like Rousseau, Burke, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Strauss himself. Many (if not all) of these sought to overcome modernity by appealing to some strand within modern thought, and thereby their legacy ended up intensifying, rather than weakening, the modern situation which they had rightly decried.

As Straussians, we can’t avoid asking after the philosophical class’s interests. What is to be the place of a philosopher in this world of beauty and might? Recall that the golden age of Kronos itself will not be called happy until we have learned whether the people of that epoch philosophized. Certainly, any philosophers in the proposed regime will not be its rulers. That is no argument against it, considering that the classical thinkers themselves never considered the direct rule of philosophers to be a serious political possibility. However, there is perhaps a case to be made that the philosophers would be very well served by this political arrangement all the same. After all, the author might ask us, what lover of philosophy could be opposed to a regime that strains to revive the sort of world which produced Heraclitus and Socrates? And indeed, we must admit that in our own day, the Venn diagram of those who want to engage with classical philosophy as a living possibility on the one hand, and of those who are predisposed to entertain conspiracy theories on the other, does seem to have a depressingly large area of overlap.

We must come at last, then, to the question of adjudication. It seems to me that the most decisive objection to this new politics, from a Straussian standpoint, is the reality that it is generally preferable to “let sleeping dogs lie,” to minimize changes to any political situation that is not incontrovertibly intolerable. We can all agree that problems abound in the modern world, but political stability is always a higher priority than haste toward reform.

The book suggests a line of defence against this objection. What if we were to ask ourselves: is it reasonable to expect that military coups will become the normal way of things in the developed world in the next few decades, with or without this book’s help? The author indicates that this is his view, and if he is correct, then he is, not inciting an unnecessary riot, but only seeking to ride and direct, as well as possible, the coming revolution which will smash whatever stands against it. I can understand why he might think that such is the destination our world is rapidly and inevitably sliding toward. He may well be correct in his prediction that thumos is on the verge of breaking free and gaining ascendancy within the world of last men, a prediction echoing Strauss’s explanation of what would certainly happen upon the actualization of a universal and homogeneous state.

However, the attempt to preempt such a change strikes me as deeply modern. Until philosophy has become literally impossible, the work of the classical political philosopher that Strauss praised is to seek to improve the existing order in whatever ways it is susceptible of improvement; and after philosophy has become impossible, there is of course no more political responsibility attaching to a philosopher, until the situation will have changed to render philosophy possible once more, not through the efforts of philosophers but by the decisive action of the bold and indomitable souls of that age.

This book’s exotericism, in other words, is a modern, propagandistic sort of exotericism, just as we saw a reworking of the modern plan of a skeptically grounded dogmatism in the book’s rhetorical strategy. The book is anti-modern political goals packaged in a modern political plan. Its premise, questionable in my estimation, is that if we truly wish to be faithful to something other than modernity, the only option for us is to begin by overcoming modernity with its own tools.

I keep coming back to the SEP

I keep on thinking that I’ve moved beyond the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for one reason or another.

That’s not to say that I’ve stopped reading it. I’ve been in the habit of reading at least one paragraph of it per day for the last couple years, and it’s been good.

But I do go through phases where I feel like I have less enthusiasm about it. Somehow I feel like there are more valuable texts for me to focus on, which in some ways is no doubt true.

And yet, I keep on coming back to it. It is just such a fantastic resource.

Someday, through the combination of long years and dogged persistence, I hope to have read through and mastered all the primary and secondary sources referred to in the SEP articles that interest me — or even, if I’m feeling ambitious and very hopeful, in all the SEP articles full stop.

And yet, that goal is a long way off, and it may be so far off in the future that I will never catch up to it.

In the meantime, the SEP is so great for providing an overview and a foretaste of the things contained in those sources. It begins to remedy some of the greatness of my ignorance, and perhaps more importantly, it helps me begin to understand the contours of my ignorance.

If I read, for instance, the article on metaphysics, I won’t have become an expert on the state of the discussion of metaphysics, even if it takes me a tiny step closer to that goal. I will, however, have a much better sense of the discussions in the field of metaphysics that I would need to become familiar with before I could come anywhere close to considering myself an expert. Becoming aware of the areas of one’s ignorance is the unavoidable condition for being able to begin to remedy that ignorance.

By no means is the SEP the be-all and end-all of philosophic learning. But for the very long and arduous path that is philosophic learning, it is an invaluable early stepping-stone along the way.

A reading programme idea

I have an idea for a reading programme that I think will broaden my knowledge of different literatures and philosophies very rapidly. I’m excited about it, even though I doubt I will have a chance to try it in the next year or two.

First let me give a bit of background. I’ve read a fair bit about the history of philosophy, and several years ago I did a deep dive into the history of philosophy, trying to start at the beginning and read as many major works as I could from as many major thinkers as I could, from the Socratics all the way down to Heidegger.

Furthermore, I’m currently trying to read through all of Leo Strauss’s published work, a project that I’m about halfway through currently and which I don’t want to abandon before finishing. I hope also to be a full time graduate student in philosophy either this year or the following year, which will temporarily take away much of my ability to choose what I will spend my time reading.

However, once I’m in a place to do so, I want to start jumping around. I want to choose and read through one major work from one major thinker from ancient Greece, and to read it thoroughly, taking careful notes. After that, I will aim to choose and read through one major work from, let’s say late antiquity. And then one Latin work from the Middle Ages, and then one medieval Arabic work. And then one early modern work, and then one from German idealism, and then one modern continental book, and then one from the modern analytic school. Maybe I’ll fit in a couple others along the way.

And then once I’ve done that, I’ll go back to the beginning and choose a different work from Greek antiquity, and then I’ll go through the sequence again, choosing new books.

And then I can continue jumping around in that fashion for as long as I like.

One benefit of proceeding in this way is that I will see works from different periods lined up right beside each other, which will help me see not merely the stylistic differences between them but also the substantial differences, which are often much more challenging to puzzle out, given the different ways that words are used and the different dividing lines that are employed.