Reading Ambiguously

Sometimes reading books by great philosophers feels like trying to peruse an algebra problem.

There are words, phrases, sometimes entire passages, the meaning or internal coherence of which is unclear at first.

The temptation will be to assume we know what these things mean, especially if we come to the book with any sort of arrogance or contempt toward the writer, however slight or well-disguised.

Perhaps sometimes having an hypothetical meaning to attach to these ambiguous terms will be unavoidable to some degree, but in that case it will be vitally important to keep in mind that the interpretation is only based on an hypothesis. It is much better, when possible, to leave the meaning open, uncertain, unfilled, for as long as possible.

I think it’s really valuable to read any great piece of philosophy with humility, care, curiosity, generosity, patience. I believe that in the process of reading such a work, it is inestimably beneficial to try to live with ambiguities, without seeking to resolve them too soon.

The meaning of the written work will not disclose itself all at once on a single reading. If it is a great work, by a great thinker, then understanding it will be difficult, if not perhaps impossible, for us later and lesser readers. I’m not saying that a full understanding must be positively impossible, only that we have to stay open to the reality that we may in the end not be sufficient, in ourselves, to think the thoughts of one of these great minds, no matter how hard we try. Indeed, if we don’t begin with that assumption, with that posture, then I think the likelihood of failing to understand actually rises dramatically.

The better we get to know the book, the more we will see what values must go to fill the variables that at first confronted us.

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