Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Gass on Philosophy

Here, by the way, is an extended excerpt from the Believer interview with William H. Gass, on the pleasures of reading philosophy, which I quoted briefly from in my last post (italics in original):
Philosophy has a great sort of appeal in terms of an artistic or aesthetic organization of concepts. It also leads, in some cases, to writing which is exceptionally interesting. I’m thinking, say, of somebody who’s very technical in a way, like [German philosopher Gottlob] Frege. And he’s writing on the foundations of arithmetic. Beautiful, beautiful stuff.

So there’s that part of it. But the world of conceptualized ideas is quite wonderful, even when it’s—-like Aristotle’s Physics—-an outmoded book. The physics is not true. But the reasoning is dazzling. You can learn so much from a book like that about the way a mind might work and should work. I remember reading it for the first time, and it was just extraordinary. When Aristotle is wrong because science has outstripped him, he is so sane given what he has in front of him to work with, that you think, Well. You leave somebody like Plato, whose mind is breathtaking, and you go to Aristotle, who has a very completely different kind of thing, and hasn’t got the style or the panache. And yet, oh, boy, some of the performances are devastatingly wonderful. Same thing with someone like Kant, or Spinoza. And of course one of my favorites, Hobbes. He writes some of the best prose ever. And it isn’t that when one’s appreciating this, you’re just throwing out the aim that they were trying to achieve—to get at the truth. The fact is that even if it isn’t the truth, it’s worth the journey.

One of my favorites is Plotinus, and, you know, I think he’s nuts. [Both laugh] But it’s always gorgeous, and the language is just spectacular. And the same is true of the Tractatus [Logico-Philosophicus, by Ludwig Wittgenstein]. The German is exquisite. So what you’re dealing with is a certain quality of mind. I think it is important to realize when you’re studying philosophy that what you’re getting is not simply that they got it right. What they got right was the going after it and showing you how it works, and imagining this and that. Usually, doing what Emerson suggested: capturing the world as it might seem from one point of view. That tells you a whole lot about that point of view.

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