Two thoughts on scholarly literature

Concerning the Textbook

Like wikipedia, it is a good sign of a textbook to be uninteresting, yet informative. By uninteresting, I mean that the knowledge within the text can be found in similar books. A textbook on quantum mechanics should contain enough material to teach the basics, or perhaps even the advanced-level nature of the work, but not engage in controversy by means of taking a position that is unique of one against many, or some against others; but to teach the nuts and bolts of a position.

We can learn of a theory without the theorists or the theorising. Such is the work of a textbook.

Two remarks follow from this: firstly, this would mean that the textbook has a priviledged kind of knowledge, a medical textbook is practical to teach someone about a particular area of medicine, perhaps it may contain excercises, or further references. But the textbook, whether good or bad, or whether it has a particular focus or not, is dispensable to other ones. The textbook has a priviledged knowledge insofar as its content is taken fro granted by the experts of the topic. It allows one to learn the established notions, principles, laws, and propositions of a discourse. Nothing contraversial should really be in a textbook, and perhaps, nothing that is brand new (and consequently, contraversial).

I consider this point because I am aware of the Cambridge edition of Kant’s writings, that has been worked on for a long time (by the likes of Paul Guyer, Allen Wood, Henry Allison, Karl Ameriks etc…). Kant scholarship is a dull and painful literature, and Kant’s own writing is all the more painful (but occaisionally fun). Apparently, after the Second World War, there has been the benefit, and the unfortunate situation of both the discovery of hitherto unkown works, and destruction of original and uncategorised texts. One of the texts found is an introductory metaphysics textbook by Baumgarten.

Back in Kant’s day, people were increasingly worried by the increasing uncertainty of philosophy that was put by the very fact of disputation, such as between (in epistemology and metaphyics), empiricist (and largely British) philosophy, against rationalist (and continental) systems of thought. It seems like a common conception of philosophy to see it as disputing what is fundamentally disputable; and as such,  no real certainties can ever come to be. The idea of a ‘textbook’ on metaphysics, therefore, has a lot of redundancy, except, of course, for the teaching of a course, or a specific thinker or issue.


The obvious import of this is the notion of talking about what counts as an accepted scientific theory, or a practice, when teaching to schools. We might, for instance, teach the basics of general relativity to children, due to the large concensus of it; or we may make a pragmatic rationale and teach mechanical physics that is a dummy version of the classical Newtonian programme. What we then find as we come up to learn more about physics, is that the dummy model that we are taught is increasingly wrong, but more subtly expressed. This sounds about right for being a scholar, and marks the difference between knowing enough for application of a theory (when we presuppose something that grounds engineering prospects or software design, for instance), compared to advancing the techniques of the underlying discourse itself.

Concerning public access

As someone who often reads historical philosophy, translation issues are very close to mind. With Nietzsche, for instance, early 20thC translations are influenced by Hegelianism, and the notorious association of being anti-democratic and German during the runup to the two world wars, as well as the influence of some antisemites after the death of Nietzsche. Having a textually sensitive, yet historically accurate, and a secondary concern, readable in the nuances of the langauge of translation.

While there are various trends of late, such as the Gutenberg project, wikitexts, Librivox, and other such public access literature; it is certainly a great thing that the old works can be accessible to the public at large. Books are, in my life, the best kind of friend a person can have, I own very few things (in an attempt to embrace the virtue of poverty [the celebacy ideal failed quite hurrendously]), but the one thing I do hold on to are books. I love used books, I love cheap books, I ADORE free books (which are quite common outside university departments or closing offices!).

On the one hand, its always a best idea to know the original language, and better still, the cultural context. When I read Nietzsche as a teenager, I, with my very intense schooling, was able to understand the very subtle jokes (e.g. “only the English seek happiness” [a comment about ethical theory]), but many references such as these can be missed. When reading Kant, for instance, an understanding of Aristotle can give quite an interesting reading that shows nuanced affinities between the two (such as the notion of the categories [cf. Korner]). On the other hand, it is of great cultural benefit that anyone can have access to the works of the past.

Consider the “New Atheism” for instance, many people think that they have interesting things to say, and yet, have no idea about key works in the history of atheism and secularism, consider for instance, l’Encyclopedie, Hume’s Diaglogues, Montaigne’s Essays, Spinoza’s Political Treatise (which I must say, is the most fascinating and in my view, intuitive and difficult statement of secularism). Those new to atheism, and the intellectual history of it, can easily come to access some of the great works.

From a scholarly point of view, however, there is a necessary elitism about translation issues, and textual issues in interpretation,  that require some serious publishing houses to invest in scholarly work. Open-access literature has its worth, but it is for intellectual tourists at best.

Jonathan Bennett, for instance, has a website with his own translations. I’m a bit torn on whether these are good. While Bennett is a fine scholar (Kant, Hume, Locke, Spinoza), and a philosopher in his own right, he is one of those philosophers who are dismissive or are not keen on playing up the historical issues of exegesis, this is not a bad thing (in some respects it is my favoured writing style of scholarship), but this comes at the cost of appearing ignorant, purposely or unpurposely, to the subtle issues of historical import. The good aspect of the Bennett reading, however, is that it considers philosophical notions in terms of contemporary (and thus more strict and critical) standards. Bennett as a translator seems an unusual choice, given his particular angle. Some of his translations on Kant make me somewhat uncomfortable, but then again, I can only seem to get into the unreadable (and thus accurate to the German) translations.


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