If I'm a smart person, why can't I understand philosophy?

Hi, all.

I’m serious. I can write PDP-8 Assembler. Besides English and computer languages, I speak two languages and can limp around in several others, including Russian and Japanese. I understand a pretty decent amount of liturgical Latin and liturgical Hebrew. Among my other talents is the ability to give a bath to a cat with no injuries inflicted to either party.

But – I don’t get philosophy (or theology, but that might be a horse of a different color). Last night on a re-run of CSI, the head police officer was quoting Jacques Derrida. I looked up Derrida on Wikipedia this morning and was almost immediately flummoxed.

Whenever I try to read philosophy, I keep getting the feeling that I should be able to understand it – but I can’t! Anyone have an explanation? Anyone else have these same feelings? Thanks!

Faulty premise? Just kidding. Can you be more specific about what you don’t understand?

Philosophy is largely written down by impractical misanthropes who live a lonely life picking apart the minutiae of everyday existance.

You might want to pick up some book that will explain the basics of epistemology and ontology to you and outlines the basic schools of philosophy for you.

Derrida as I understand it is a postmodernist, never read his stuff but postmodernism isn’t a good place to begin as it’s often a deconstruction of what can before it.

I don’t understand why you’d have such a problem with philosophy, odds are it has impacted you in ways you don’t understand.

Most of it is incredibly turgid and oftentimes pointless, so that might be part of your problem.

Here’s some light philosophy reading for you. Read the Declaration of Independence, it’s a philosophical manifesto and undergirds the foundation of the United States of America. If you can understand it you can understand philosophy.

Philosophy is very broad, covering any subject from jurisprudence, to critical thought, to appropriate methods for incarceration, to how we use money and even how we use our computers.

Do you think incredibly literally? That might make for a good computer programmer but a poor philosopher as philosophy is often steeped in allegory. When Nietzche talks about Tarantulas he is talking about predatory human beings feeding off of one another.

Well, Derrida is a very difficult place to start. He was willful obscure, and was responding to a very particular set of prior assumptions about the nature of literary experience. If you don’t know the context of what he was trying to do, he’ll be almost incomprehensible. (And will probably be incomprehensible even if you do.)

The tricky thing I think about philosophy is that it often looks like it’s written in plain English but actually many of the words have very specific meanings that are different in significant ways from how they’re used in casual conversation. So a simple word like “intention” or “text” may have a very different meaning than you think it does. But because it’s not clearly a bit of technical jargon like “bandwidth” or “latency” you may not realize that you don’t understand the terms.

This is a very good book. Scruton is a witty and engaging writer who explains trends in “modern” (i.e. post renaissance) philosophy for the general intelligent reader. He’s aware of his own biases and always gives the other side it’s due.

This is a helpful historical survey, also well written non-technical and engaging.

You don’t understand Derrida because he’s not writing to be understood. Would only that it were a question of jargon and technicalities.

I would start with the two books above, then go to the greeks and work your way forward, always bearing in mind that a given philosopher is a creature of his (until recently almost always his) time.

I am good friends with many philosophers, and this is just ignorant.

You also underestimate computer programmers.

right brain, left brain, no brain.

philosophers are just out to impress or confuse people, seems that both are equally valuable to some of them.

your noodle can only do so much and that isn’t one of them.

my question is, why is a smart person watching CSI?

Not true.

You could also see if your library has [philosopher] in 90 minutes by Paul Strathern. You may be able to find them as books on CD, too. They’re avaliable for Aristotle, Plato, Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Machiavelli . . . etc. etc. . . . Bertrand Russel, and, yes, Derrida.

They’re easy reads and provide historical perspective on the philosophers’ thoughts and personal perspective on their lives. Not an in depth study, but a good place to start.

The only things that are important to understand about philosophy are formal logic and epistemology. And if you can write software, you can understand that stuff fairly easily.

The rest is just self-important jerks arguing about inconsequential bullshit because they have nothing better to do.

more clearly i should have stated ‘some philosophers’ at the start, which is what i intended and did address it to ‘some’ at the end of the sentence. i absolutely never intend to make absolute statements, that is not good philosophically.

You might want to have a look at Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy:


or Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy.

Both good introductions to the major philosophers, in chronological order. I’ve read both of these.

One that I haven’t read (but which I felt certain MUST exist) is Philosophy for Dummies. I looked it up, and damned if it doesn’t exist:

I’d recommend it, but that would give the impression that I thought you are a dummy, which I don’t. But it might be a fun read.

Hi, all.

Hey, thanks for all the tips!

One person asked what a smart person was doing watching CSI. Laurence Fishburne. But almost anyone would have enjoyed the re-run I saw last evening – their tribute to all of us creaky old fans of Star Trek TOS.

Seriously, though, I appreciate the tips. One thing that has always bugged me about philosophy is that as I understand it, philosophers provide society with visions of the ideal, and “without a vision the people perish”. Many disciplines have a rhythm that a person can catch. I’ve just never been able to catch the rhythm of any sort of philosophy. Maybe it’s not too late, though.

I am basically in the same situation as the OP. I took philosophy 101 in college and that was the end of it for me. It was all bizarre word games. The one thing my friends and I all agree on is that we have never met a philosophy major that we liked even though that doesn’t apply to any other subject (there must be some likable ones out there though). I have no idea what is going on in that subject and I tried hard.

Well philosophy is not exact?

A computer language is pretty exact, if it isn’t you don’t get the correct results. Same with languages, if you speak incorrectly you’ll be corrected or misunderstood.

Philosophy is ancient, remember in the old days people had nothing to do with their time. There was no TV, no radio, pretty much nothing. Before urbanization, there weren’t even a lot of people around.

So people were more apt to sit around and think about things.

The probable reason you can’t understand it, is because it doesn’t interest you enough to devote enough time to learning it. I don’t mean that as a rap, I mean if you were forced to learn it you probably could.

I just remembered a book I read years ago.

Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. It is a history of philosophy (that is, an outline of major concepts) in novel form.

IIRC, I read it during my 4th year as a philosophy major, and I enjoyed it greatly.

Even though I’ll defend philosophers, I totally agree that the vast majority of philosophy majors (i.e., undergrads) are totally insufferable. I sure was.

And I can only imagine how terrible various Philosophy 101 classes are. I was lucky enough to have been advised to only take the joint grad/undergrad courses when I took Philosophy courses. Much less inanity there.

I highly recommend 30-Second Philosophies. Each entry even has something like a 5-second summary that really dumbs things down.

I’m sort of surprised by all the philosophy bashing. I have met a few obnoxious philosophy majors in my time (especially in their first year), but I think philosophers are and have always been vital to an evolving society.

You are good friends with many philosophers? Really? I don’t mean philosophy majors I mean philosophers, like Kant, Aristotle, Nietzche. The great philosophers were quite often loners. For every one Liebniz who was a social butterfly there are ten Spinozas, Newtons, Thoreaus, &c.

There is actually a reason why that kind of scholarship tends toward loneliness, it’s hard to maintain a relationship when obsessing about some esoteric minutiae for two months straight. The truly great philosophers are remembered because they did little else.

You’re right, there are plenty of dillentantes out there who consider themselves philosophers and I am sure that many of them are not misanthropic. And also there are the occasional philosophers who are remembered and yet were not misanthropes. If I am not mistaken Voltaire was a man about town.

No I don’t. I was asking him a question, not assigning him characteristics.

I seriously doubt that. Anyone who would be comparable to the philosophers of the past would probably eschew TV and other such distractions today. And back in the day people were inundated with family and other people. I seriously doubt people were more apt to be philosophical in an age where by and large the vast majority of people were entirely illiterate.