The Differential

This morning in my philosophy of religion class, I lectured over Spinoza and then gave them a fairly frank answer for why we weren’t reading him in the class: I find him much more interesting to read about than to directly read. I’ve worked my way through the Ethics and actually studied the Theologico-Political Treatise in some detail, but I can never quite work up the enthusiasm for Spinoza that you see in Negri, for instance. Given the very real constraints of a ten-week quarter, it seems that focusing on works that I feel enthusiastic about might not be a bad standard for selecting text books.

In that light, I have a question for you, my loving readers: is there a figure for whom the differential between reading about and reading is particularly large? By contrast, is there a figure who excites you, while virtually all subsequent interpreters leave you cold?

38 thoughts on “The Differential

  1. When I first approached Lacan, reading about him.

    Reading writers on Frank Zappa perpetually leaves me cold, especially Ben Watson who should be drawn and quartered. The only Zappa interpreter worth reading (for the 1 Zappa fan who might stumble upon this) is Arved Ashby.

    Reading about Heidegger has been somewhat anti-climactic as well.

  2. Heidegger: can’t stand to read him; same with Kant. Though I have extensively read both. Sherpas & interpreters needed. Just because they can philosophize doesn’t mean they can write. (And I just wish that Kierkegaard wasn’t so long-winded, but I wouldn’t include him here.)

    For me, no one approaches Aristotle or Wittgenstein (early or late) for clarity of thought. Or even Nietzsche for that matter. I might also include Foucault and Putnam here as well; I get more from their writing than from those who write about them.

  3. Pretty much all commentary on Foucault just pisses me off. That says more about the commenters though. And obviously commentary on Wittgenstein is almost crass (even pointing that out makes me feel silly).

    Commentary on Augustine is often much easier than reading the great man himself, not least because they don’t bloody repeat themselves all the time (with obvious exceptions). I remember finishing Brown’s book on a complete high, only to have to later slog through the tiresome sections of de catechizandis rudibus.

  4. I am close to Jim H in that I hate reading Kant, but differ in that I love reading Heidegger. Agree with Kevin that most commentators on Heidegger are awful.

  5. I agree with you on Spinoza! I enjoy reading about Aquinas and I enjoy his conclusions more than reading him. For me, it is an issue of style. I wonder why William Desmond’s work is not looked into more? One of my professors in my MA, Chris Simpson introduced his thought to me, and this guy’s work is great….more Desmond, please!

  6. 1) Aquinas. 2) I agree with Andy about Wittgenstein, but I would add Augustine here, at least some of it. Nothing about the Confessions is even remotely as interesting or beautiful as the text itself.

  7. I will dissent from Jim H. & Darren, and insist that Kant is in fact one of my favorite philosophical writers. Reading him brings nothing short of joy. I would include him on the list, but there have been a fair number of very good commentaries on his work.

    I’m inclined to call Marx.

  8. I like reading about Spinoza, Deleuze, Heidegger, and Freud. Don’t like to read them.

    I don’t like commentary on Derrida, Foucault, or Badiou.

  9. What comes to mind is Bloom’s differentiation between “strong misreadings” and “weak misreadings.” In particular, although I don’t always agree with Rorty, he is a masterful “strong misreader” whose poetic prose is so much more pleasurable to read than the original sources he interprets.

  10. I’ll second Brad on Kant. His prose is so utterly cool, reassuring and beautiful. Like it’s all worked out.

    Marx is a good prose stylist I feel. Spinoza I love. Wittgenstein commentary I enjoy as well as the originals. I think like many, Hegel is someone I love reading about, but find tough to read.

  11. A few people in my department read Desmond as John Milbank is a fan. I didn’t do the course, but the word was his prose style, particularly the bad poetry between chapters was intolerable. I know Chris digs him though! His PhD on D is available on Nottingham ePrints.

  12. My first thought was, this is about familiarity and agreement. I would be very reluctant to recommend any secondary literature on Hegel, Marx, Freud or Adorno (because what I read about them mostly pisses me of, as Andy put it). I am, on the other hand, only interested in reading *about* what scientists discovered about the early universe.

    Generally, I want to read what I read about (or at least I wish I could). Except when I think it is not really the point (like reading all the economists Marx wrote about in his Theory of Surplus Value).

    And sometimes it is simply a failure: while I enjoyed reading Badious book on Paul

  13. I also tend to think that philosophy and theology is challenging enough, so why make it more challenging with syntax issues. So, I always appreciate straightforward and clear style, like in: Merold Westphal, William Cavanaugh, Bruno Latour, and Norman Wirzba.

  14. I love to read Hegel, Heidegger, and Deleuze (but only started recently so I don’t know if it will last) but I cannot stand reading about them. Having read a sizeable chunk of secondary lit. on Heidegger I feel someone should reimburse me for all that dead time.

    I quite like to read about Schelling and the far out Zizek-Gabriel-Grant musings often do wonderful things to his texts that are not quite there when you are slogging through it. I’d add Lacan to the list. I have no idea how people have managed to make sense of him but I am glad they do. His seminars are mazes.

    There are more both ways but this should suffice for the moment.

  15. Is there an option “hate to read and to read about”? If there is, Badiou certainly fits it for me.

    I second Marx + Kant (fun to read), but I would say that Hegel is a tough one. I suspect anyone who claims to enjoy reading Hegel is a bit of a fraud or delusional. I’ve only been able to enjoy Hegel with a good book about Hegel (usually highlighting some aspect and so). So in this case “reading and reading about” as a combo certainly works for Hegel.

    Are non-philosophical figures allowed in this fun game? How about “reading Proust” (good) vs. “reading about Proust” (mostly irritating)…

    Does the us of “differential” here means that there’s some sort of movement/relationship between “reading X” and “reading about X”? As in “the more I read about Heidegger the less I like sausage”…

  16. I tend to greatly prefer primary texts to commentaries, and it’s hard to think of any philosophers I don’t like to read but do want to read about. Maybe Marx, because his major works are so long and it’s a slog for me to work through Capital and the Grundrisse, but his work is so incredibly important, and I’m inspired by Marx-influenced continental philosophies.

    I hated Kant when I first read the Prolegomena in college, but the more I read him the more I appreciated his systematic thinking and clarity of thought.

    I love Spinoza, but he’s incredibly hard to teach. Probably the two most difficult books I’ve taught are the Ethics and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Almost destroyed the class each time.

  17. I will add to the chorus on “Hegel” for the first (though I don’t hate reading him, it is just that I love so much more to read about him that it creates the gap). I am still considering the second category…

  18. After spending most of the day reading the Phenomenology, I’m pretty sure that I want to say Hegel for the first one, although the Preface (what I’ve been reading) does have its charms. I have a feeling it will get worse.

    Marx is someone for whom I would create a third category: someone I love reading and love reading about. I understand Clayton’s remark that he can be a bit of a slog, so I should note that I’m making this claim having just read some of the 1844 Manuscripts and Pt 1 of the German Ideology for class. Strangely, I think I might put Descartes in this category, too.

    There is some secondary literature on Kierkegaard that I like (quite a bit, in fact), but I think I might put him in the second category.

    Also, I agree with Paul about Lacan. I’ve only attempted to read a few of the seminars, but comparatively speaking, I find Hegel to be a walk in the park.

  19. Almost all of the commentary on Foucault leaves me pretty cold. Reading Foucault is like being at a fabulous party; reading secondary literature on Foucault is like someone has come to the party and put pins in all the balloons.

  20. Differential: Heidegger.

    Reverse differential: Foucault. Interesting how common that is.

    Zero differential: I love reading about Nietzsche, and love reading Nietzsche commentary. I can’t stand reading Lacan or much subsequent psychoanalysis.

  21. Never gotten anything out of reading Freud or Marx. Gotten some interesting stuff secondhand. Never gotten anything interesting secondhand about Foucault or Deleuze, but they seem interesting when I read them directly (which will happen more when I have infinite time).

    I find most secondary work on Kant a lot worse than Kant himself, though there are exceptions, and wrestling with the secondary literature has definitely helped me read the guy. That’s true for Hegel also, but I generally enjoy the Hegel literature, too.

    Most of the Davidson literature is eye-gougingly bad; Davidson himself is fun times.

  22. Thanks for the terms “differential” and “reverse differential,” Matthew — I was worried that I had introduced confusion by asking about both concepts at once. For instance, I still don’t know where Brad put Marx.

  23. I am pleased to find that I am not the only one who has had this experience with Foucault. I think the idea of a differential (or reverse differential) is a useful tool for describing the experience of dealing with philosophical scholarship.

    Perhaps what is responsible for the so-so experience of reading secondary literature on Foucault is that most commentators do not have substantial historical resources with which to respond to his writing. Consequently, commentators have to focus on things like his theory or his methodology (e.g. focussing on ‘the assumptions of Foucault’s approach’, its ‘normative foundations’ or lack thereof), rather than on the meat of the work.

    On this note, I find that some of the commentary on Foucault on that *is* interesting is done by people who have done a lot of their own historical synthesis – Arnold Davidson and Paul Veyne, for example.

    It probably didn’t help that the first wave of American Foucault scholarship didn’t seem to know what to do with him. He didn’t fit the image of what a political philosopher should do (i.e. he wasn’t Rawls), and so a lot of work in 1970s and 80s argued that in fact Foucault’s work was fundamentally unsuited to asking questions about politics. Reading this sort of scholarship is pretty tedious.

  24. Regarding Kant, I totally agree that he’s dreamy to read. That’s what makes it so frustrating that he is taught so badly, and swept aside by the “but everyone lies sometimes” argument by students all over the world.

    There is some good Foucault secondary literature (for one thing, you can’t both love Deleuze and hate Foucault commentary!). Personally I find Arnold Davidson simple, but Veyne rocks, and a good deal of the governmentality literature is right on.

    I seem to remember someone doing a typology of secondary literature, and plotting the trajectory of commentary in terms of years since thinker’s death. There are certainly waves (The New Wittgenstein in the 1990s; Frankfurt School research in the 2000s; Nietzsche in the 70s, etc.). Let’s face it, we need something to explain all those neoplatonisms!

    One more: Charles Taylor is beginning to have a reverse differential. It’s excruciating.

  25. Well, I had wanted to use a 2×2 chart but wasn’t sure the formatting would hold. :)

    There is, of course, good secondary literature on Foucault, but it’s often swamped by the sheer quantity of … the rest.

    And then there’s Agamben’s commentary on Foucault which, if we are to believe him, is in a way indiscernible from Foucault’s own thought.

  26. The secondary literature on Foucault, and the social scientific literature that draws upon, is overwhelmingly disappointing. And, worse, bad interpretations are entrenched as orthodoxy. The Foucault of people like Nik Rose is little more than the abstracted empiricism mocked by C. Wright Mills (to disagree with the governmentality comment above). However, I’ll put in the proviso that when Foucauldian-style work is done correctly, it is overwhelmingly excellent. For instance, Bruce Curtis’ “Politics of Population” on the Canadian census. And, of course, Davidson and Veyne as mentioned above. (I say all of this in a thread where Matthew Chrulew has commented, who is editing a collection on Foucault for which I am writing a chapter!) Two more for this category: commentary/interpretation on Hobbes and Locke is horrible to read.

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