Monday, February 7, 2011

Reading Old Books Is Hard: Reading Rousseau and Thinking About Collingwood's Notion Of Question And Answer Logic

Over the last two days I've been reading Rousseau's On The Social Contract. I bought a number of old political philosophy books because my work was having a sale on Dover Classics. I got Hobbes's Leviathan, Locke's The Second Treatise On Government and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. I'm all, 'whatever, it's chill'. I'm not sure what the direction of my reading is precisely. I'm just trying to acquaint myself with the classic works. Trying to catch up on the conversation. I feel more politically concerned these days, more interested in politics, even if I'm not very much informed on politics.

But reading Rousseau one thing has become obvious: reading old books is hard. He was writing in a different time, under very different circumstances. His concerns aren't immediate clear to me. Sure, I can answer this question by reverting to vague things like 'the proper form of government' or 'the relationship between the people and the state', but that probably doesn't do it justice. I'm not sure what Rousseau was up to, what he was trying to do with this writing.

One reason I feel so strongly about this is because of Collingwood's notion of 'question and answer logic'. Collingwood believes that we can't understand a piece of philosophical writing unless we understand the precise questions that the writer was trying to answer. If we mistake the question, we may end up not understanding the answer. Collingwood's claims about question and answer logic is both methodological and epistemological. It is methodological in the sense that we should understand philosophical texts by trying to identify the questions that the author was pursuing. Our method should be the identification of the questions. But it is also epistemological in that no form of knowledge can exist without a corresponding question. For Collingwood, there is no absolute, objective knowledge, especially not in philosophy. There are only questions and attempts to answer those questions. The notion of question and answer contains both a method and an epistemology.

So I'm trying to ask myself what kinds of questions Rousseau was after. I'm trying to use this idea to understand Rousseau. But I don't feel so good at it right now. I'm not sure what questions Rousseau was after. But I'm trying.

I feel like I don't know what kind of world Rousseau was living in, what kind of world he was addressing. I need to know a lot more about history and the time he was living. I need to know about his biography and what was going on in his life. I can't know the questions he was asking unless I know about the time and place in which he was asking questions. I need to do more research to understand this book.

I talked to a friend about this a little while ago. He pointed out that understanding one text was always going to rely on help from other texts. Here, it seems, I can't understand Rousseau's text unless I go to all sorts of other texts. Historical texts, biographical texts.

Oh the sea of texts in which I must swim. I have to reach for one just to understand another. I kinda like that feeling. I very much like the notion of question and answer logic. I feel more comfortable with it as an epistemological notion. I don't yet feel comfortable with it as a methodology, however. I want to be more adept at using it as a methodology. Perhaps reading these old texts will be a good way for me to refine my methodological use of question and answer logic. Especially because modern writers often tell you their questions. Reading authors who don't tell you the questions explicitly will be a good opportunity for me to deduce questions from answers alone.

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