On Reading Weird Books in Public

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Republic Cover OutRobert Nozick closes The Examined Life with a story of how he, when eighteen or so, “carried around in the streets of Brooklyn a paperback copy of Plato’s Republic, front cover facing outward.” He’d hoped someone might notice and “be impressed, (and) pat me on the shoulder and say… I don’t know what exactly.”

We are philosophy professors. A large part of our job is reading. Often it’s classics like Plato’s Republic, Augustine’s Confessions, and Descartes’ Meditations. And it’s even more so books by our contemporaries and colleagues. We read in our offices and at home, but we’ll take a book to a coffee shop or on a plane every so often. We’ve found that funny things happen when we do that, and it’s regularly not what Nozick at eighteen had hoped for.

We’ve been asked to review Brian Leiter’s Why Tolerate Religion? for The Philosopher’s Magazine (the review will be out in the Spring). Talisse has found that being seen reading the book in public creates unusual interest. Folks at the Starbucks across from Vanderbilt seemed positively befuddled by the book, as if to ask who would ask such a question? One person very audibly muttered, “Yeah, and why tolerate books like that?” Aikin accidentally left his copy on an airplane, tucked into the seatback pocket. When he’d returned for the book, it had been found by a flight attendant. She (only half-jokingly) reprimanded him for reading the book while flying. (The reasoning seems to be analogous to the no-atheists-in-foxholes argument.) Aikin’s story has occasioned some chuckles among our friends and even proposals that we bring along extra copies of similar books. We might, so the thought goes, leave at least one copy of Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian or Christopher Hitchens’ god is not Great on every plane we ride.

Different books yield different puzzlement. Talisse was reading Gerald Gaus’s hefty The Order of Public Reason in a coffee shop and someone asked if it was the new Harry Potter Book. Aikin has had multiple conversations with those curious about the symbolic logic book in his hand – what is symbolic logic? What use could it have? Can you really teach logic? Our reading groups are all too regularly confused with the Bible study group. Well, at least until they hear the discussion.

Classic philosophical issues and books seem the sort of things that people wish greatly to have read and thought through, but people have no great interest in reading and thinking them through presently. And these are the classics. More specialized ideas and traditions have even less lip service on their side. The simple fact is that everyone thinks that they are naturally good at philosophy, even if they don’t really put in the work.

Aristotle reports that Thales used his knowledge to make a fortune by cornering the market on olive presses before a bumper harvest season. Thales did so to show that philosophers could be great material successes if they wished, but they don’t. Perhaps that was a comforting thought to think while he sat at the bottom of the well he’d purportedly fell down while gazing at the stars.

In the Thales case, we see another duality to philosophy’s perception. It’s revealed in these philosophy books in public cases, too. People seem to realize that the issues are important, that it takes some care to think it all through properly, but that there’s something impractical, even perverse, in the pursuit of these topics. The thought runs: I ought to have a view about this, but it would be weird to have thought too hard about it. It’s a good thing that people are naturally good at philosophy without really trying, then!

The irony of the Nozick story is that the Republic itself is the tale told of an all-night conversation at a party hosted by a poseur. Cephalus, too, wants to be philosophical, or at least to see himself as philosophical. But the demands of involved conversation alienate him quickly. Eventually, it’s only Glaucon and Adeimantus who can maintain the focus and patience to keep the conversation going with Socrates. Poseurs and loudmouths abound. They don’t seem to know that they aren’t good at the task – they either bail on the conversation before they can learn something or they get offended to the point where they can’t listen. In philosophy, it’s all too easy and tempting to either give an indifferent shrug or to shout dogmatically. That’s why we know what to say to the eighteen-or-so kid with the copy of the Republic, cover out. We’ll pat her on the back and say, “You ‘gotta read the whole thing. There’s no surprise end, you know. It’s just part of the job.”