Four lenses for reading metaphysics and ethics

There are four lenses one should use when reading systems of metaphysics and ethics. It’s difficult to internalize and gain intuition around these systems; especially when fidelity is lost through translation and the evolution of word meaning and connotation over time. I’ve found that reading with the following four lenses is useful for extracting the most value out of such effort.

1. Through the mind of the thinker

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”

  • Ender in Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Reading philosophy is far from waging war, but Ender’s notion of fully internalizing his enemy’s mind to understand them and then to exploit and destroy them is directly applicable. One can only give a system a ‘fair shake’ by stepping fully into the mind of the thinker. Step into his era, his culture, his upbringing, his social position, his observations of socio-political success and turmoil, his prejudices, his flaws, his traumas.

2. Through the mind of a contemporary / immediate predecessor of the thinker’s doctrine

The Western classics form a lineage of reaction and counter-reaction. It’s a dialectic across time between thinkers throughout history. It’s thus difficult to understand the breakthroughs and innovations of a given thinker without stepping into the mind of his contemporary counterparts and especially the counterpart (often an immediate predecessor) that the given thinker is predominantly reacting to in an argument. Plato / Socrates and Aristotle, Hume / Kant, etc.

3. Through the mind of a modern academic

The benefit of being a successor to these thinkers is that we can stand on the shoulders of subsequent giants to accelerate our own learning. There are two broad thrusts to a meta-analysis:

  1. Is the metaphysical or ethical system internally self-consistent?
  2. Is the thinker’s system consistent with his other writing and beliefs?

Generally, the classic thinkers don’t make such mistakes but it’s still worthwhile to run through the mental exercise of proving so.

4. Through the mind of oneself

Much of metaphysics and ethics deal with notions that one has gut feelings acquired from experience or one’s own (formal or informal) frameworks of thinking. How does the thinker’s propositions intuitively reconcile with your own?

The reward of the effort of such reading is to absorb great frameworks into your own. Are there aspects of your own philosophy that can be evolved? Which pieces are not well reasoned? Which pieces feel more intuitively correct to you?


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