How to learn philosophy painlessly

The "Very Short Introduction" series explains Heidegger, and much more

Published January 2, 2014 8:35PM (EST)

Over the last two years I’ve been enjoying the audiobook rollout of the “Very Short Introduction” series originally published in print by Oxford University Press. My resolution for the new year is to listen to more of them—an easy thing to do, since several new titles seem to appear every week. By my count, over 70 new audiobook editions were published in November and December alone, on subjects such as “Fractals,” “Literary Theory,” “Design,” “The New Testament,” “Evolution,” “Machiavelli,” “Game Theory,”  “Fascism,” “The American Presidency” and “Tibetan Buddhism.”

I discovered the “Very Short Introduction” series a few years ago after returning to some of the philosophy books I had abandoned in college, and I found some of the writers — particularly Martin Heidegger — to be difficult and slow going. The problem wasn’t that the writing was unclear. The problem was that it was built upon a vocabulary I hadn’t mastered, and a foundation my education hadn’t properly laid. The reading was rewarding enough that I didn’t want to quit, but I did want some help, so I could read it more intelligently.

An old school friend who had devoted a number of years to studying philosophy suggested I look into the “Very Short Introductions.” “They’re written by experts,” he said, “real badasses in the field, and they’re written smartly. They don’t talk down to you. But they’re also written as if the audience doesn’t know much, if anything, about the subject.”

I took his advice, and started reading Michael Inwood’s excellent “Heidegger: A Very Short Introduction,” which began with a brief biographical sketch, which contexualized Heidegger among his contemporaries and the philosophers he followed, and which also touched upon the controversies that trouble the study of his work, most notably his cooperation with the Nazi Party in the 1930s and early 1940s, and his drafting in 1944 into the Volkssturm, which Inwood characterizes as a humiliating tour digging anti-tank ditches along the Rhine with “something like the British Home Guard or ‘Dad’s Army.’”

The bulk of the “Very Short Introduction” concerned itself with themes best represented in Heidegger’s major work, “Being and Time,” and contained passages such as this one, which expands upon Heidegger’s concept of “Dasein,” a difficult-to-translate word from the German vernacular that is central to Heidegger’s conversation about being:

Dasein, whether in its average everydayness or otherwise, is in the world. Stones, trees, cows, and hammers are also in the world. And Dasein too is in the world in the way they are. But Dasein is also in the world in another sense, a sense in which other entities, even cows, are not. Dasein, unlike a stone, a tree, or a cow, is aware of and familiar with the world, aware of other things in the world and of itself, and it is so in virtue of its ‘understanding of being.’ It is not a self-enclosed subject, aware only of its own mental states. If it were so, it would have a definite ‘what’ and would neither be, nor need to be, in the world. If Dasein had a determinate nature of its own and were not, at least in part, what it makes of itself, it might not need a world to dwell in. But as things are, Dasein, to be at all or at least to be in its own characteristic ways, needs a world populated with entities for it to engage with.

Admittedly, this can make for less-than-breezy listening, however interesting and informative. I have found that the very short introductions work best in smaller doses than, say, memoirs or novels. Often, a chapter at a time is plenty to absorb, and more than one listening, or a listening followed by a reading, is a likelier path to the cursory, layperson’s understanding that the books offer. The pleasure they deliver is not the easy pleasure of the stand-up comic’s podcast or an audiobook of immersion journalism, but it is a slower pleasure that opens up other pleasures. Thinking about other people’s ideas about being and consciousness, to give one example, makes the experience of walking around the city, once you’ve arrived, considerably more interesting, because you’re armored with new ways to consider what you’re observing and experiencing.

By Kyle Minor

Kyle Minor is the author of "In the Devil’s Territory," a collection of stories and novellas, and the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction. His second collection of stories, "Praying Drunk," will be published in February 2014.

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