Simon Glendinning is Reader in European Philosophy and Director of the Forum for European Philosophy at LSE. In this essay, Simon takes us back to the time he was hunting through a box of old books as a student and stumbled upon one that would go on to shape the way he would think, write, and teach. Simon also shares his involvement with an installation at the Tate Modern.
I was about nineteen years old, and I was staying at my father’s house in Mile End, East London. It was the Christmas vacation of my second year at university, where I was reading Philosophy. “Reading” is a refined word – my father’s kind of word – for what I was doing. I was doing what needed to be done and no more. And I was only doing philosophy at all because I hadn’t made the grades for my first choice: to “read” Law.
I had grown up in North London, and I didn’t have friends anywhere near my father’s house. So when I was staying with him I had no escape, and had to find my own ways to pass the time from what was on hand. His house was a pretty strange place for me to be in that respect. My father was an academic. A very distinguished Hispanist, and a specialist on the Spanish artist Goya. My father’s house was full of books. They were everywhere. Endless book shelves lined most rooms, and where there were no shelves there were great piles of books. Books, books and more books, books over-flowing his house, making it an Aladdin’s cave library.
Only it was not an Aladdin’s cave for me: many of the books were in Spanish, and what wasn’t in Spanish was mostly about work in Spanish. It was a closed world to me. There was a tiny TV with an indoor aerial in one of the upstairs bedrooms lined with books. All in all it was not a great place for me to be at nineteen.
Perhaps my father took pity on me. He told me that there were some books in the attic that belonged to my eldest brother, and they would be in English. My brother had had enough of them, I imagined. Discarded them. I wasn’t optimistic. He was storing them, my brother later told me, but even if I had known that I would not have held out much hope. My brother, in my mind, was a serious person, like my father. It would be no treasure trove for me.
But there they were, his books, in an old wooden tea-chest. A big box with metal brackets running up the sides, and probably some tea in the bottom. I got the box down and started to rummage through it. But the books were going over my shoulder as fast as I could pull them out. Nothing grabbed me.
Having gone through the box I was left with just two books in my hands. Two books I still have today by the way, still unreturned to their owner. They were philosophy books, and I only had them in my hands because I was reading or doing Philosophy. So there was this little reason to consider them further – but I was not filled with any great enthusiasm at the prospect. It was like doing homework.
One of the books was very thick, and was about objective knowledge in science. I had no interest then (or now, sorry) in the philosophy of science, and the idea of embarking on a very long book on something I was not much interested in seemed altogether impossible.
So, finally, I was left with just one book. It had a remarkably uninspiring title, but it was slimmer than the other one, and a glance showed me that it was written in paragraphs that were numbered and separated. It looked like something I could easily dip into – and just as easily dip out of when I wanted to.
I withdrew with the book, and imagined I might read it for an hour or so.
I did not put the book down again for the next five years. In fact, I could not say I have put it down even now, nearly thirty years later.
Initially, the odd form of the book spooked me. These numbered paragraphs or, as I later came to understand, these “remarks”, separated from each other, and, supposedly, ordered. But it didn’t seem to make much sense at all. In a very superficial sense I could read them all right. The English wasn’t complicated. But I really could not see what the author was doing or intending by any of it. The remarks would run on for a while in something like a continuous way, but then they would suddenly switch to something else without warning and without explanation. There were no chapters, no road-signs, just this un-navigable “order”. The author said it was “really an album.” But it was like being in an impossible maze.
Yet for reasons I do not understand I was also tempted by it. I am sure that had I been given the book at university as one among other texts in a “suggested reading” list I would probably have skipped it. Too difficult. Stick to the stuff I could make sense of. But not being asked to read it, and not even considering studying it, I was willing to go with it. It was quite exciting. Philosophy could be like this. Like what? I didn’t know, but it meant philosophy could be… weird. Everything I had seen up to that point at university was very academic writing: articles, book chapters, commentaries on famous philosophers, and so on. It was digestible but, for me at that time, like school work. Stuff to learn to pass exams. This book was different though. I had no idea what it was on about, I could not make sense of the order, and yet it promised to be philosophy, and it was intriguing. I was intrigued, and hooked. It lay ahead of me, beyond me, but, for some reason, I trusted it.
Over the next five years and more I began to make my way through the remarks in the book. Little sequences became legible to me, came alive for me. It was an extraordinary journey. From the start the book seemed to offer itself as inviting me to make my way into it, to find my feet in it. But it always lay ahead of me. Yes, light dawned over some of it, some of the text became familiar and many of the ideas won me over. But I would never have said then – and still would not say now – that I “understood it”, that I had it with me as something I understood, no longer ahead of me but with me, under my belt, done.
Then, sadly, five years into the journey the book went quiet on me, nearly died for me. I am not sure what happened. I wanted philosophy to be capable of more than this book seemed to make room for. Or, perhaps I wanted the book to be capable of more than either I or those around me seemed capable of making of it. At Oxford it seemed to get caught up in styles of reading and thinking that the book itself not only did not invite put, I thought, resisted. But I couldn’t get the book to revolt. It seemed to have capitulated, or I did. And then it lost its magic for me for a while. I couldn’t pick it up, couldn’t spend time in its pages with the kind of gripped interest that would require holding my breath and staying with it for long, sometimes really long periods of intense attention. It took on the look of an esoteric but profoundly circumscribed work. A work of enormous depth, a massive and singular contribution to philosophy (not least to what we can mean by “philosophy”), but nevertheless of limited scope. I loved the work of words, but those words were not enough.
That period of the book’s going quiet did not last for good: it still has life for me, though it is not the only book in my life anymore. And though I no longer spend time with it as I once did, I have never discarded it, never thought I was done with – either as something I supposed I now understood and had no further need for, or in the stronger sense of having had enough of it. It could have gone over my shoulder as the other books in the box had done so much more rapidly years before. I could have come to think that it wasn’t really so interesting after all. No, I still find it as something that lies ahead of me not with me or behind me; as something still calling me to read, to think, to teach. There is always, I still feel, something still to come in it.
So, it has never arrived to me as something I “understand” and henceforth now have with me or behind me.
It did not arrive for me in this sense. But, quite unexpectedly – for my family, but also for me – in those five years I spent with that book I arrived…as a philosopher.
As I say, I still have the copy of the book I found in the box. It is in front of me now as I type this. Very battered, falling apart. My brother’s name is neatly inscribed in the front cover, but from then on the marginalia is nearly all mine, and it is relentless. Marked up, underlined and commented on. Hardly a remark untouched. I was consuming it, consumed in it.
The cover of the book has a thick green border on the left hand side, and in the centre is a charcoal sketch of a man’s profile by the artist and sculptor Michael Drobil. It is, what is for me now, the unmistakable profile of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. And above the quiet seriousness of his pictured head, the book’s uninspiring title: Philosophical Investigations.
The first paragraph of the Preface of my first book On Being with Others, says this:
In 1986, I found a copy of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations in a box in the loft at my father’s house. My eldest brother had had enough of it, it seems. Five years later I was still reading it. For about two years after that, however, I found it hard to pick up at all, and it was in fact readings of Heidegger’s Being and Time and Derrida’s Limited Inc that rediscovered it for me. That rediscovery is what this book, in a formal way, recites.
It could not have been 1986. It must have been 1983 or 1984. The rest is true. And for the last thirty years or so Heidegger-Derrida-Wittgenstein (this hyphenated conjunction of names was the subtitle to the book I have just cited) has been more or less constantly there with me, I mean ahead of me, in my working life. Only last year I came back to the Philosophical Investigations to find something new in it – or not entirely new: something glimpsed from far far away in the underlinings and marginalia of my early reading. It took me a very long time to do any better, but happily the book sang again in my effort to do so.
One more thing. In the summer of 2012 I was invited to be in an art-work in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London. It was a huge piece – composed of seventy or more participant human beings – by the brilliant Berlin-based artist Tino Sehgal. Among the things the participants individually had to do in the piece was to leave the configurations Tino set up, and to approach visitors to the gallery. Our task then was to present a sort of verbal gift to the visitor. Jumping in at a level of intimacy one would not normally offer to a stranger, and without introducing ourselves at all, we had to speak on each occasion to one of a variety of themes. One of them was “A Moment of Arrival”. I had my story for that.
Dr Simon Glendinning is Reader in European Philosophy and Director of the Forum for European Philosophy at LSE.
Academic Inspiration: Favourite Works of Fiction Podcast II
In this edition of the Favourite Works of Fiction Podcast series, we hear from Professor Odd Arne Westad, Director of LSE IDEAS, reading from Knut Hamsun’s Sult; Professor John Van Reenen, Director of the Centre for Economic Performance, reading from the non-fiction essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by Karl Marx; Dr Fatima El Issawi, Research Fellow at POLIS, reading from The Messenger With Her Hair Long to the Springs by Lebanese poet Ounsi el-Hajj; and Dr Simon Glendinning, Reader in European Philosophy and Director of the Forum for European Philosophy, reading from Franz Kafka’s short story Before the Law.