Paul Arthur Schilpp Introduction

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Paul SchilppAccording to the late F.C.S. Schiller, the greatest obstacle to fruitful discussion in philosophy is “the curious etiquette which apparently taboos the asking of questions about a philosopher’s meaning while he is alive.” The “interminable controversies which fill the histories of philosophy,” he goes on to say, “could have been ended at once by asking the living philosophers a few searching questions.”

The confident optimism of this last remark undoubtedly goes too far. Living thinkers have often been asked “a few searching questions,” but their answers have not stopped “interminable controversies” about their real meaning. It is nonetheless true that there would be far greater clarity of understanding than is now often the case if more such searching questions had been directed to great thinkers while they were still alive.

This, at any rate, is the basic thought behind the present undertaking. The volumes of The Library of Living Philosophers can in no sense take the place of the major writings of great and original thinkers. Students who would know the philosophies of such men as John Dewey, George Santayana, Alfred North Whitehead, G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell, Ernst Cassirer, Karl Jaspers, Rudolf Carnap, Martin Buber, and others will still need to read the writings of these men. There is no substitute for firsthand contact with the original thought of the philosopher himself. Least of all does this Library pretend to be such a substitute. The Library in fact will spare neither effort nor expense in offering to the student the best possible guide to the published writings of a given thinker. We shall attempt to meet this aim by providing at the end of each volume in our series as nearly complete a bibliography of the published work of the philosopher in question as possible. Nor should one overlook the fact that essays in each volume cannot but finally lead to this same goal. The interpretive and critical discussions of the various phases of a great thinker’s work and, most of all, the reply of the thinker himself, are bound to lead the reader to the works of the philosopher himself.

At the same time, there is no denying that different experts find different ideas in the writings of the same philosopher. This is as true of the appreciative interpreter and grateful disciple as it is of the critical opponent. Nor can it be denied that such differences of reading and of interpretation on the part of other experts often leave the neophyte aghast before the whole maze of widely varying and even opposing interpretations. Who is right and whose interpretation shall he accept? When the doctors disagree among themselves, what is the poor student to do? If, in desperation, he decides that all of the interpreters are probably wrong and that the only thing for him to do is to go back to the original writings of the philosopher himself and then make his own decision—uninfluenced (as if this were possible) by the interpretation of anyone else—the result is not that he has actually come to the meaning of the original philosopher himself, but rather that he has set up one more interpretation, which may differ to a greater or lesser degree from the interpretations already existing. It is clear that in this direction lies chaos, just the kind of chaos which Schiller has so graphically and inimitably described. (In his essay “Must Philosophers Disagree?” in the volume of the same title [London: Macmillan, 1934], from which the above quotations were taken.)

It is curious that until now no way of escaping this difficulty has been seriously considered. It has not occurred to students of philosophy that one effective way of meeting the problem at least partially is to put these varying interpretations and critiques before the philosopher while he is still alive and to ask him to act at one and the same time as both defendant and judge. If the world’s greatest living philosophers can be induced to cooperate in an enterprise whereby their own work can, at least to some extent, be saved from becoming merely “desiccated lecture-fodder,” which on the one hand “provides innocuous sustenance for ruminant professors,” and on the other hand gives an opportunity to such ruminants and their understudies to “speculate safely, endlessly, and fruitlessly, about what a philosopher must have meant” (Schiller), they will have taken a long step toward making their intentions more clearly comprehensible.

With this in mind, The Library expects to publish at more or less regular intervals a volume on each of the greater among the world’s living philosophers. In each case it will be the purpose of the editor of The Library to bring together in the volume the interpretations and criticisms of a wide range of that particular thinker’s scholarly contemporaries, each of whom will be given a free hand to discuss the specific phase of the thinker’s work that has been assigned to him. All contributed essays will finally be submitted to the philosopher with whose work and thought they are concerned, for his careful perusal and reply. And, although it would be expecting too much to imagine that the philosopher’s reply will be able to stop all differences of interpretation and of critique, this should at least serve the purpose of stopping certain of the grosser and more general kinds of misinterpretations. If no further gain than this were to come from the present and projected volumes of this Library, it would seem to be fully justified.

In carrying out this principal purpose of The Library, the editor announces that (as far as is humanly possible) each volume will contain the following elements:

First, an intellectual autobiography of the thinker whenever this can be secured; in any case an authoritative and authorized biography;

Second, a series of expository and critical articles written by the leading exponents and opponents of the philosopher’s thought;

Third, the reply to the critics and commentators by the philosopher himself; and

Fourth, a bibliography of writings of the philosopher to provide a ready instrument to give access to his writings and thought.

Paul Arthur Schilpp
Founder and Editor, 1939-81
Philosophy, Southern Illinois University Carbondale