Primary, secondary… but who’s really counting?

Kind of a random post, this. Sort of a methodological reflection on the intellectual life.

On his blog, Fr. Hogg (of whom I learned via Dr. Carson’s post on “essence and energies”), mentioned that he, as a 51-year-old, is interested only in reading primary sources, since he has no desire to waste his remaining time on secondary reading.

It got me thinking: Just what is the line, or difference, between a primary and secondary literature?

At what point does a secondary material, like say Hegel’s or Husserl’s systematic replies to Kant, become primary in the field? I should say that Étienne Gilson’s work (esp. Methodical Realism, Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge, Being and Some Philosophers, and The Unity of Philosophical Experience) exemplifies this dynamic in a magisterial way. By his own confession, s a historian of philosophy above all, Gilson was merely discussing in retrospect the primary writings of his predecessors. Yet, in doing so, his works have themselves become primary sources, in a way, for anyone serious about the history of philosophy and, I would venture, philosophy itself.

For that matter, how can primary sources themselves not be construed as a secondary material, since every author, presumably, is responding to someone earlier? After all, much of Aristotle’s works are “secondary” readings of Plato as a primary source, and, moreover, Plato himself is just a secondary “Nacherzählung” of the primum principium par excellence, Socrates in the flesh. Yet, unquestionably, these authors are primary sources.

I am, therefore, simply casting my bread upon the waters of this blog in the hopes of hearing a more rigorous delineation of the primary-secondary divider in academia. This is not merely a passing fancy, since I believe the question ties into to profound metaphysical issues as old and as central as the problem of Theseus’ ship (i.e., when do the planks of secondary scholarship get replaced with the planks of such insight and originality that they become a primary resource), the concreteness of Hegelian dialectic (primäre These, sekundäre Antithese, entgültige Synthese), Tradition and Canon, among others.

10 Responses

  1. Just to go from your Gilson example. Gilson himself said that The Unity of Philosophical Experience and Being and Some Philosophers were philosophy books not history books (e.g., in the preface or intr to the 2nd edition of the latter – he says this is a doctrinal book, not a historical book). He said that because he’s trying there to get at the abstracted essence of, eg, Scotus, that is, ‘pure Scotism’, and, as he knew as an historian, ‘pure Scotism’ doesn’t actually exist in history. Just remembered what Gilson calls the doctrines he’s speaking of in those books – ‘pure positions.’ Pure positions don’t exist in history, because a philosopher will say many other things, intended to balance out the ‘essence’. For instance, according to Gilson, in Thomist Realism, says that Kant always says we know the external world exists by common sense. Another example is that Gilson didn’t actually think the real Aristotle was the conceptualist he makes of him in Being and some Philosophers – as we can see from in ‘From Aristotle to Darwin and Back’ where he commends him for being a philosopher who looked at shark’s teeth (ie the real world).

    Got sidetracked. My point is that, all the Gilson books you mention are great philosophy books. But I would not recommend reading them as historical studies – and neither would he. IE, they make wonderful primary literature, but poor secondary literature. LIkewise, one could say, eg Husserl on Kant, or Aristotle on Plato is great primary literature, advancing philosophy, but not good secondary literature.

    To stay with the Gilson eg, secondary literature would be eg Gilson’s Le Thomisme (The Christian Philosophy of Saint Thomas). Even I would have to concede there, with Fr Hogg, that one is better off reading the Summa than Le Thomisme, and that if one has little time, it should go to Aquinas not Gilson on Aquinas.

    The only problem with that position, going back to the canon development etc threads, is how one knows one is reading ‘the real Thomas’ unless one is guided by secondary literature. I read the SCG as an undergraduate, in my second year at University, and just skipped all the boring Scripture quotes! I wasn’t a Christian at the time, and my paradigm was where I was. We read the SCG in a seminar a few years ago, with one philosophy student and four theologians, and the philosopher saw it as a pure text in philosophy. All the secondary literature too, of course, has its own imported paradigms, but at least they may be somewhat less naive than the imported paradigms of the reader who has no guides but his own sense of what an intelligent person is liable to say.

  2. You might be making a bit more of the distinction than is necessary. You’re certainly making more of it than most scholars do, though I think it’s fair enough to say that in some disciplines (literary theory, for example) the distinction is probably less clear than in some others. Typically all that is meant by the primary secondary distinction is that the primary texts are the texts that are the direct subject of some investigation or other (e.g., what did Aristotle think about substance, how did Descartes argue for dualism, when did Quine attack the analytic synthetic distinction, etc.), the secondary texts are the texts that are about some primary text or texts and that you have to read if you want to familiarize yourself with the status quaestionis regarding the interpretation of the primary text(s). Very often when one studies the history of philosophy one will find that secondary texts are themselves major philosophical works in the sense that they display admirable philosophical acumen, but they aren’t always as interesting when considered as primary texts. For example, Michael Wedin has written several books about Aristotle’s metaphysics and philosophy of mind, and his books are quite brilliant, but one doesn’t turn to them to find out what Michael Wedin’s metaphysics or philosophy of mind are like, one studies them as possible interpretations of what Aristotle was trying to do. In reading them one discovers quite a bit about how to do Aristotle scholarship, but since that is not, typically, the reason one is reading those books, they do not count as primary source material.

    Aristotle, famously, offered historical interpretations of his own, but because his views about Plato and the Presocratics are for the most part regarded as not very reliable we do not consider such texts as the first book of his Metaphysics as “secondary literature” in the usual sense. In that kind of case, we do happen to be interested in the text principally as a means of discovering what Aristotle thought his predecessors were saying, but that is usually a question about Aristotle, not about his predecessors.

    The same could be said, I suppose, about an author like Russell, who notoriously had a keen interest in the history of philosophy but not much of a talent for interpreting it, but it seems to me that cases like Russell are outliers, and that by and large the distinction between primary and secondary literature is fairly straightforward.

  3. Elliot:

    The distinction between primary and secondary literature is sort of like the distinction between baldness and hairiness. Some men are clearly bald; others are clearly not bald; but there’s a large fuzzy area in between (pun intended),. Same with p/s literature. This makes your question hard for me to answer.

    I certainly recommend reading some quality secondary literature that is clearly secondary literature. “Clearly” secondary literature, if it’s good, is literature whose authors devote their utmost to conveying what the primary authors actually said and meant, as distinct from what the secondary author thinks the primary author(s) ought to have said and meant. When I was a student, I loved stuff like that. E.g., the truly secondary works of Gilson to which Francesca refers were of great help to me. Scott has given you other examples.

    On the other side of the divide, there’s the clearly primary stuff, by which I pretty much mean classics of what used to be called “the canon” of such books, and is now called the “dead white guys” section of the library. That stuff doesn’t need my recommendation. Its worthiness is a given, especially since feminists, lazy students, and self-styled mystics almost always dislike it.

    The stuff it’s hard to talk about is the in-between stuff, such as Marx’s “Thesis on Feuerbach” or Russel’s History of Western Philosophy. Usually, the authors of such works use their ostensible subjects as mere occasions to grind whatever philosophical ax they’ve been grinding anyhow. But not always. Some quasi-secondary works are valuable for the insight they give into their subjects, even if they say at least as much about the views of the author.

    It just does take a lot of initiation into the academic craft to learn what to look for and what one is really dealing with when it isn’t what one was looking for.

    I hope I’ve helped more than hindered.


  4. I think one thing that sticks out for me as I consider the distinction (admittedly not one I want to press too hard, though I do like it as a conceptual squish toy, mind calisthenics, an interesting analogy), is how the canon of primary literature is generally more intent on presenting a i) novel or ii) novel-ly systematic view on a certain topic, whereas secondary literature by and large, more humbly, perhaps, intends to just lay out what predecessors have said. I think the ii)-style primary lit is often inadvertently, in hindsight, the i)-style, whereas, I think, it’s pretty obvious from the tone and structure of a i)-style work that the author is out to stake a claim in the field.

    An example of primary literature as i) would be, I think, Kant’s first Critique, which was clearly secondary in terms of its dialectic acknowledgment of how his predecessors had framed the debate thus far, but was so vigorously argued against them, even in the very course of charitably laying out their positions, that it became a primary work in the field. An example of the ii)-kind of primary lit might even include St Thomas’ ST, but perhaps is more like Leibniz’ point by point rebuttal to Locke’s Human Understanding. I cite the ST as a kind of inadvertent primary lit because I honestly think he was, above all, just trying to be faithful to the tradition and the Fathers, et al., but he did so in such a magisterial and coherent way, that his synthesis of tradition became a formative part of that very tradition. By contrast, the scores and scores of manuals the Church has produced for ST and SCG, etc., are slavishly secondary, and therefore tradition (small ‘t’) about Tradition (big ‘T’).

  5. I still think you’re missing the point of the distinction. I don’t think anybody classifies any particular work as necessarily primary or secondary; it’s always a relative classification, the distinction having to do with how a particular scholar happens to be using the text in question in the context of a particular scholarly study. If I should happen to want to write a paper on, say, the number of times the word “smith” occurs in the NYT obituary section, then the NYT obituary section becomes primary literature. If there should happen to be any other studies out there on the same question, they become secondary literature relative to my study, whatever else they may happen to be about.

    Thus Kant’s Critique is virtually universally regarded as a primary text, because I don’t know of any scholars who turn to it as a historical source of information about Kant’s predecessors–just about everybody who studies it does so in order to find something interesting to say about Kant himself. Perhaps Kant himself regarded his treatment of earlier thinkers as a contribution to the “secondary literature” (the distinction was never drawn in those days), but that is largely irrelevant to the work’s status for other researchers.

  6. Very interesting to think of the ST as ‘secondary lit’ in the mind of the author.

  7. Dr. Carson:

    Thanks for the point about “relative” primacy. I do still think there is an important connotation these days which begs the question why certain works get “primary” status more easily or obviously than others. The reason I worry this little bone at all, I explain below to Francesca…


    The intention of mimesis and tradition is what’s driving my interest in this topic, abstruse (…obtuse?) though it may be. I think there is some cognitive leverage to be found in the prim-sec distinction, as a sort of analogy for how we understand and explain the depositum fidei and its doctrinal development in the “academy” of Christian discipleship. Just as, say, “ancient Greece” is the ultimate deposit of notions and images normative for classical scholars, so I think the depositum fidei is the normative limit on any Christian thought and life. And just as there are certain emblematic, primary topics, trends, authors, figures, etc. that guidue classics, so there are certain core contours in the Faith which control our inquiry. Academic, or doctrinal, development then become a progressive march of fidelity, a quaerens, towards the fullness of the once-given, antecedent and inviolable reality of “ancient Greece”, or the depositum, respectively. And along the way, certain acts of inquiry (e.g., W. Jaeger’s Paideia trilogy) themselves become normative, not as “Scripture”, but as Tradition. So it seems to be with the Church. Not actually “novel” tradition, but simply successive norms of inquiry into the one reality once-given.

  8. Yes, the ‘leverage’ as you call it is interesting – I saw that from my 1st reaction – thank you for bringing it up in this context, which makes us see it.

    It explains why educated middle-class Protestants will on mild prompting agree that they read the Bible alongside subordinate standards, whereas the Protestant in the tin church by the side of the road will insist he is reading the Bible alone – he doesn’t have any experience of reading the classics and the great books through secondary literature.

    The analogy gets us to subordinate standards, but does it get us to reading the Bible within the Church?
    Is the tradition of respect for the classics and great books dependent on the paradigm of reading the Bible in the Church, or vice versa? Sorry, that’s the kind of question which as a theologian I’m bound to ask.

    I’m very interested in von Balthasar and his trilogy, which begins with beauty, goes on to the good and finishes with truth. The idea would be we first encounter beauty (what Thomists call sense experience), then goodness then truth. When I first approached this 20 years ago, I went in with an axe defending the objectivity of beauty and the objectivity of our reaction to it. Studying Gilson, who insists that our reactions to beauty are pretty subjective and only a tiny few are going to appreciate good art, made me rethink. If we start from beauty, we are making what is most subjective and most in need of guidance from authority/tradition/secondary literature the grounding of our endeavour.

  9. For the record–and I am a primary source on this–I am now 52 years old.

  10. Fr. Hogg, I’ll be sure to revise and reissue (at a high new price) all my secondary resources accordingly.😉

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