Keeping a philosophical notebook

Jenny asked:

Will you please explain the importance and process of keeping a personal philosophical journal/ notebook?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Thank you for this question, Jenny, I was hoping someone would ask!

Keeping a philosophical notebook is of paramount importance. — Will that do? Perhaps not without further explanation. I have to make the case for my claim that keeping a philosophical notebook is of paramount importance, just as one has to do for every claim in philosophy.

On the face of it, the injunction to keep a notebook is just a piece of practical advice, not a philosophical claim. If the advice works for you, then that’s OK, if it doesn’t then that’s also OK. But I think there’s more to it than that. Philosophy — the ‘art of reason’ as Jonathan Barnes calls it — is also the art of memory: ‘assembling reminders for a particular purpose’ (Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations Para 126).

I just looked up the quote in Google to check the paragraph number (faster than picking up the book and searching through it) and came upon an old entry in my Glass House Philosopher notebook, the first time I had attempted to keep up a philosophical notebook online:

“One lesson that has been drummed into me from my years of study is that philosophy is about remembering. Socrates disdained the written word because it destroyed the skill of memory. With a text in front of you, you can go back to remind yourself of the key points in the argument. Listening to a philosopher speak, you have to concentrate. You have to keep your mind traversing a narrow ledge, taking in the words, thinking about them, mapping and re-mapping the structure of the argument. Wittgenstein said ‘The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose’. He was talking about the way problems arise because we don’t look at the whole picture. We look at one bit, then forget.” (Page 4, 23rd August 1999).

The context of that notebook entry is about a practical problem, how to ‘be a better husband and father’, which has implications for philosophy and philosophical counselling. That’s a discussion for another occasion. The point I was making is about the virtue of memory. Writing on a regular basis focuses the mind, makes you aware of connections that you might otherwise have forgotten. It’s not a substitute for memory, but rather a way of forcing yourself to put the scattered memory fragments together.

One piece of advice that I have taken from Wittgenstein is ‘don’t look back’. This is how he worked. Each time he opened a new page, he tried to think about the problem he was working on afresh. He didn’t constantly reference what he had written last week, or last month or year. But the evidence of the journey one has taken to get to this point is there, and there will come a time when you need to refresh your memory, or perhaps take something you wrote and argue against it.

Now let’s talk practical matters:

What sort of notebook? A cheap one, preferably. You don’t want to be too precious about it. Spiral bound, so that you can tear out a single page without other pages falling out. And not too thick, so that you have the pleasure of starting a new notebook more often.

The alternative is to keep a blog. I like to cover all bases, keeping up a blog (the latest are my Sophist and Metaphysical Journal) and carrying a notebook with me at all times. After various experiments, I hit upon the idea of using plain Filofax sheets (buy a six-hole punch) folded in a piece of leather or plastic and held together with a money clip. When you come home from your philosophical walk, you take out the page you’ve written on and put it in your Filofax. Job done.


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