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Cracking Your Head (On Reading Hard Books)

Updated: Feb 20

My first year of graduate school did not go well. At first I was simply thrilled to be able to study theology at Oxford University, but it didn't take long for me to realize that I was out of my league. Instead of classes or seminars, I met one-on-one, once a week, with the Regius Professor of Divinity, the great Marilyn McCord Adams, whose rooms overlooked the magnificent Tom Quad of Christ Church. Each Thursday night I'd send her my essay for that week; each Friday afternoon she would eviscerate it, looking me in the face and explaining line by line why all my work for that week was worthless. It got pretty intense. I think that's when I learned that beer paired well with sadness and anxiety and not just friends and good cheer.

After a few months I told her to stop. I said something like, "I now understand that my work is crap. I'm trying to get better and I know I'm not improving yet. But I can't take this anymore." She got the message, and dialed down the severity (but not the honesty) of her remarks on my work.

Things got a little less stressful after that. But my work still wasn't up to snuff. (By then I had, however, tried actual snuff, under the tutelage of Richard Cross one night in the SCR of Oriel College, pinching a small amount onto the webbing between my thumb and finger and snorting with one nostril. I'm sure they only brought that stuff out for American graduate students.)

A few more weeks went by. Finally, exasperated, I told her that I was doing all I could and it wasn't good enough. What more can I do to improve?

Well, she said thoughtfully, you need to read the texts, slowly, then read them again, and again. You need to beat your head against them until it cracks.

That was it. That's the only advice she could give me. Of course I was learning all the while by hearing her explanations of the big ideas I'd treated only superficially in my own writing. I witnessed a great mind and diligent scholar display the sort of deep learning she was demanding of me. But as for explicit instruction about how to be more like her, that's all she gave me: you've got to crack your head.

What did that mean to me in practice? It's hard to say. It really had nothing to do with putting in more hours; back then, I was the most diligent student I knew.

Here's what it was, I think: I came to see the great texts I was reading (mostly Aquinas at that time) as, well, thicker than I realized. There was what I could get from the surface, but there was a hidden depth that one could only access by believing it was there. This persistent belief in the hidden depth of the texts, combined with my own fear of inadequacy, gradually formed in me a sort of intellectual habit, the effects of which have been ambivalent. This is the habit: if I think I understand something, I assume I'm only on the surface of it. To get closer to deep understanding, I need to move intellectually into a space in which I lack understanding. Feeling confused, then, is for me the sign that I'm getting closer to reality. Rather Socratic, that. And not very marketable, alas.

One day I went to my tutorial with Marilyn. She welcomed me in, offered me tea and cookies (as she usually did); we sat down at the table in the window over looking Mercury. I opened my briefcase and got out my copy of the essay; she took up her copy in her hands. She said, you cracked your head.

I think about this memory often. I've shared it with many students over the years. (Thanks for reading all the way, those of you who have heard this one before.) It came to mind today, however, because I just finished the first draft of my translation of Duns Scotus's De Primo Principio. I think the fourth and final chapter of this book is the most overhwhelmingly rigorous thirty-five pages of metaphysics I've ever worked through, and I'm exhausted from all the head-hitting. A sustaining hope is that maybe I'll do enough, in a clear translation and helpful commentary, to give better philosophers than I am a text that invites more exploration than it would otherwise receive. All readers will need to crack their heads in order to understand it, but maybe they won't have to hit nearly so hard as I have done.

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