General Introduction

General Introduction

Extra! Extra! Times Uncertain

No, that’s not news, is it? In fact, it’s a common lament. Our jobs are insecure, our futures unpredictable, and our resources (material and spiritual) unreliable. Our social and economic circumstances fluctuate as we change jobs, change partners, change cities, change countries, change values, and change our minds ever more quickly, ever more often. Or we hunker down, hug old views, stubbornly resist each new thought, and stew in our resentments and anxieties. Meanwhile, stress becomes pervasive as fear and frustration yield bumper crops of anger and violence.
All of this moving and mixing, this up and down, this strangeness and uncertainty spawn an epidemic of confusion, and we ask ourselves questions. What should I think, feel, do, say about how we live and how and when we die? What kinds of things should we value? What kind of community and what kind of future should we want? How can we increase the likelihood of getting them? So many questions, so few assured answers. So many changes, so little control.

An exaggerated picture? You decide. But who can deny that these questions peck at everyone? Or that they have deep, tangled roots? So, what is to be done?

Philosophical Classics abridged and adapted for Modern Readers is a muffled and more than slightly self-conscious answer to this question. My hope is that, in some modest way, philosophy texts adapted to the reading skills and habits of modern readers will help at least a few people to live less frightened, more joyful lives and build communities more sane and more productive of things truly worth valuing.

I’ll stress again that these adaptations are not intended to be “philosophy for dummies” or “philosophy made simple.” In fact, they are written for the very people who, if they had lived a century or more earlier, might have read the original versions.

Since the original texts in fact are readily available (frequently on the Internet), you may wonder why “adapt” them. Why not just let people who are interested in, say, James or Emerson read the originals?

Seven reasons (so far) have occurred to me:

First, I know that the number of people who have the leisure, learning, literary sophistication, and freedom from distraction needed to read with pleasure these classics in their original form is very small and rapidly getting smaller.

Second, I think that the number of people whose lives could be made better by reading them is quite large and rapidly getting larger.

Third, I believe that versions shorter than the original writings and easier to assimilate will encourage people to read and discuss these classics that otherwise would not.

Fourth, I hope that the resulting increase in philosophical wisdom will make positive differences in the lives of those who read them, and some difference, however small, in the lives of others.

Fifth, I fantasize that some readers will be so excited by what they discover here that they will be moved to read other books and essays written by the authors of these adaptations.

Sixth, I relish this incentive to read these writings with the thoroughness and understanding required to abridge and adapt them.

Seventh, this is really fun!

Readers have every right to wonder about the principles that have guided my editorial decisions regarding what to leave in, what to leave out, and what to change. So I am a little embarrassed to confess that I have no firm or easily stated guidelines. Since these writings are among my favorites, I continually have tried to stay as close as possible to the style, spirit, and, especially, the meaning of the original texts. Nevertheless, I have freely eliminated and/or changed words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that seemed to me to be obscure, archaic, misleading, or unnecessary. I also have rewritten many sentences and paragraphs simply to make them shorter, more direct, and (I hope) easier to understand.

All of these changes necessarily involved a lot of interpretation, as translating, editing, and abridging always do. And of course interpretation entails the risk of mis interpretation. Happily, as mentioned above, these classics are readily available, often on the Internet. So readers who wonder if I have gotten something wrong can go to the original text and decide for themselves. What I believe is this: the editorial changes that I have made are in fact very like ones the authors themselves (or their editors) would have made, if they were alive today and writing for intelligent but busy adults in our hectic, less literate, and far more distracted times.

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