Tutors Talk Books: Matthew Linck on His New Book “Wakefulness and World”

July 22, 2019 | By Kimberly Uslin

Wakefulness and World explores philosophy through Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel.

Matthew Linck is a tutor on the Annapolis campus of St. John’s College. His most recent book, Wakefulness and World: An Invitation to Philosophy, was released on July 9, 2019 from Paul Dry Books.

What is the crux of your book, Wakefulness and World? What inspired you to write it?

Before I started working at the college, I had an idea for a book that would be a defense of philosophy as idealism. Then I was thrown into becoming a tutor and had no time for thinking about anything like that. But when I got tenure I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll try to write this book.’ As my sabbatical was approaching, however, I started thinking that I didn’t want to write the book as originally conceived. There was part of the original idea that I still wanted to pursue, but it was about philosophy in general—if someone who hasn’t read a lot of philosophy books is interested in knowing more about it, what kind of book might introduce them to it?

I sat down the first day of my sabbatical and just started writing, and as I wrote, it became what it ended up being, which was less my ideas about what philosophy is and more an attempt to read philosophical books along with the reader. It’s hard to talk about what the book is about, because in a way the book is about reading philosophical books as a way of doing philosophy and trying to get the reader to do that along with me.

In some ways, I think that being at St. John’s for seven years before I wrote the book influenced what it became. It’s not exactly the same as working with others in a St. John’s classroom, but it’s a way of having the reader participate in the activity of reading the texts and not just telling [them] ‘This is what this means, or this is what you should get from the book.’

The subtitle of the book is “An Invitation to Philosophy;” notably not “An Introduction to Philosophy.”

I wanted to avoid the term ‘introduction’ because usually the books that have that heading lay out the fundamental concepts, the basic areas of inquiry that philosophy delves into, and I wasn’t doing that. I didn’t want to do that. Instead, it’s an invitation to participate in the activity of philosophizing and reading philosophical books.

What does the word ‘wakefulness’ signify in the title?

That has to do primarily with the Plato chapter—the first chapter of the book. The chapter starts with some passages from Plato’s Republic, where Socrates and Glaucon are talking about the philosophers introduced in Book V of the Republic. Glaucon is asking Socrates ‘Who is a philosopher? What is a philosopher?’ and Socrates says ‘The philosopher is the person who is a lover of the sight of the truth.’ They talk about what that means, that the philosopher who has seen the forms is like someone who is awake, compared to someone who’s asleep and dreaming and doesn’t know that they are.

It’s not clear that Socrates is a philosopher on those terms, because we don’t really see him having a vision of the forms. But, by the end of chapter, [I write] that maybe what philosophy is for Plato is an attempt to wake up, rather than being awake.

The book focuses on the work of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel. Why these four philosophers?

Partly because they’re the philosophers that have meant the most to me, but also because each of these philosophers, I think, roots his thinking in the real world, in ordinary experience. I hope that in each chapter, the reader can see that [philosophy] starts from ordinary things, ordinary experiences, and typical ways of speaking.

Intelligibility is a major focus of the book. What does it mean in the context of ‘everyday’ philosophy, and why was it such a key part of the text?

Often, people think that the beginning of philosophy is the assertion that the intelligible is separate from the sensible, and that philosophy tries to prove this—whereas it seems to me that the philosophical attitude is marked not by an assertion about the sensible and the intelligible, but by a kind of hunch, which philosophy then endeavors to trace the implications of.

It’s taken me a long time to come around to this way of thinking about things, but the hunch is not exactly provable. You start from the hypothesis that there’s a distinction between the sensible and the intelligible, and you can pursue the question, and it can look more and more like you’re comprehending the world and your experience of the world—but what exactly is happening when that feeling of comprehension arrives is one of the things I hoped to explore in the book. A way I think about philosophy is as just this process of unfolding the implications of the starting point, seeing what follows from making this proposal that the sensible and the intelligible are distinct. It’s not as if you can ever get to a point and say ‘Aha, I’m right.’ It’s not ever final or finished.

Were there any other books from the St. John’s Program that were influential to your writing?

Yes. I hadn’t anticipated it, but all the mathematics that I’ve done as a tutor at the college ended up being rather important. Mathematics turns up in each of the chapters in one way or another—Euclid in the first chapter, [for example,] and a long digression on Newton and the main argument of Newton’s Principia in the fourth chapter.

The book wouldn’t have ended up being what it is if I hadn’t worked through those books. That’s one of the really great things about the Program and the intellectual life of the college—everyone is doing math all the time. It’s helped me see that there’s something distinct about philosophy and what philosophy is doing in contrast to mathematics. They may overlap in certain ways, but in some other, fundamental way, they differ.

Who is the intended audience for the book?

The only clear audience I had in mind was a person out in the world that I have never met who might be interested in reading philosophical books the way that we do here at the college, but hadn’t had that opportunity. Could I write a book that someone like that could pick up and read—a book that someone could read in a couple of days and then go read some Plato and Aristotle and Kant and Hegel? The ‘invitation’ of the subtitle is along those lines: Here’s a book to get you started.

How did your time in the classroom as a tutor influence your writing?

One of the things about being a tutor at St. John’s that I really enjoy is that—especially reading books in seminar with students—it’s their first time encountering the books. We as tutors always have to go back to the beginning in thinking about these books and what they’re about. We have to meet the student where they are and find the fundamental thing that the book is trying to do, or where the book starts from. I’ve found that enormously rewarding and helpful because the beginnings of things are the most important. That’s where the really fundamental things are. It’s surprising; you think that you’re going to get past the beginning and get to the more sophisticated thing or the more complicated thoughts, but I don’t think that’s true. Which isn’t to say going further is not important or doesn’t have its own rewards—but if you don’t start out right, you can’t go any further.