Once upon a time a BA student handed in a proposal for a paper on Hume’s account of substance. The student proposed to show that Hume’s account was wrong, and that Aristotle’s account was superior to Hume’s. If memory serves, I talked the student out of this idea and suggested that he build his paper around an analysis of a brief passage in Hume’s Treatise. – The proposal was problematic for several reasons. But what I want to write about is not the student or his proposal. Rather I want to zoom in on our way of approaching historical texts (in philosophy). The anecdote about the proposal can help to show what the problem is. As I see it, the standard journal article has severe repercussions on the way we teach and practise scholarship in the history of philosophy. It narrows our way of reading texts and counters attempts at diversification of the canon. If we want to overcome these repercussions, it will help to reinstate other forms of writing, especially the form of the commentary.
So what’s wrong with journal articles? Let me begin by saying that there is nothing wrong with articles themselves. The problem is that articles are the decisive and almost only form of disseminating scholarship. The typical structure of a paper is governed by two elements: the claim, and arguments for that claim. So a historian typically articulates a claim about a text (or more often about claims in the secondary literature about a text) and provides arguments for embracing that claim. This way we produce a lot of fine scholarship and discussion. But if we make it the leading format, a number of things fall through the cracks.
An immediate consequence is that that the historical text has the status of evidence for the claim. So the focus is not on the historical material but the claim of the historian. If we teach students to write papers of this sort, we teach them to focus on their claims rather than on the material. You can see this in the student’s approach to Hume: the point was to evaluate Hume’s account. Rather than figuring out what was going on in Hume’s text and what it might be responding to, the focus is on making a claim about what is the supposed doctrine. The latter approach immediately abstracts away from the text and thus from the material of discussion. What’s wrong with that? Of course, such an abstract approach is fine if you’re already immersed in an on-going discussion or perhaps even a tradition of discussions about the text. In that case you’re mainly engaging with the secondary literature. But this abstract approach does not work for beginners. Why? Arguably, the text itself sets constraints that have to observed if the discussion is to make sense. What are these constraints? I’m not saying they are fixed once and for all. Quite the contrary! But they have to be established in relation to the text. So before you can say anything about substance in Hume, you have to see where and how the term is used and whether it makes sense to evaluate it in relation to Aristotle. (My hunch is that, in Treatise 18.104.22.168-2, Hume rejects the Aristotelian idea of substance altogether; thus saying that Aristotle’s notion is superior is like saying that apples are superior to bananas). The upshot is: before you can digest the secondary literature, you have to understand how the textual constraints are established that guide the discussions in the secondary literature.
What we might forget, then, if we teach on the basis of secondary literature, is how these constraints were established in the long tradition of textual scholarship. When we open an edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, we see the text through the lens of thick layers of scholarship. When we say that certain passages are “dark”, “difficult” or “important”, we don’t just speak our mind. Rather we echo many generations of diligent scholarship. We might hear that a certain passage is tricky before we even open the book. But rather than having students parrot that Kant writes “difficult prose”, we should teach them to find their way through that prose. That requires engagement with the text: line by line, word by word, translation by mistranslation. Let’s call this mode of reading linear reading as opposed to abstract reading. It is one thing to say what “synthetic apperception” is. It’s quite another thing to figure out how Kant moves from one sentence to the next. The close and often despair-inducing attention to the details of the text are necessary for establishing an interpretation. Of course, it is fine to resort to guidance, but we have to see the often tenuous connection between the text and the interpretation, let a lone the claim about a text. In other words, we have to see how abstract reading emerges from linear reading.
My point is not that we shouldn’t read (or teach what’s in the) secondary literature. My point is that secondary literature or abstract reading is based on a linear engagement with the text that is obscured by the paper model. The paper model suggests that you read a bit and then make a fairly abstract claim (about the text or, more often, about an interpretation of the text). But the paper model obscures hundreds of years or at least decennia of linear reading. What students have to learn (and what perhaps even we, as teachers, need to remind ourselves of) is how one sentence leads to the next. Only then does the abstract reading presented in the secondary literature become visible for what it is: as an outcome of a particular linear reading.
But how can we teach linear reading? My suggestion is quite simple: Rather than essay writing, students in the history of philosophy should begin by learning to write commentaries to texts. As I argued earlier, there is a fair amount of philosophical genres beyond the paper model. At least part of our education should consist in being confronted with a piece of text (no more than half a page) and learning to comment on that piece, perhaps translating it first, going through it line by line, pointing out claims as well as obscurities and raising questions that point to desirable explanations. This way, students will learn to approach the texts independently. While it might be easy to parrot that “Hegel is difficult to read”, it takes courage to say that a concrete piece of text is difficult to understand. In the latter case, the remark is not a judgment but the starting point of an analysis that might allow for a first tentative explanation (e.g. of why the difficulty arises).
Ultimately, my hope is that this approach, i.e. the linear commentary to concrete pieces of text, will lead (back) to a diversification of scholarship. Of course, it’s nice to read, for instance, the next paper on Hume claiming that he is an idealist or whatever. But it would help if that scholarship would (again) be complemented by commentaries to the texts. Nota bene: such scholarship is available even today. But we don’t teach it very much.
Apart from learning how to read linearly and closely, such training is the precondition of what is often called the diversification of the canon. If we really want to expand the boundaries of the canon, the paper model will restrain us (too much) in what we find acceptable. Before we even open a page of Kant, our lens is shaped through layers of linear reading. But when we open the books of authors that are still fairly new to us, we have hardly any traditions of reading to fall back on. If we start writing the typical papers in advance of establishing constraints through careful linear reading, we are prone to just carry over the claims and habits familiar from familiar scholarship. I’m not saying that this is bound to happen, but diligent textual commentaries would provide a firmer grasp of the texts on their own terms. In this sense, diversification of the canon requires diversification of scholarship.