How to read (part four). Accepting confusion as the rule and understanding as the exception

Now that we have looked at how to get started, at some malpractices that might get in the way, and at some effects of reading for writing, I finally want to begin to get to the heart of the matter, that is, to the text itself. Looking at the eager faces of my students, I think many of them usually want to do everything well and present very smart ideas about the text. I was no different, but the first thing that needs to be done is to establish a rough understanding of the text. How is that done, though? Let’s get down to business.

Accepting confusion as the default state of mind. – Reading philosophical texts, I generally assumed that I would not understand very much. Confusion was the rule; getting something was a rare exception. The most impressive experience of that sort I had when I translated my first text from William of Ockham’s Quodlibeta. The title suggested that it was on the problem of universals, but I didn’t understand a word of what I had translated. By contrast, my students commonly want to grasp how things hang together. So they often ask how this relates to that. I love those questions and the eagerness to spot the system behind the remarks. But I often have to admit that I am not sure what the system is or whether there is one. My point is not to discourage consistent thinking. However, systematic consistency is first of all an expectation, typical for contemporary readers. There is no guarantee that a historical text will meet that expectation or meet it in the way we expect. Lowering expectations of systematicity, then, is what I mean by accepting confusion as the default. When opening a book, we often simply don’t know what to expect. So it helps to accept confusion and looking for islands that (seem to) make sense, rather than to start out wanting to get everything and see dark passages as outliers. Accept that you will understand very little. If you want to rush to conclusions, that’s very understandable, but you’re going to be frustrated much of the time.

What is the text about? The hermeneutic circle. – The first question that you will need to answer is: What is the text about? Assuming that you don’t understand much at this point, you will have to make a guess. That guess is usually prompted by the islands of understanding, i.e. some details that make sense. Perhaps this is the title of the text, although Platonic dialogues will be frustrating in this regard. Or it will be some line in the beginning, with some familiar words and phrases. Or it might be simply that your instructor has set the text as an instance of a text about a particular topic. The point is that, at this point, you’ll be hooked by some detail and draw a conclusion about the general topic. The projection of of such a general topic works like a hypothesis, to be confirmed or frustrated by the next details you’re going to look at. In any case, the move from some detail to a general assumption about a topic and back to further details back to the general topic or a refined understanding of it is what is called the hermeneutic circle.

Approaching details. – Once you decided that a text is about a particular topic, you will begin to see the details as relating to that topic. If the genre allows for it, you should try and see which general conclusion the text argues for. Typically, a conclusion is introduced by words like “thus” or “therefore”. But sometimes it’s more hidden than that. Anyway, once you think that a text is designed to make such a claim, you will begin to see arguments as an (attempted) support of that claim. In other words, your general understanding guides how you see details. If something doesn’t make sense or is not in keeping with your assumed topic or conclusion, you must either figure out whether this is owing to a deviation like special use of terminology or you must refine your hypothesis about the claim or topic. When you hit on something like this, try to analyse exactly where your understanding breaks down: Is it about an unusual term or the unusual use of a term? Try to search for such uses online! Is it a whole sentence? Or the connection between sentences? Try to analyse the sentence or find a paraphrase! Is it a whole section? Try to figure out the function of the section or paragraph! Is the author speaking sincerely? There are a number of questions you can ask. What helps me most of the time is look at related or similar texts. Do they have the same kind of oddities? – Above all, remember that understanding a text as whole is the exception, not the rule.

Placing your own steps in the conversation. – Many people think of reading as receiving what the author says or, perhaps worse, as receiving information. That is never true. When you read and begin to think or stumble along silently, you will have (at least) two voices. You’ll hear the voice of the author and your own voice. Your tacit questions, your despair or impatience, your paraphrases, or your nodding and occasional disagreement are present throughout. Take it seriously! Reading is a dialogical act. And your mumblings are the voice that engages with the text, making it come alive and vice versa. Keep a record of what you find important or strange in the text. But also keep a record of what you think and feel. A passage makes you feel uneasy? Note it and try to figure out what exactly makes you feel this way. You find yourself nodding agreement all the time? Why? Are there reasons in the text? Does it speak to your sentiments? You find yourself lost? Note what it is and start a search. – If you’re supposed to discuss the reading and you find that this is too difficult, begin by offering your own responses to the text. They are just as good as the other voices to enter the conversation.

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