How to read (part nine). Being understood. A brief flashback of having my new book discussed

When I was fairly little, say 8 years old, I often walked around with the fantasy that, while I was going about my everyday life, my doing so would be screened and viewed as a film. At the time and for a long time afterwards I always thought that I was an “open book” to others. They could not only see what I did, they would also know what my motives were and what I thought. Overall, it was a pleasant fantasy. Thinking back now to the first author-meets-critics conference on my recent book Socializing Minds, it seems not only like a scholarly event with great critiques and discussions, but also like having my thoughts screened for everyone to see. In that sense, it was the most personal event that I ever attended in academia. At the same time, it also made very clear to me what it means to be understood as the author of a text. This is why I include the following musings in my series on how to read.

In a nutshell, being understood manifested itself in three dimensions:

  1. in terms of actual content: commentators gave an account of how (well) one thought in my book (might have) led to another;
  2. in terms of counterfactual ideas: commentators located what I wrote “in the space of reasons” by contrasting it with what one could (or should) have said instead;
  3. in terms of method or style by showing how the way of writing relates to their or other ways of seeing things and how it could be transferred to other contents.

Having so many good people devote so much time to your own book stirs all kinds of feelings. But going from my experiences with paper reviews, discussions of talks or responses to blog posts I am immensely surprised how wholly, how well and how deeply a book can be understood. All responses gave sophisticated mixtures of the three points mentioned, and it became clear to me that the readers often understood me better than I understand myself, especially by employing step (2) and confronting me with intriguing counterfactual ideas. In what follows, I don’t want to give an overview of the response pieces (that would require more proper work on my part). Rather, I would like to highlight some moments of how being understood manifested itself.

Discussions of intersubjectivity invoke both theoretical and practical perspectives. When Susan James opened with her paper on “Mixing Metaphysics, Language and Medicine with Politics” I immediately realised that I had written my book from a limited perspective: As Sue argued Locke’s rules of propriety of language are not merely semantic rules but presuppose political power relations. Eric Schliesser corroborated this point the next day by calling my approach a “de-politicalization”. Interestingly, for me the writing of the book meant the opposite, i.e. a politicization of theoretical topics like (social) intentionality, while for people also educated in political theory the story has different priorities. (Luckily, I didn’t come totally unprepared, as Eric had written three blog posts on the topic that I link to at the bottom of this post.) In this respect, it’s interesting to note that scholarship in history of political versus theoretical philosophy is still pretty much separated. As both Eric’s and Sue’s contributions show, these perspectives remain impoverished, if they are not brought to bear on one another. At the same time, they leave us with the question what has priority for Locke and others, the political or the theoretical issues.

When responding to earlier reviewers who pointed out that many more authors should be included in my study, I had said that I merely want to start a conversation (in the sense explained by Regina Rini). Picking up on my questions, Katarina Peixoto’s piece engaged straightforwardly with the problem of how minds can actually interact, that is, with what I call the contact problem. But rather than confining herself to the figures I treat in the book, she expanded the scope and discussed the problem in Elisabeth of Bohemia. In a similar vain, Yoen Quan-Laurent extended the discussion by invoking Blaise Pascal. Parallels with other historical figures are not only extending our knowledge of the field. Listening to Spyridon Tegos’ talk, I thought that part of my Hume chapter would fit the medical doctrines of Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis perhaps sometimes better than those of Hume. (Note to self: I must study Cabanis much more closely when writing on imitation as a form of interaction.) Seeing the set of issues I had raised for Spinoza, Locke, and Hume applied to other figures in unexpected ways made me think that something of my approach could be “carried over” and that the conversation could be extended further into the field.

As is perhaps well-known, at least some of my authors rely on God for a great part of what they attempt to explain. Now there is a worrying objection that, once you introduce God as an explanans, why not explain everything in reference to God? Kathryn Tabb spelled out this worry, amongst other objections, in her talk on “Divine Intersubjectivity” carefully recontextualising my claims and highlighting limits I might have overstepped in my book.*

Stephen Daniel pushed this line of objection to the extreme, considering the idea that, if you start out with the idea that we’re made in the image of God etc., the need for explaining intersubjectivity might not even arise. While such an objection might sound devastating, it is not or so I think. It shows what happens when one highlights different commitments of the authors in question. And as I see it, this back and forth also makes clear why interpretive disagreements (mostly) cannot be resolved by relying on textual evidence alone. We always approach texts bearing certain priorities in mind. In such dialogues they can be made explicit.

Especially my Hume chapter I wrote with the continuous worry that I might be wrong all the way down. Does Hume’s talk about medical issues reduce to something metaphorical? Tamás Demeter did not only organise the whole conference. While revealing himself as the kindest of hosts, he also took this worry very seriously, opening up an alternative reading that makes sense of a physiological approach like mine but showing a different line of reconstruction. Like Kathryn, Tamás provided an intriguing alternative reading of my story that acknowledges the interpretive challenges but differs in crucial details. Writing a book over many years doesn’t mean that you get rid of all the scars or ideas that sometimes feel somewhat over the top. Here, I felt clearly seen with respect to what I liked as much as with respect to the scars, some of which I’d sometimes rather hide from myself.

Speaking of productive critique, some people said that I might get off lightly with regard to my Spinoza chapter. But this is not true. It’s just that the papers focussing on Spinoza were of the creative sort rather than critical. Mateusz Janik approached the discussion of intersubjectivity by introducing memory as a way of being in the minds of others (even when one is dead). At the same time, he also made my reading of specific propositions visible as one among others and especially as one diverting from Spinoza’s mode of presentation, showing how Spinoza went one way and my book imagined another way. This way, Mateusz made me actually remember how I consciously chose – back then when writing – to divert from the path Spinoza set and move on in a different way.  Charles Wolfe did not just categorise my Spinoza interpretation in “a space of imagination”, but localised my whole approach in the space of philosophy. In a manner of speaking, Charles makes me (or my approach) feel at home in a space that I didn’t realise I properly belonged to. I would like to believe that he is right. If he is, I am no unrespectable part of the world:**

What does all of this teach me? While this conference certainly had the beauty of a once-in-a-lifetime-event, it does show me that we can be understood if we find diligent, friendly and ingenious readers. It leaves me with an optimism about being understood that I haven’t had for many years.

I would like to close this post by thanking all the participants of the conference and especially my partner Marija Weste, also for joining the event and for keeping me engaged in dialogue.


* Slide below taken from Kathryn Tabb’s presentation with permission.

** Picture taken from Charles Wolfe’s presentation with permission. – I couldn’t help alluding to this beautiful line from Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina: “We, too, form an acceptable part of the world.”