How to read (part eight). Reading some Davidson (podcast)

This is a first stab at an experiment in the “phenomenology of reading”, as it were: After my first post in this series, I’ve been toying with the idea of “demonstrating” some of the ‘things rushing through my head’ when reading, without prior meditation on what to say. So the idea is not to say something particularly philosophical or scholarly about the text (although this might sound like it here or there), but focus on what strikes me as a reader. In the future, I hope to continue these kind of live-comments in dialogical fashion with guests.

To get started, I’ve just picked a famous paper by Donald Davidson, his “Rational Animals”, scanned it (please find it below), read through the first two paragraphs and started commenting. Afterwards, I added one or two minutes of introduction to the sound file. That’s all. What I try to achieve is to capture very basic steps in organising or grasping what I see on the page. It’s not (yet) about the topic, position or argument that is introduced, and there is no attempt at understanding the text as a whole.* Rather, it is mainly about what Davidson says in the first paragraphs and what sort of expectations and associations I develop in confrontation with the text.

Recording the sound file (without the intro) in one go and leaving it untouched, I didn’t do any corrections or additions. Listening back to this now, this troubles me greatly. Why didn’t I say this or focus on that or put this differently?! I really had and have to stop wanting to talk about the whole text or thoughts (as in, talking about what I know about the text), rather than just go with the flow of the actual reading experience. This reveals (to me at any rate) how much what I say is normally guided by second thoughts or by wanting to sound smart.

The goal, if there is one, of this exercise is to develop questions for reading on, from the text. In a further step, these questions could then upheld and asked when reading on. In yet another step, an understanding of the whole text would have to be established and checked against these first steps, to either correct the understanding of the whole or to refine my initial questions. What is recorded, then, is the attempt to present a first grasp, while ignoring the rest of the text or an understanding of the whole.

As I said, this is just a rough start to get going and to see what happens when I try (to comment on) reading. If you can bear with this, I’m happy about suggestions for “further reading”.

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* Roughly, Davidson’s argument for rationality requiring linguistic communication (and thus being a social trait of humans) is the following:

  • Rationality requires at least having beliefs.
  • Having beliefs requires having beliefs about beliefs (so that one can distinguish between true and false beliefs)
  • Having beliefs about beliefs requires speaking a language.
  • Therefore, being rational requires speaking a language, i.e. it requires linguistic communication (which makes rationality a social trait).

Here is the paper:

How to read (part seven). A conversation with Daniel-Pascal Zorn about reading philosophy and twitter (podcast)

This is the ninth installment (not the eighth!) of my series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Daniel-Pascal Zorn who is a Lecturer of Philosophy at Bergische Universität Wuppertal. In addition to his scholarly work in comparative philosophy, he wrote a number of books and pieces that found much recognition widely beyond the confines of professional philosophy.

In this conversation, we focus on reading practices in philosophy (from 01:33 onwards) and social media, especially twitter and Daniel’s “twitter persona” (from 1:05:54).

Crucial for our discussion is a distinction between to kinds of attention or concepts, namely concepts of content and operation, the latter being the means through which we express content. You can read more about Daniel’s approach and the distinction here. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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Notes:

* If you prefer to watch this conversation as a video, click here.

* Here is the video in which Adam Neely introduces the idea of musicking (as opposed to seeing music merely as rhythm, harmony and melody). I try to liken the distinction between music and musicking to the one between content and operation.

* Part one of my series “How to read” is here.

* Finally, here is the link to a piece on the understanding of history in analytic philosophy we co-authored.

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Précis of “Socializing Minds. Intersubjectivity in Early Modern Philosophy”

Please accept my apologies for some more advertising: As I am preparing for my first author-meets-critics event in Budapest (there is at least one more to follow in Frankfurt), I wrote a brief summary of my book that I post below. (In the meantime, I also recorded a short video for the History of Philosophy Books in Three Minutes.) *

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The final programme of the Budapest conference:

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Précis:

This book provides the first reconstruction of intersubjective accounts of the mind in early modern philosophy. Some phenomena are easily recognised as social or interactive: certain dances, forms of work and rituals require interaction to come into being or count as valid. But what about mental states, such as thoughts, volitions or emotions? Do our minds also depend on other minds? The idea that our minds are intersubjective or social seems to be a fairly recent one, developed mainly in the 19th and 20th centuries against the individualism of early modern philosophers. By contrast, this book argues that well-known early modern philosophers often even started from the idea that minds are intersubjective.

How then does a mind depend on the minds of others? – Early modern philosophers are well known to have developed a number of theories designed to explain how we cognize external objects. What is hardly recognized is that early modern philosophers also addressed the problem of how our cognition is influenced by other minds. This book provides a historical and rational reconstruction of three central but different early modern accounts of the influence that minds exert on one another: Spinoza’s metaphysical model, Locke’s linguistic model, and Hume’s medical model. Showing for each model of mental interaction (1) why it was developed, (2) how it construes mind-mind relations, and (3) what view of the mind it suggests, this book aims at uncovering a crucial part of the unwritten history of intersubjectivity in the philosophy of mind.

Introduction

What is intersubjectivity and why should we care about the history of this idea? After a brief explanation of the topic, the introduction will set out the major claims of this study. Taking issue with the common historiography, this part will briefly look back at Gilbert Ryle’s famous Concept of Mind that presents us with a discussion of Descartes’ cogito before developing what is now often referred to as “behaviorism”. The introduction argues that, rather than just drawing a caricature of Cartesianism, Ryle gains enormous argumentative mileage out of his “Cartesian Myth” for his own approach: Claiming that Cartesian dualism entails individualism about the mind, he runs together two theses that should rather be kept separately. In decoupling mentalism and individualism, the introduction shows that minds can be and indeed were taken to interact and directly affect one another.

Chapter One: Spinoza’s Metaphysical Model

This chapter presents Spinoza’s concept of the mind as grounded in contrary conative interaction. Since Spinoza thinks that the identity of individuals lies in their striving for self-preservation (conatus), his position is often interpreted as a version of individualism. However, given that Spinoza takes individuals to be determined by their convergence in striving, any number of entities striving in the same way can be called an individual. Thus, metaphysically speaking, whole communities can be seen as individuals. But what is the crucial principle according to which minds are related to one another? Building on what it means for an idea to have a conatus, the chapter shows that it is the notion of contrariety that is crucial for understanding his metaphysics of the mind.

Chapter Two: Locke’s Linguistic Model

This chapter presents Locke’s theory of ideational and linguistic intentionality as based on the acceptance of the speech community. While Locke’s view is commonly taken to be individualistic, it is often overlooked that his position is clearly embedded in an anthropological view that deems humans as inherently social animals. It will be shown that his crucial step lies in uniting two traditions that have mostly been kept apart: Aristotelian semantics, on the one hand, and the anthropology underlying the political thought in authors such as Pufendorf, on the other hand. Mediated by language, the content of human thought is determined by tacit consent. What makes the expressions of ideas correct or incorrect is determined by whether they are accepted by other members of the linguistic community. In contrast to numerous interpretations, it is thus argued that the decisive factor in the determination of ideas turns out to be intersubjective.

Chapter Three: Hume’s Medical Model

This chapter presents Hume as endorsing a medical model of intersubjectivity. While it benefitted greatly from so-called naturalistic and therapeutic readings, it differs from those in that it takes the references to medicine not as metaphorical. Rather, it will try to spell out how the model shapes Hume’s view of the mind. It shall be argued, then, that for Hume medical assumptions help us seeing how our mental lives are socially shaped. Although Hume is not explicit about the precise medical theories he endorses, he is adamant to defend his account of sympathy against competing explanations, especially against so-called climate theories according to which our mental life is largely shaped by our physical environment rather than through interactions. The emerging position is that the sympathetic interdependence of our minds forms the background against which our views count as normal or good.

Conclusion

What are the crucial alterations in the common picture of early modern philosophy of mind that this study leaves us with? Even if early modern authors often seem to consider mental states as arising independently of the social environment, the explanatory focus is intersubjective: For Spinoza, Locke, and Hume mental states of individuals have to be explained in relation to other minds. After a brief summary, the conclusion contextualizes the metaphysical, linguistic and medical models by highlighting their early modern opponents and some current philosophical debates in which these models survive. In a further step, this chapter provides a brief survey of potential receptions of the models in Anne Conway, Condillac, Dugald Stewart, and Immanuel Kant.

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* Eric Schliesser published three blogposts in advance of the conference:

How to read (part six). What is the greatest problem in reading philosophy?

“Dutch students display the lowest levels of reading motivation in the world, and feel less involved in reading instruction than students in other OECD countries …”

You might think that the problems in “reading skills” originate from poor habits or social media or whatever. However, I have found that the greatest problem is owing to what I call dogmatic expectations: Many students seem to assume that there is one and no more than one correct interpretation of a text. How do I know? I am often confronted with the expectation of providing that interpretation. I have not been alone in wondering again and again how to deal with this expectation. To address it effectively, I submit, we need to to understand how it arises in the first place. Recently, I have had a conversation with some students about this problem. They suggested a straightforward answer: It is the way reading comprehension is taught, in many Dutch schools at least. In what follows, then, I’ll try to explain how this assumption might be baked into certain teaching practices. Before looking at the issue of “comprehensive reading” (begrijpend lezen) that seems particularly pressing in the Dutch context, I’ll first explain what’s wrong with the assumption as such.

Why is the assumption problematic? – Imagine you’ve read a piece of text, say Hänsel and Gretel and someone asks you: “What is the text about?” A seeminly harmless question. But now imagine someone corrects your first answer by saying “No, it’s not really about the two children but about cruelty.” “Well”, you might retort, “isn’t it rather …?” But at that point you’re interrupted with “No, wrong, the topic of the text is cruelty.” Philosophers have such disagreements all the time. And even slight reformulations of a known issue might actually inspire progress and have enormous impact on the state of discussion. Just take Aristotle’s De anima III.5 and look at the variety of medieval commentaries on this text, not much longer than a page, received. If you prefer a modern example, take Edmund Gettier’s famous paper “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, not longer than two and a half pages, and look at the amount of ways his argument has been reconstructed. So even saying what a text is about or what is most important in it is always contestable. The idea to deny contestability and end such disagreements by with the claim that there is one reading only strikes me as dogmatism – and if no further reasons are given, such dogmatism is outright irrational. Let’s call the denial of contestability dogmatic expectation.  

Encounters with dogmatic expectations. – A dogmatic expectation is the assumption that there is one and only one true reading of a text. It is crucial to see how this cashes out as an expectation in how individual question should be answered. In teaching and learning situations, this expectation trickles down to open questions about a text, such that all individual questions that concern the understanding of a text admit of only one true answer. If you’re not used to it, you might brush this off lightly. But I noticed a number of students saying something like this: “Yes, I know you want to foster discussion, but what is the right answer to this question?” Perhaps, I thought to myself initially, they simply try to see what I think, so they can use my answer in the exam. Although I try not to encourage this kind of behaviour, it is understandable, as some instructors might actually encourage students to parrot their views in exams. However, after a while I noticed that students often weren’t looking for my interpretation or a good formulation of a point, but for the correct reading. Accordingly, the expectation was that there is one correct answer to all sorts of questions: What is the text about? What is the main point? What is the main argument? How can we reconstruct it? What does the concept of X mean today? What does the concept of X presuppose? Etc. – It’s true, such question are often asked and left alone after one satisfactory answer. We move on. But all answers are contestable. And if an answer is claimed to be “authoritative”, reasons ought to be given. So teaching situations might suggest that there is one right answer. But, at least by my lights, what is actually meant in such situations is that that one answer might be satisfactory for the purpose at hand. To make this clear, I often offer alternative readings or answers and say why they might be equally satisfactory. At some point, I noticed that a couple of students found such alternatives “confusing”. Looking at such reactions, I began to wonder whether I was encountering a pragmatic stance (“I just need a sharp formulation for the exam!”) or a dogmatic expectation (“I want to know the correct answer”). Only in-depth conversations could reveal what was actually at stake. But I was shocked when I began to see into the background of some of my students’ reading education.

Dogmatic reading through “compehensive reading”? – When asking students where they thought dogmatic expectations might come from, I received an unfailingly unanimous answer: comprehensive reading (begrijpend lezen). Apart from these conversations,* I looked at some recent papers and rely mostly on “What Textbooks Offer and What Teachers Teach: An Analysis of the Dutch Reading Comprehension Curriculum” ( = WTO). Comprehensive reading is taught early on, as early as in primary school, and often separated from other aspects of reading. Irrespectively of the details of the curriculum, a crucial ingredient of the classes is that children have to answer questions about the text:

“For example, some studies suggest that too much emphasis is put on question answering, at the expense of improving students’ reading process (Bonset & Hoogeveen, 2009 ; Rooijackers et al., 2020 ), and that both teachers and students often seem to consider reading comprehension as ‘answering questions about texts’ …” (WTO)

While such a strategy might help with some aspects of reading, at least when embedded in other forms of teaching, the most problematic feature of such exercises is that the questions are taken as admitting of one correct answer only. One teacher is quoted as saying to a child:

“Even if you have to read the text and the question ten times, you just have to do it. You read the text over and over again, until you know the right answer.” (WTO)

Now you might argue that such impatience might not reflect the possibly open nature of the pertinent questions. So even if some teachers discourage answers deviating from the textbook standard, others might still foster more open approaches to the texts. However, the children’s reading comprehension is ultimately tested through questions in multiple-choice exams admitting of one correct answer only. Worse still, many of the observed teachers did either not see the undesired effects of this method or, even if they did, they often could do nothing to prevent them:

Unfortunately, the observed teachers seemed to copy the lack of alignment in their classrooms: they often did not explicate the learning goals—even though their textbooks provided these—and strongly focused on text content and right answers. This makes it questionable if students actually internalize the intended reading strategies. Although some of the interviewed teachers criticize the text-question–answer model, it still dominates reading comprehension lessons. This problem might be amplified by a negative backwash effect of the testing culture in the Netherlands where much value is attached to standardized reading tests (Bartels et al., 2002). Instead of such tests being designed at the service of learning and teaching, teaching has become at the service of testing (Hamp-Lyons, 1997), thereby undermining the instructional time devoted to higher-order thinking skills (Cheng & Curtis, 2004).” (WTO)

Given this emphasis on correct answers, teaching and learning are often a mere means to prepare for exams that reflect this dogmatic spirit. While students might (later) learn to question such strategies, they will also learn to suppress their second thoughts, unless they find an environment that encourages doubts and cultivates ways of thinking about alternatives. If philosophy faculties aim at providing such an environment, we should counter such dogmatism most explicitly and start a conversation involving primary and secondary education, too.

Here is part seven of this series.

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* I’m particularly grateful to Antonnie Aué and Bente Oost for a helpful conversation on reading education in the Netherlands. They also directed me to Sunday with Lubach comprising a succinct portrayal of reading comprehension as it was taught in recent years (with English subtitles).

How to read (part five). Learning to read with Jay Rosenberg

When I studied philosophy in the nineties, there was no really helpful introduction to philosophy. Or so I thought back then. Most things came to me in a piecemeal fashion, either by being taught this and that or by imitating what I found in papers or books. My studies, then, were mostly unsystematic and felt slightly random. I didn’t have a particular view or set of views, and to this day I find it hard to make up my mind. How did I manage? – I developed a strong interest in methodology, i.e. the ways in which we can approach questions or texts. This way, I didn’t learn to form opinions. Rather, I learned to find out what I believe (often unbeknownst to me). So I always thought and think of philosophy more as a set of ways or a practice of thinking, rather than a set of views. This is probably why I also felt that doxographic surveys or histories didn’t do much for me.

The first introduction to philosophy that really spoke to me came very late and as a total surprise: I’m talking about Jay F. Rosenberg‘s The Practice of Philosophy: A Handbook for Beginners. I picked it up when I was already some years into my postdoc phase. Thank God, I thought to myself, I overcame my qualms about reading stuff for beginners. Here was an introduction that had everything I could ever have hoped for: a concise primer on arguments, a hands-on approach to writing and reading, garnished with brief insightful reflections on approaches and limitations. To this day, I recommend it wholeheartedly to students and colleagues. Rosenberg’s brief remarks on different ways to read a philosopher are spot on when you want to move around in the hermeneutic circle: going from what you deem the main claim or comclusion to a creative reading that allows you to appropriate the thoughts or turns of a philosopher.

I post this part of his book below and invite you to leave your own recommendations in the comments.

Here is part six of this series.

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.

Here is part five of this series.

How to read (part three). Reading for academic writing

While reading needs to be learned and practised for itself (see part one of this series), it also helps with the practice of writing. The more you read, the better you write. But what should you read, especially as an academic writer? One way of approaching this issue is to look back and check which works helped you in overcoming difficulties in writing. In what follows, I’d like to list and very briefly comment on some works that helped me greatly in solving problems as a writer. Please bear in mind that this list is decidedly not a “best of”, but emerged from my personal study path. This is also why I don’t include the work of colleagues at my current department. At some point, I realised that certain authors inspiried me in a special way. Be it in solving certain problems of writing or in how to handle different genres, i.e. book-length studies, typical papers, commentaries, and blog posts. The same will be true for you, but the authors in question will be different. However, what is worth figuring out is in what way exactly their work might inspire you. Anywere, here goes:

Dialogical style of reasoning. – There are two complementary problems I see in my own writing: I don’t want to sincerely state anything that’s untrue. And I can’t write everything that needs to be said at once. Sometimes not saying everything at once just sounds like writing untruths. (More on this issue in this video.) Reading Dominik Perler’s work, especially his Theorien der Intentionaltät im Mittelalter, taught me how to get around this. You state a position; then question it, then give a refined version, and repeat. This dialogical approach settles such issues most elegantly. Martin Kusch’s writing, especially his Knowledge by Agreement, taught me similar virtues. He also manages to get a grip on the most complicated theories, making them seem easy without simplifying. Someone who manages to push this style to the limits is Michael Della Rocca. Check out his introduction to Spinoza. A book which also shows that even introductions can be philosophically original.

Making examples work properly. – Examples do a lot of work, not least in the analytic tradition. In the often piecemeal way of approaching problems, Ruth Millikan’s work stands out for me as being highly systematic, a bit like Leibniz. But what I took home from her as a writer is how she constructs and works through examples. Especially in Varieties of Meaning, her examples and the way she explained them helped me understand the metaphysics, epistemology and various applications of teleosemantics. Much the same goes for the work of Donald Davidson, especially his paper “Rational Animals”. And, of course, for all of Wittgenstein. In the history of philosophy, crafting examples for theorising along is equally important. Check out Susan James‘ work, especially her Spinoza on Learning to Live Together.

Capturing relations in debates and thoughts. – As a historian of philosophy, you’ll often try and express how ideas and positions relate to one another. While much popularising work will reduce such relations to simple oppositions or agreements, it’s actually hard work to capture similarities within oppositions and to make sense of thoughts without simplistically actualising them. How do you relate thinkers or ideas to one another instructively without giving up on nuances? How do you chose words for that? Anik Waldow’s work is a great resource for me to rethink how I capture such relations, not least her first book David Hume and the Problem of Other Minds. Similar virtues are inspired by the papers of Jennifer Ashworth, check out her “Can I speak more clearly than I understand?”, and the works of John Marenbon, check out his Abelard in Four Dimensions.

Writing commentaries. – Commentaries on (primary) texts are well known in the medieval tradition as well as in the context of modern critical editions of texts. We would be better off, if we taught how to write commentaries to students again. In comparison to the now ubiquitous papers, commentaries are guided by the texts themselves. However, that doesn’t mean you cannot “think for yourself” in a commentary. How this art is combined with original philosophical thinking can be seen, for instance, in Robert Pasnau’s Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature. Something similar might be said of Kurt Flasch’s Was ist Zeit? Sometimes the virtues of the commentary approach are more deeply ingrained in studies that do not present themselves as commentaries. Something that can be learned by reading Ursula Renz, check out her The Explainability of Experience. That one can map whole philosophical debates and developments in this way can be seen in Katherine Tachau’s Vision and Certitude in the Age of Ockham. The same is true of Paul Spade’s Thoughts, Words, and Things, which was composed as teaching material but served the work of many researchers.

Research on terminology. – Perhaps it’s me, but I find few studies on terminology these days. Studying terminology and how it changes within debates and across time is crucial for understanding philosophy. It’s also a great way to arrange one’s writing. Besides the famous flagship project, the Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, there are a number of great studies guided by research on terminology. Among my personal favourites are Gabriel NuchelmansTheories of the Proposition and Stephan Meier-Oeser’s Spur des Zeichens.

Scholarly blogging. – Blogging did not just affect philosophical exchanges but also has an enormous impact on my writing. Besides blog posts aiming perhaps at quick interactions, I also find blogs and posts that are scholarly in that they employ this somewhat more free form for scholarly reflections. Among those that continue to inspire me are the writings of Agnes Callard, Eric Schliesser, Justin E. H. Smith, and Eric Schwitzgebel. I guess you know how to find their writings.

Looking at this list, I guess I am more of a book person. Anyway. more could be said about how exactly particular passages can affect one’s writing. So this is just a first stab.

Here is part four of this series.

How to read (part two). On making and searching for mistakes

In part one of this introduction to reading techniques, I tried to focus on what I find crucial in getting started: underlining and taking notes, paying attention to the edition of a text, and making explicit the (tacit) questions that guide your reading. Today I want to focus on what I take to be a widespread malpractice especially among philosophers. The malpractice consists in trying to find mistakes in a text rather than trying to establish an understanding of it. It’s not just bad because it is an uncharitable approach; it’s also bad because it actually jeopardises our of understanding of texts. So seeing this malpractice for what it is seems to be crucial for paving the way to sound reading practices. Let me begin with a bit of ranting before moving on to more practical advice.

Shame and mistakes. – Arguably, many of the current reading practices in philosophy revolve around mistakes. There are two crucial aspects about mistakes I encounter in my courses: Most students will do everything to avoid making mistakes. At the same time, most students are enormously eager to find mistakes in others, i.e. the texts they read. It’s perhaps no surprise in a (pseudo-)meritocratic culture that we don’t want to be seen making mistakes. Shame is a strong emotion and thus avoiding reputational costs is common. But the triumphant attitude in people who claim that, say, “Kant is wrong about this and that” often surprised me. It used to surprise me for the simple reason that it is highly unlikely that canonical philosophers made mistakes in reasoning that can be spotted by beginners in philosophy. I stand by that sentiment, but I had to revise my attitude about beginners. It’s really not your fault, dear beginners, that you think so highly of yourselves, given that you are surrounded by drivel according to which “neuroscience proves that there is no free will; thus, Kant is all wrong” or “Kant is a racist; therefore, he can’t be an authority on moral philosophy” or such like. So what’s gone wrong? – With regard to avoiding our own mistakes, I think we just need to be less risk averse and understand that we can’t move foreward without making what we consider mistakes. With regard to searching mistakes in Kant and others, we need to rethink our appreciation of what counts as “thinking critically”. Let me address these issues in turn.

What are mistakes and why should we stop avoiding them? – When I lecture on a given text, say Anselm’s Proslogion, I strongly sense the students’ desire to get the right interpretation. Even if I say explicitly that there is no such thing, my students don’t believe me. Why is this so? Dearest reader, this is not because there is, after all, one single true way of reading Anselm. It is because students have to write exams for which they can receive a failing grade. It is our common educational practice that commonly gets taken as a binary of failing or succeeding. What’s the solution to this situation? As a grader, you cannot grade interpretations. All you can grade is whether an interpretation is well supported or not. But what can you do as a learner? ­­– There is much to say, but let’s just get some rules out for now.

Rule one: Make a concrete connection to the text. Whatever you say about the text, find some support for it in the text. The point is NOT to hit on the right thing. The point is to see whether you can provide reasons (support) for what you’re hitting on. I often notice that students are very good at giving highly elaborate interpretations. I also notice that they have much difficulty to pin down which precise term, phrase or paragraph in the text is evidence for that interpretation. So whatever you claim, say what in the text supports it and how it supports what you say. If you can’t find it, look again or change your interpretation. With this basic premise in place let’s establish some more rules:

What is an interpretation? Dealing with your own mistakes. – An interpretation of a (philosophical) text consists in two steps: Firstly, you need to figure out what the main claim or conclusion of the text is. Secondly, you need to figure out what the question is that this claim is an answer to. How, then, do you figure out the right claim and question? Again, this is not a matter of right or wrong, it’s a matter of whether you find support for your points. This leads to a further rule: Giving a particular interpretation of a text can never be right or wrong. Rather an interpretation is something that gives meaning to sentences in a text. In a common manner of speaking, then, an interpretation is reading a text as … That is: you read a text as evidence for your interpretation of it as …  So an interpretation is not in itself true or false; it is a framework that makes certain sentences true or false. That means: If you read a text as an instance of F, individual claims about the text will be true if they corroborate the text as being F. Your interpretation might be more or less plausible, but what is crucial about it is whether or not you have reasons for such an interpretation. In other words, stop worrying whether you have hit on the “right” interpretation. The only thing to worry about is whether you can provide reasons for the way you read something. (Pro tip: Usually, there are reasons for the way you read something.) So don’t assume your reading of Kant is wrong just because it doesn’t coincide with that of your lecturer or the secondary literature. Rather, give reasons why you have that reading, even if it might sound strange.

What is an interpretation? Dealing with the mistakes of others. – Now that we have seen why we should not worry about our own mistakes when interpreting a text, let’s establish a simple rule for dealing with the mistakes of others. If the crucial point about arguing for your own reading is not to shun mistakes but give reasons for it, the same goes for dealing with the texts themselves. Provide reasons for supposed mistakes you think you have found. If you think you’ve found a mistake in some text, don’t ask what kind of mistake it is. Ask: why would someone think that (what you consider a mistake)? That means: try to find a reason that makes sense or would have made sense for the author, even if it doesn’t make sense for you. Finding such reasons is what generally counts as providing context. Providing context is simply a way of providing reasons for why someone could think something. So don’t say that Kant or Anselm or whoever made a mistake. Rather, say what reasons they might have had for something that you deem strange.

Taking these two together, the reasons for why you think a certain reading is plausible and the reasons why someone might have said something that sounds strange at first, just is what we consider an interpretation. Just like for an improvising musician, what matters is not whether what we play might count as a mistake, but whether we find a way of making sense of what we play. That might require finding new ways of listening or finding reasons or contextualising. The point is never, repeat: never, to find fault in your own reading or to find mistakes in others; the point is to give reasons for why you and your (historical) interlocutor might think this or that.*

Here is part three

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* Please note: This doesn’t mean that there are no differences between interpretations or that there are no interpretations that are “off the mark”. Such interpretations are not “false”, though. They are interpretations that have very little support through reasons. I try to avoid the right-wrong binary to stress that there are multiple possible readings – without one necessarily blocking others. On the contrary, interpretations don’t need to be competing but can be complementary in bringing out different possibilities. Just like there are different legitimate ways to play a piece of music.

As noted earlier, I think of interpretations not as true or false in themselves. Rather, I see them as systems or frameworks that make individual statements come out true or false. More on this in due course.

How to read. Some basics (part one)

It’s a commonplace among lecturers that students don’t know how to read anymore. The culprit is often found quickly: Social media and mobile phones are responsible for almost everything. I’m not sure about this, but I think that it might be a good thing to devote more attention to reading techniques. When I was a student, I was often told to read or even to read carefully. However, what no one really told me was how careful reading is actually done. The situation reminds me of a conversation with my colleague Andrea Sangiacomo, who remarked that we are often told to “concentrate”, but no one tells you how it’s actually done. Just sitting and staring at what you’re supposed to focus on probably isn’t concentration. It’s something one needs to learn and cultivate. The same goes for reading. Ask a fellow philosopher or philosophy student what they do. “I read much of the time”, they might reply. Ask them then how they do it. At this point I often merely get a “well, I just, well, read.” In what follows, I want to say a bit more about the basics of reading. Philosophers shouldn’t shy away from stating or thinking through the obvious. So I’m sure it’s going to be worth your time.

Getting comfy and preparing yourself. – It might seem obvious, but when you begin to read a text, say a primary text in philosophy or a paper, you should get comfy first. Pick a nice place where nothing disturbs or distracts you (too much) and get your text out. Experience teaches many of us that reading real printed texts rather than virtually on a computer file yields better results. But no matter which way you are going to read, make sure that you have some device to underline or highlight phrases and to take notes. I stress this because I see many students coming to class without their texts, let alone notes. While some people have an admirable memory of what they read, the point of highlighting phrases and taking notes is not just to memorise text chunks. Highlighting words or phrases makes you see connections that arguably remain obscure to you otherwise. In reading, we often focus on “the meaning”, but it is important to also see some material aspects of the text: the words and phrases, the way paragraphs are set etc. It gives you a sense of how terms reappear in the following sentence or section, how phrases are picked up again or rephrased in different words, how one sentence is (or isn’t) connected to the previous one and so on. (Frege, for instance, devised his formal notation system, the Begriffsschrift, to visualise logical relations that are salient but often unnoticed in common forms of writing.) After all, one simple way to grasp the topic or strategy of a text is to see which words come up most. Moreover, highlighting phrases or taking notes will draw you into a dialogue with the text. How’s that? Well, if you underline, for instance, you might underline words and then come back to wonder why you underlined those and not others. You notice and also begin to question what you find important in a text. So get out your pencil or the comment mode in your pdf! It’s of course also a way to make the text your own. Coming back after a couple of years and seeing what you highlighted back in the day will make you see your old copy and sometimes make you chuckle or wonder why you worried about that. Now if you forget to bring your annotated text with you in class, you cannot turn to these material connections when the text is discussed.

What are you reading anyway? – Now that you’re all set, it’s time to look at what you’re going to read. Isn’t that clear? The author and title of the text are on the jacket, no? So no worries there. – Far from it! If you pick up Nietzsche’s famous The Will to Power and think that it’s a book by Nietzsche you’re quite mistaken. The Will to Power was compiled from Nietzsche’s notebooks, put into order and attributed to Nietzsche by his sister Elisabeth Förster Nietzsche. Yes, Nietzsche had thought about this idea at length, but the book is fake. This is why it is crucial to consult not just any old version but the critical edition that has been carefully researched from the actual manuscripts. (Here is a brief account of critical editions of ancient texts, but such issues apply across the board.) If you don’t read German and thus cannot study the original, you should be aware that you are reading a translation. The enormously great work of translators often goes unacknowledged, but it should be seen, and seen for what it often is. A translation is not just “the same text” in a different language. It is a new text, developed on the basis of the original version. To get a feeling for this, you should try and paraphrase a bit of text. You’ll soon run into ambiguities or issues that require opinionated choices. Such choices silently come back to you when you read a translation, and there is often more than one translation. There can be whole different traditions of translations. Ideally, you compare different translations and pick central terms from the original to see how they are rendered in the various versions. In any case, you should pick a translation that is based on a reliable critical edition. – You might think that such issues apply mainly to historical texts, but that would be a mistake: Papers in modern or contemporary philosophy can also come in different versions and translations of course. What is more, the question of what you’re actually reading affords you a critical distance to the tendency of identifying a text with the author who purportedly wrote it. And note at least that even correctly attributed authors don’t always believe what they have published under their name …

Why are you reading? – Again, this question seems obvious. You’re reading because you’ve been assigned a text in one way or another. Perhaps you’re even reading for fun. But that’s not what I mean. Well before you begin to read, you will have expectations about what you’re going to encounter. These expectations can be fairly concrete and detailed if you know the author or have heard about the work in question. In any case, it helps to do two things now. (1) you should make your expectations clear to yourself, so that you notice when the text deviates from what you expect it to say. This tells you at once how the author might differ from what you assumed them to say and how you think about the matter. This is interesting because it is a real meeting of minds, a confrontation of your expectations and what the author says. You might then wonder what is responsible for this difference. (2) In any case, you should also make clear to yourself what you are looking for. Are you just exploring what the author has to say? Fine. But more often than not you’ll read with a (tacit) question in mind, like: What does the author say about X? Where X is (related to) the topic of the course you’re following. The more clear it is what you’re looking for, the easier it is to watch out for pertinent key terms or arguments, but also to differentiate what is currently important for you from digressions or sections that simply speak to other issues. Ideally, then, you watch out for your own expectations as well as for items that are unclear to you. What is important to note is that both (1) your expectations and (2) what you are looking for do not as such yield an interpretation of the text. But they will inform, often tacitly, what you highlight in your interpretation or understanding. So it’s good to get clear about these issues. However, don’t worry about this too much at the beginning. Reading, careful reading in particular, is a very slow process, not linear, but involving going back and forth many times, of trying and failing and trying again.

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Click here for part two of this series.

CfA: Symposium on “Socializing Minds: Intersubjectivity in Early Modern Philosophy”

I’m thrilled and grateful to announce that Tamás Demeter, director of the MTA Lendület Value Polarizations in Science Research Group, kindly invites submissions for a

Symposium on Martin Lenz’s Socializing Minds: Intersubjectivity in Early Modern Philosophy (OUP, 2022).

Venue: Corvinus University of Budapest

Date: 28/29 January 2023

NEW DATE: 27/28 January 2023

Invited are submissions discussing or inspired by any aspect of the book. Abstracts not exceeding 500 words should be sent by 1 December 2022 to: tsd2333@gmail.com.

Confirmed participants include:

Tamás Demeter

Martin Lenz

Susan James

Eric Schliesser

Kathryn Tabb

Charles Wolfe

The event is supported by Corvinus University of Budapest, Institute of Philosophy, RCH, Budapest, MTA Lendület Value Polarizations in Science Research Group

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If you’re interested, here is a three-minute video about the book.