How to read (part ten): What if authors are not consistent?

At a recent conference, a colleague kindly pointed out that my interpretation of Spinoza had changed over the last two weeks, since I gave two rather different answers to the same question. Of course, it’s possible that I change or even improve my interpretation in the course of two weeks, but the suggestion was not really that I had improved my position. Rather, the assumption seemed to be that my utterances were inconsistent. Although we could settle the matter most amicably, such a situation can be quite a nightmare. Am I talking nonsense? Am I inconsistent without noticing it? Am I just opportunistically changing my views to align with certain people in the audience? Of course, I could also blame the listener: Was he being uncharitable? This matter is difficult to figure out. But rather than trying to figure out who is to blame, it might be better to ask what it is that affords (criteria for) consistency in the first place.

Let’s first look how important this is. It’s a common and rational expectation that authors be consistent. (This is why I include the following musings in my series on how to read.) If you read someone asserting that p and then asserting not-p, you can easily recognise their inconsistency by the very form of words. Of course, most types of inconsistency are a bit harder to detect, but once you notice them, you seem be faced with a choice: Either you find a factor that explains the inconsistency (away) or you have to doubt the rationality of the person whose text you read. Factors to deal with apparent inconsistencies are abundant features in interpretations. Faced for instance with Wittgenstein’s earlier and later philosophy, many readers think that he changed his mind or that he shifted his focus. A sensible and charitable reading of such changes will harmonise inconsistencies and look for evidence that confirms the assumption of a change of mind or focus. Even if it’s tricky to settle on a clear story of the changes in Wittgenstein, his case is fairly straightforward because he explicitly declares that he found his earlier work problematic. It’s harder, though, if no such evidence can be found. Of course, one might still assume that there is an explanation that resolves the inconsistency, but if no evidence can be found, we must also allow for the assumption that an author is in fact inconsistent.

But what does such a verdict amount to? I think we’re faced with a choice again: Either we assume a failure of what we call rationality, or we consider the option that consistency is too high a bar. What if authors are, by and large, more inconsistent than we like to admit? I think there is an explanation that leaves the rationality of the author untouched and focuses on what affords consistency. In philosophy, such factors might be found most straightforwardly in the debates that the author’s text is related to. What looks like a failure of rationality might in fact boil down to a change of debate. For me, some of the most obvious examples are to be found in medieval commentaries. Reading Ockham, I often thought he was inconsistent because he addressed problems for his position in one text, while he seemed completely oblivious to these problems in the next text. After a while, however, it dawned on me that the contexts and stakes were different. One text was a commentary on Aristotle’s logic; the other text was a mainly theological commentary on the Sentences of Peter the Lombard. Having noticed this changed my expectations as a reader across the board. While we might expect an author today to be consistent or “systematic” across their works, this might not have been a common expectation in other times or contexts.

Noting changes in genre or shifts in contexts is certainly good advice for texts of the past. But what about our own practices? Is consistency really a feature of what we call rationality? Or might the phenomenon by much more “local”, pertaining more to certain stable contexts such as debates rather than to minds? For the time being, I’d like to settle for the assumption that consistency is a feature of debates rather than authors.

Can we think what someone else thinks? Four letters on Gadamer by Ismar Jugo (guest post)

[With this guest post, I’d like to continue to present some of the works by my students that came out of research internships. During these internships, I often try to steer students towards a particular genre. This way, I hope to encourage students to experiment with different genres that allow for a focus different from “defending a claim”, as is often the case in essays. My own MA thesis (written in 1996) consisted of a translation, a commentary, and an interpretive introduction. Probably since the so-called Bologna reform, the forms of academic writing have become increasingly restricted even for students. Considering Helen De Cruz’ recent post, I’m hoping for the revival of various genres in the future. Having had a traditional essay, a review, a vlog and some other forms on this blog, the following piece consists of a series of letters. – ML]

Letter I

Dear Martin,

At the time I found out that I needed to do a research internship, I knew I would ask you. The reason was that you are one of the few professors that seem to explicitly think in front of the classroom. You bring yourself in dialogue with yourself, and thereby create the possibility of dialogue among everyone attending your class. This is a horrible exercise for a lazy student because it asks a lot of people to engage in a dialogue. Understanding someone else is, for good reason, a philosophical problem with huge ramifications in all aspects of human life, from all scientific enterprise till the very conversation a couple has after a fight. If understanding is such a huge aspect in our lives, then delving into the problem of understanding is a crucial step for every human being.

When I followed your classes I thought that I understood your train of thought quite well. Entering your train of thought took me some effort. I needed to write everything down and revise my notes before class. I was sure I understood what you were trying to convey. The question that we pose in this research internship is if it is possible to enter someone’s thoughts in the first place. Can we think what someone else is thinking? Can we see what someone else is seeing? Can someone recount their experiences in language so that we can experience the same experiences through a correct interpretation of words? Somewhere somehow, I got the idea that when I interpret a story, an utterance, or a philosophical essay in the right way, I could see, experience what the author saw and experienced. This never meant for me that the experiences of people were experiences of an objective reality, but of a subjective experienced, meaningful reality. So we could never say how things really were, but only how things were for humans and by language we could express that experience. If we interpreted the words of the subject that expressed it, then we could re-experience the experience. Is this view a naïve one?

The reason why I put my naïve theory of understanding forward is because I learned somethings of our “mutual friend” Hans-Georg Gadamer. We agreed that my first letter for this research internship would be about the second part of Wahrheit und Methode. More specifically, it is about the second part of the second part that is titled ‘Grundzüge einer Theorie der hermeneutischen Erfahrung’. I chose this part because here Gadamer discusses the main concepts of his hermeneutics, like hermeneutische Zirkel, Vorurteil and Wirkungsgeschichte. For Gadamer, I would be very right to write my own understanding of understanding down so explicitly like I have done above. Part of my process of understanding his notion of understanding is to work on my pre-understanding (Vorverständnis). If we want to be objective, we need to be as clear as possible on our pre-understanding. We need to know how we understand something to be able to see the difference in someone else’s account. In other words, I need to know how I understand X to create the possibility that I can see how someone else understands X.

I was surprised how concrete Gadamer was in his account. He clearly states that a hermeneutically schooled reader does two things:

1) The reader is aware that a text can be totally different from her expectation that she has before reading it.

2) The reader is aware of the meaning that she expects to find in a text and works from this expected meaning onwards to be able to make apparent what the text tries to convey.

The purpose of being aware is that we can work with our prejudices and expectations. By this we make room for die Sache selbst of a text:

Sieht man näher zu, so erkennt man jedoch, daß auch Meinungen nicht beliebig verstanden werden können. Sowenig wir einen Sprachgebrauch dauernd verkennen können, ohne daß der Sinn des Ganzen gestört wird, so wenig können wir an unserer eigenen Vormeinungen über die Sache blindlings festhalten, wenn wir die Meinungen eines anderen verstehen

This quote is interesting for our research purposes as is the concept of die Sache selbst in relation to a text or speech. Gadamer seems to think that there is something in a text limits the way we can understand it. When we engage in a dialogue with someone or engage in reading of a text, we cannot simply hold on to our pre-understanding about which a text writes or the other speaks of. There is something, an X (die Sache selbst?), that makes any interpretation impossible and a range of interpretations possible. This makes a lot of sense because any interpretation of a text cannot be right. Therefore, there must be something that limits the interpreter. But what is this? And can we assume its presence in a text?

Can we access each other’s thoughts? For now, it seems with Gadamer that we can access each other’s thoughts, by abiding to his two practical virtues of a good reader. This makes way for die Sache selbst of a text or utterance. If we would understand Gadamer in this way, should we then assume that the author can put his thoughts in a text and that the thoughts are die Sache selbst of a text. Is this the case of Gadamer? And what does it mean for our question when it is not? I will keep these questions in mind when I go on reading Wahrheit und Methode.

Before I end this letter, I want to discuss Gadamer’s view on bias (Vorurteil). He claims that prejudice or bias became discredited in the Enlightenment and that we still discredit it now. The Enlightenment knows two forms of prejudice. First, the prejudice that arises due to the authority of the speaker or author. Gadamer is a great philosopher, and he says so-and-so and because he is a great thinker according to a lot of philosophers, so-and-so must be true. Therefore, we can be prejudiced when we listen or read because of the status of an author or locutor. Second, and I like this one, we can judge too hastily. If we do not take our time and make good use of our Reason, we can judge too quickly on a matter. So if we do not take our time reading or listening, then we can make judgements about a matter from prejudice. In other words, if we want to understand someone’s message, we need to be aware that we can be biased towards certain people, and that we need to take our time.

I know I did not discuss everything I could from the part of Wahrheit und Methode that I read. When I looked at the wordcount, I thought that this letter would be too long if I would include the other concepts that Gadamer discusses. I will send another letter this week about the rest of the text. Next week on Monday I will send you a letter on the third part of Wahrheit und Methode that is focused on language and understanding.

I wish you all the best and thank you for reading my letter,


Letter II

Dear Martin,

In the first letter I wrote to you, I stayed much on the surface of the matter. In this letter I will try to give a short overview of the main themes I encountered in Wahrheit und Methode that are interesting for the question we asked the text. At the end of the letter, I will ask myself what Gadamer would think of the question: Are the thoughts of others accessible? I doubt if he would accept the question as we asked it.

Gadamer thinks that our prejudices play a fundamental part in our understanding of a subject matter (die Sache). This is not the case for a reason that understands itself as absolute reason which is able to attain knowledge of a subject matter outside of its historical and cultural embeddedness. Gadamer does not think that reason that understands itself as absolute is right, because reasons self-understanding is itself historical. To use an observation of my own, when René Descartes tries to unthink everything he knows in his Meditations, he still is dependent on language. His reason did not learn this language by itself, but language is something he is learned to do. Let us not even speak of the practice of doing philosophy or science. If it is the case that the self-understanding of reason is influenced by our historical and cultural disposition, then absolute reason does not exist. It is the case that the self-understanding of reason is influenced by its disposition. Therefore, absolute reason does not exist.

We can find this argument in the section named “Die Rehabilitierung von Autorität und Tradition.” In that text part we can also find Gadamer’s positive account of prejudice. According to Gadamer, there are two forms of prejudice that exist. We can fall into prejudice or prejudgment (Vorurteil) when we do not make disciplined use of our reason. If we judge to quickly, pre-judge (Vor-urteil), then we can jump to wrong conclusion that are untrue of the subject matter (die Sache). Second, prejudice can arise when we rely on authority instead of our own reason. If we rely on the authority and do not think of ourselves then we can make wrong judgement about the subject matter. On the first form Gadamer agrees with ignoring any further engagement. I must say that I agree with it as well and I do not think that many people would disagree with it. On the second form Gadamer has something interesting to say. He argues that there is no absolute difference between questioning authority and following tradition, because both can be grounded on a rational judgement. So we can use our reason and follow tradition. Why is this important for Gadamer to point out?

We are always already within tradition because we are part of the historical process that human beings research. When we make history our object of inquiry, we tend to forget that we are part of the object of study. Think only of the phenomenon that there is branch of history that inquires the history of history writing. But why write history? Why are we interested in our past? According to Gadamer we are being ‘addressed’ (angesprochen) by history. The reason that we can be addressed is due to our embeddedness in tradition. Being embedded in tradition enables the objects around us to appear as meaningful. What is meaningful for us is familiar what is not meaningful for us is unfamiliar. In this sense tradition is something that enables a certain disclosure of the world. We choose what parts of a tradition are continued and what parts are not, through using our reason. I think that Gadamer misses an account of power relations in his theory of traditions. This is present, however, in Walter Benjamin’s Über den Begriff der Geschichte where his argument against historicism is that we are always confronted with the perspective of the victor in historical sources. This is something to think about.

From the text part “Das Beispiel des Klassischen” I found one very interesting idea. The reason why we should study the classics is because the classics are such part of our reasoning that a self-reflective reason cannot but engage with them to know where his thoughts stand on. The classics play a pre-reflective role in our reasoning. Is Gadamer making a case of abiding to our established canon? And isn’t there something to say for this? Can we not read Kant and still understand certain ideas that we find in later philosophy?

In “Die Hermeneutische Bedeutung des Zeitabstandes” we can find the following quote that is interesting for our question:

Wenn wir einem Text zu verstehen suchen, versetzen wir uns nicht in die seelische Verfassung des Autors, sondern wenn Man schon von Sichversetzen sprechen will, so versetzen wir uns in die Perspektive, unter der der andere seine Meinung gewonnen hat. ” (P. 276)

Can we access each other’s thoughts? One thing that we cannot do is access each other’s mental states (seelische Verfassung). We can place ourselves (sich versetzen) in the perspective wherefrom the other formed their opinion. Does this mean that we can access each other’s perspective, according to Gadamer? And if so, then how would we do that?

According to Gadamer, we should not focus on the inner experience of the author. We should focus on the message at hand and the subject matter (die Sache) which is the object of the message. The most we can do here is to try to discover the objective truth of the message by entering into the perspective and even adding to the arguments that would be reasonable from that perspective. How can we do this? Of course, Gadamer refers to the hermeneutic circle that starts with the anticipation of meaning that we think we will get out of the message. When we walk to the beach, we expect there to be water. Likewise, when we want to interpret a text, we expect there will be a meaningful message. A message, like this letter, exists from parts- letters, words, sentences, paragraphs- and the assumed coherent meaning of the whole. The parts of the text make us adapt the coherent meaning of the whole and the coherent meaning of the whole makes us fit the parts together. Think of a poem where all the words together make the poem the poem that it is. You will read the poem expecting that there is coherent meaning that can be distilled from the whole. Word for word, sentence for sentence, your eyes move over these words and the individual words acquire their meaning through each other. The meaning of the whole is dependent on the sum and the specific order of the words. If there is one word or sentence missing, then the meaning of the whole is different. There is a circular movement between the coherent meaning of the whole and the specific words in their order. This is the road Gadamer presents to us, if our destination is the perspective of the other.

I could go on with other parts of the text I read. But for now, I think we have enough to entertain in our thoughts. I hope I described the concepts well enough. Wahrheit und Methode is such a rich text that it takes me longer to process it then I thought it would take. And, in the meantime I read an article on the relationship between Davidson’s and Gadamer’s philosophy. I will report on that in my next letter!

Kind regards,

Letter III

Dear Martin,

In this letter I will not engage with the text Wahrheit und Methode. Instead, I will take a little excurs to an article. The title is “Gadamer and Davidson on Language and Thought” and it is published in 2012 by David Vessey. Vessey argues in the beginning of his article that ‘bringing together analytic and continental philosophy (…) by bringing together Gadamer and Davidson makes sense given their shared commitments.’ What do you think about this ‘bringing together’ of analytic and continental philosophy? And what do you think about the relation between Davidson and Gadamer? Is an article like David Vessey’s not the proof that the Analytic-Continental divide only exists in virtue of us holding it there?

In Truth, Language, and History Davidson comments at length on Gadamer’s hermeneutics. In the text “Gadamer and Plato’s, Philebus”, Davidson argues that the difference between him and Gadamer is that for Davidson a shared language is not necessary for a dialogue or understanding. We can still communicate with one another, even when we do not have a shared language. The reason for this possibility is that we can still have a shared relation to the world and from that basis we can accurately understand what the other is trying to convey. To use an example, we can take a malapropism from the famous boxer Mike Tyson. When Tyson lost a boxing match in 2002, a journalist asked him what the next step will be in his career. And Tyson replied: “I just might fade into Bolivian.” We all understand that Tyson meant “oblivion” instead of “Bolivian”, so the point of his sentence comes across, despite the malapropism, despite he did not use the proper word. In other words, Davidson seems to say that we can have a different language but as long as we can make each other understand what we mean, we can have a dialogue and come to an understanding.

For Davidson a shared language is not necessary for having a successful conversation. We do not all share the same words, and, in many conversations, we encounter words we never heard before. In a dialogue the speaker and the listener have a prior theory. The idea of a prior theory is that the speaker and the listener have a preliminary idea of what they can expect from contextual information about the situation and the persons involved. In the process of a dialogue, on the one hand, the listener may have to change his or her prior theory to understand the speaker. The speaker, on the other hand, needs to change the use of words to make his or her point and get the information across. “Understanding occurs when the listener’s revised theory corresponds with the intended theory of the speaker,” writes Vessey. Successful theories are “passing theories”, according to Davidson. Passing theories occur when the listener has understood the intention of the words of the speaker. We could say then that in a conversation the speaker wants to convey A using the words x, y and z. The listener has the prior theory B. In the conversation the speaker senses that he needs to use the words x, y and h, instead of x, y and z, so that A is understood. If the listener understands A from the used words, then we have a case of a passing theory. If the listener does not understand A from the used words, we have a failed theory. The speaker will be challenged to revise his use of words again. I must admit, I really like Davidson’s theory of language because it seems like a clear description of what is happening when two people interact.

Now Vessey’s argument is that 1) Gadamer’s conception of dialogue (Gespräch) is different of Davidson’s and 2) this difference points towards a deeper disagreement between Davidson and Gadamer. Vessey even deploys a false conclusion in the middle of his article. In this conclusion the disagreement between the two thinkers is resolved by concluding that Davidson talks about language and communication in general, and Gadamer about a specific instance of dialogue. The true conclusion is that both thinkers have a deeper disagreement that lays in their conflictual understanding of the relation between language and thought.

For Gadamer a Gespräch is not simply the transfer of information between two interlocuters. It is rather the joint act of finding the best way to articulate a specific understanding of a subject matter (die Sache). This means that it is a social activity that has transformational power for the participants. With transformational power we mean to say that a dialogue changes our understanding of the world by transforming our understanding of a subject matter. The ultimate outcome of a dialogue is a ‘fusion of horizons’, which is an agreement on a common understanding of the subject matter or a disagreement on the understanding of a subject matter. In the latter, there needs to be a shared awareness that the disagreement does benefit the general understanding of the subject matter. Thus, either way there is some improvement in our understanding when there was a fusion of horizons.

Vessey argues that Davidson misses the point of Gadamer’s concept of dialogue. In de Gadamer’s dialogue the participants do not need to have a shared language, but the participants build towards a shared language so that they can have a shared understanding of the subject matter. This misunderstanding on Davidson’s part comes from a deeper misunderstanding about Gadamer’s idea on the relation of thought, language and reality. Vessey does not claim it specifically, but if Davidson wanted to argue against Gadamer, he should have argued against this part of Gadamer’s philosophy. Before I explain Gadamer’s position, I will reconstruct Davidson’s position.

For Davidson thoughts are dependent on language but thoughts do not need to be lingual. This means that language enables us to have thoughts but not all the thoughts that we have are lingual per se. To be a thinking, rational creature is to be able to express different thoughts and to interpret the thoughts of others. The content of the thoughts that we have is caused by external reality that operates independently from us. To establish what the proper cause is of my beliefs, we enter into a high-level triangulation. Which means that we must recognize others to have beliefs and thoughts as well. If we have the possibility to recognize thoughts and beliefs from others, then we have a concept of thoughts and beliefs. And, if we have a concept of thoughts and beliefs then we must have language. (Here I miss something: does he mean that having a concept implies having language?) Therefore, language is necessary to establish the empirical contents of our thoughts in triangulation. In short, language is necessary for thoughts and beliefs because it makes it possible to have the correct thoughts and beliefs about the world through triangulation.

Gadamer would probably argue that this view on language and thought is too instrumentalist. Language is perceived here as a tool that we can pick up and use to communicate our thoughts with. The purpose of this tool would be that we can have the correct, or true thoughts about the world. This contradicts his own position, where we are always already in language. We cannot unthink language, as we have seen with the example of the Cartesian meditation, where we could only deny everything through language. Language makes thought possible, according to Gadamer. Thinking implies a meaningful understanding of a subject matter, and this understanding is expressed in language. Therefore, any subject matter appears to us within language and expresses already a certain understanding of the world.

Vessey does not make it all to clear, according to me. I argue that there is an implication that he misses to point out clearly. The differences that Davidson and Gadamer have in their commitments about language and thought, implies a different understanding of our relation towards reality. For Davidson, what is there is there, irrespective of the words you use or the language you speak. Whereas for Gadamer, what is there is there in a certain way. The use of words, the culture and epoch we are born in makes reality appear as it appears to us. This does not mean that there is nothing outside our framework, there is the subject matter (die Sache), but the way the subject matter does appear to us depend on what words use to make it present to ourselves and others.

Maybe I am mistaking and misusing a term, but I think that we came to see that hermeneutics is an ontological enterprise. Gadamer’s hermeneutics is ontological. Davidson seems to accept a certain world that we can understand better or worse, so it seems that he stays on a more epistemological side by accepting certain naturalist ontology. I hope this makes sense and please correct me if I am wrong or to rash in my argumentation.

Letter IV

Dear Martin,

I did not write you a letter for a while. Nevertheless, I was busy with the subject of hermeneutics in many different ways. As we noted, understanding is always there: when you are in a conversation, reading a book or article, or when you perform an activity. As a subject you understand this as this or that as that, consciously or unconsciously, and understanding seems to open the world for us in a certain way. And the way the world is opened up, determines the way in which we think we can move around in it and so how we eventually move around it. This makes me remember one of the first classes you gave me in my first year. You tried to explain to us that sitting on a chair already assumed a certain understanding of the object, the situation and many other factors such as our self-understanding. This struck me a lot as a person who was sitting at that moment. 

According to my planning, I am supposed to write about the second chapter of part II – “Wiedergewinnung des hermeneutische Grundproblems”. I am reading this at the moment, but the theme of this letter will be about subsection d of the previous chapter of part II, Das princip der Wirkungsgeschichte. This subsection was left out of the last letter, but is of tremendous importance for our question: Can we access each other’s thoughts?

The central concept of this chapter is Wirkungsgeschichte and this concept, as you know, is central to Gadamer’s philosophy. Concepts that are related to the concept of Wirkungsgeschichte are situation, horizon and historical objectivism. This last concept refers to the hermeneutical school that thinks that we can understand the past objectively, which is not possible when you accept the concept of Wirkungsgeschichte. Interestingly, Gadamer praises the methodological stringency of the historical objectivists – and the method of statistics- but he tries to explain that they cannot move beyond or outside history itself with any method or whatsoever. We are historical subjects, our consciousness is historical, so history works through us.

The method of statistics and historical objectivism suggest that we can attain the objective truth of a subject matter by following a method. A method is perceived as a means to come to an end. Gadamer disagrees that this is ‘objective’ understanding of a subject matter is possible. The reason for this impossibility is that Wirkungsgeschichte is always at play in any interpretation. This means two things. First, the questions that arise in us, and so what we ask, are influenced by the working of history itself. An interesting example is an event like the war in Ukraine. The history of Russia and Ukraine becomes of interest due to the war which asks for our attention right now. The second point Gadamer wants to make is that we lose ourselves in the immediacy of the truth at hand when we confront an historical object. The truth of the object is lost due to our falling into the immediacy of the truth at hand. An example could be that when we read the concept ‘God’ in a Medieval text, we bring our modern, Western interpretation of the term with us. We need to correct this tendency which is, I think very natural, so that the text itself can start to speak to us. A result of not being aware of our historical situatedness could be, then, that we do not put current problems into their proper historical context, while even are smallest problems are part of our shared traditions.  (I read in a text by Davidson- I do not know which one- that Gadamer was a relativist, but more and more it seems that he is really concerned with the question of objectivity. At least, he still aims at it, and he tries to find ways to come to it. Do you see that as well?)

In the text, Gadamer moves from the concept of situation to the concept of horizon and ends at the conscious construction of two horizons which need to ‘cancel each other out’ (Abhebung). We will start with the concept of situation. The concept of situation asks of the reader to take a look around and think about our current position, or this is what it made me do. Situation is related to Hegel’s concept of substance, which is defined as the sum of our subjective convictions and behaviours. We can never move beyond our situation because we are always within a situation. When we try to objectify our situation then we are in the situation of objectifying our situation. It makes me think about objectifying yourself: you can never take yourself as an object of thought because that which objectifies always falls out of the objectification. In other words, you can never look at yourself because it always requires something looking and this what sees (the eye of the mind?) is not perceivable. Likewise, objectifying your subjective convictions and behaviours leads you to performing the act of objectifying your subjective convictions and behaviours, which is in itself a behaviour that comes from a subjective conviction. And objectifying the objectifying of our subjective convictions and behaviours etc.

After describing the concept of situation, Gadamer moves on to the concept of horizon. “Alle endliche Gegenwart hat ihre Schranken,” he writes. Thinking about our situation needs to make us aware of the limitations of our situation. Implicitly, I think, this relates to understanding of our pre-judgements or our horizon of expectations. Instead of making this relation, Gadamer starts to introduce the concept of horizon. Horizon is defined as our point of view, wherefrom everything becomes visible. Awareness of our horizon enables us to see what is important and what not, it puts events, things etc. into perspective. We always move within a horizon and we never move outside of a horizon because our horizon moves with us. Apropos the concept of horizon, I would like to pose some questions: where does a horizon come from? Does it come from our experiences or is it imposed on us by our culture/history? Is it a combination of both, because, on the one hand, our experiences are shaped by our culture, and, on the other hand, there first is the experience of a culture before it can shape our experiences later on?

One of the most important aspects of understanding is trying to find someone’s horizon. We want to find the other’s point of view, so that we can understand the person’s expressions from out this second person perspective. It is easy to see the critique that Gadamer has on this because he is very critical, but like with his critique on historical objectivism and statistic, he is not dismissing everything as wrong. This is apparent in the following quote:

Der Text, der historische verstanden wird, wird aus dem Anspruch, Wahres zu sagen, förmlich herausgedrängt. Indem man die Überlieferung vom historischen Standpunkt aussieht, d.h. sich in die historische Situation versetzen und den historische Horizont zu rekonstruieren sucht, meint man zu verstehen. In Wahrheit hat man den Anspruch grundsätzlich aufgegeben, in der Überlieferung für einen selber gültige und verständliche Wahrheit zu finden. Solche Anerkennung der Andersheit des anderen, die dieselbe zum Gegenstande objektiver Erkenntnis macht, ist insofern eine grundsätzliche Suspension seines Anspruchs.” (p.287)

When we read closely then we see that this quote exists out of two parts. The second part of the quote starts with the sentence ‘In Wahrheit’. In the first part, Gadamer argues that understanding is placing ourselves within the situation of the Other and that, let’s call it, a simple theory of interpretation argues that understanding is just reconstructing the Other’s horizon. In the second part of the quote, Gadamer makes clear that in this way we are pacifying the words of another because we do not let it claim any Truth (with the big T) – notice how the term Wahrheit has two meanings in the sentence. It seems that Gadamer argues that respecting the true difference between the self and the Other, we need to not only reconstruct a horizon but also let the Other make a truth claim which ‘touches’ us. Is Gadamer arguing that when we only understand someone relative from her horizon, that we cannot lose and the other cannot be right in some ways? Isn’t this idea in some way a critique against liberalism, where everyone can have their ‘own’ opinion about whatever?

After making this point and posing four questions on the concept of horizon, Gadamer redefines what a good construction is of making a historical horizon. Understanding does require the construction of a historical horizon but it does not mean that we leave our own contemporary horizon behind so that we can wholly place ourselves in the horizon of the Other. We cannot place ourselves in the shoes of the Other, and if we would try to do that then we would break them because we cannot put off our own shoes ever. The following quote exemplifies that:

Denn was heißt Sichversetzen? Gewiß nicht einfach: Von-sich-absehen. Natürlich bedarf es dessen insoweit, als man die andere Situation sich wirklich vor Augen stellen muß. Aber in diese andere Situation muß man sich selber gerade mitbringen. Das erst erfüllt den Sinn des Sichversetzen. Versetz man sich z.B. in die Lage eines anderen Menschen, dann wird Man ihn verstehen, d.h. sich der Andersheit, ja der unauflöslichen Individualität des Anderen gerade dadurch bewußt werden, daß man sich in seine Lage versetzt.” (p. 288)

I want to read this quote from the perspective of our research question: Can we access each other thoughts? It seems that two things need to be done: 1) we need to place ourselves in the situation (horizon?) of the Other and 2) we need to bring ourselves to the party, so to say. This second point is important here for Gadamer. If we want to grasp the point of view of the other, as it is, the point of view of the Other and not of ourselves, then we need to keep being aware that we are interpreting from our current point of view. Later, he calls this the superior wide view that comes with the difficult task of the Wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein.

Vielmehr ist Verstehen immer der Vorgang der Verschmelzung solcher vermeintlich für sich seiender Horizonte,” writes Gadamer. In the process of historical understanding, we need to momentarily construct two horizons so that we can lift the constructed difference, to see how the past made our current standpoint possible and to see how the standpoint from the past Other is effectively different. Is understanding then for Gadamer always understanding ourselves? And, are Gadamer’s claims only important in relation to interpreting the past? For me it seems, at least, that they are evenly important for understanding, let’s say, you or someone from a different culture. What do you think of this?

Thank you for taking the time to read my letters. I missed writing them a lot and in the same manner, I missed our discussions.

Kind regards,

Worlds, norms, and empathy. A conversation with Tom Poljanšek (podcast)

This is the tenth installment of my series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Tom Poljanšek who is currently working as a postdoc at the University of Göttingen.

Our conversation is inspired by his recent book Realität und Wirklichkeit: Zur Ontologie geteilter Welten and zooms in on topics such as the relation between reality and appearance, relativism, bureaucracy, norms, Musil’s Man without Qualities, and empathy as well as Tom’s approach to writing this book. Here is a rough overview:

Introduction 00:00

Tom’s book  01:20

Rules – from semantics to politics   22:00

Implicit rules and trust        28:26

Empathy – and how it figures in sharing experience       40:40

How to read work by students and others openly            51:50

On mapping philosophy and being part of the map        55:40

Philosophy as orientation    01:11:00


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

How can you ask and structure questions?

For the last four years or so I’ve tried to integrate exercises for asking questions in my courses. (Here is a blog post on my first attempt.) To my great surprise, students in my faculty now kindly selected my musings and instructions about questions as a “best practice in teaching and learning”, and my faculty nominated me for the pertinent award given by our university.

In what follows, I post a promotional video featuring one of my students* and myself as well as the text that I wrote for the award jury.

Structured Questions

If you ask students whether they have questions about any given text, you’re often met with embarrassed silence. It’s hard to admit that you’re confused. Although asking questions is a crucial activity, how to do this is hardly ever explained. By teaching to structure and analyse questions, I attempt to achieve five things:

  1. Countering embarrassment by suggesting that genuine questions require confusion;
  2. Showing how confusion generates the motivation of a question by having students spell out what (passage) precisely causes confusion;
  3. Showing that confusion is often the result of (frustrated) expectations as a reader;
  4. Detailing how to analyse such expectations as hidden theoretical assumptions;
  5. Having students estimate what possible answers might look like, e.g. by estimating how assumptions in the text differ from one’s own assumptions. 

While stimulating active learning, most steps can be achieved without requiring new information, but rather by developing an understanding of how one’s confusion arises. Accordingly, students are encouraged to enter into a dialogue with their own hidden assumptions and with others, for instance, by articulating how their background assumptions might differ. It is designed to stimulate self-directed learning and exchange as well as benefitting from seeing diversity in assumptions.

The technique of structured questions is an active learning device and was positively evaluated by students at my Faculty. I designed it to foster self-directed learning and interaction with texts and interlocutors. Being geared towards texts and discussions generally, it should be easily transferable to other disciplines. Here is some more information about it:

Questions are an ubiquitous genre in academic exchange. In the analysis of old philosophical texts, questions are a crucial guide in approaching material and in entering a dialogue about it.  As an instructor, I’ve often been surprised by how hard students find it to formulate questions themselves, even if they are good at giving answers. Discussions with students made me realise that the reason is only partly psychological (i.e. owing to embarrassment). Even in philosophy, it is hardly taught how to articulate genuine questions and what (partly tacit) components questions consist of.

I often teach and write (on my blog) about reading and writing texts. So I designed a format for asking structured questions about texts to foster an understanding about one’s own confusions and actually benefit from confusions.

Ideally, the question focuses on a brief passage from the text. It must be no longer than 500 words and contain the following components:

– Topic: say what the question is about (the passage or concepts that cause confusion);
– Question: state the actual question;
– Motivation: give a brief explanation why the question arises (use your assumptions or frustrated expectations);
– Answer: provide a brief anticipation of at least one possible answer (e.g. by guessing at the implicit assumptions in the text and how they might differ from yours).

What did I want to teach in designing this? My initial goal was to offer a way of engaging with all kinds of difficult texts. When doing so I assumed that understanding (a text) can be a general aim of asking questions. I often think of questions as a means of making contact with the text or interlocutor. For a genuine question brings two aspects together: on the one hand, there is your question, on the other hand, there is that particular bit of the text that you don’t understand or would like to hear more about.

In order to enter into dialogue, readers or interlocutors need to learn to consider questions such as: Why exactly am I confused? Could it be that my own expectations about the text send me astray? What am I expecting? What is it that the text doesn’t give me? Arguably, readers need to understand their confusion to make genuine contact with the text. One’s own confusion needs to be understood. The good news is: this often can be achieved without acquiring new information. Instead, bringing together one’s own expectations or assumptions with those of the text (or those of other readers) initiates a meeting of minds.

I began to implement this technique in autumn 2019 with first-year students and have since then introduced it in all my courses. While it was designed with medieval philosophical texts in mind, I realised that it can be used in various contexts and indeed both for approaching texts and discussions. What I didn’t anticipate was that it also seems to help in contexts of blended learning. Last year, I received a number of mails from students thanking me for how this technique had helped them to engage in self-study and prepare for exchanges in online contexts. Since it is geared towards articulating one’s confusion about texts in general, it should be easily adaptable to other disciplines.


* I’m very grateful the students of our faculty and in particular to Maddalena Fazzo Cusan who kindly agreed to speak on behalf of the faculty’s programme committee at the very last minute.

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.”

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”.


* 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:


* Here is part nine.

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.



* 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.

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.) *


The final programme of the Budapest conference:



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.


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.


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.


* 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.


* 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.