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
* 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.