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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
Countering embarrassment by suggesting that genuine questions require confusion;
Showing how confusion generates the motivation of a question by having students spell out what (passage) precisely causes confusion;
Showing that confusion is often the result of (frustrated) expectations as a reader;
Detailing how to analyse such expectations as hidden theoretical assumptions;
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.
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 bookSocializing 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:
in terms of actual content: commentators gave an account of how (well) one thought in my book (might have) led to another;
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;
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.”
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).
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.
“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 satisfactoryfor 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.
* 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).
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.
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.
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 Nuchelmans’ Theories 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.