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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the paper:

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

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

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

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

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Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is part seven of this series.

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

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

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

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

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

Here is part six of this series.

How to read (part four). Accepting confusion as the rule and understanding as the exception

Now that we have looked at how to get started, at some malpractices that might get in the way, and at some effects of reading for writing, I finally want to begin to get to the heart of the matter, that is, to the text itself. Looking at the eager faces of my students, I think many of them usually want to do everything well and present very smart ideas about the text. I was no different, but the first thing that needs to be done is to establish a rough understanding of the text. How is that done, though? Let’s get down to business.

Accepting confusion as the default state of mind. – Reading philosophical texts, I generally assumed that I would not understand very much. Confusion was the rule; getting something was a rare exception. The most impressive experience of that sort I had when I translated my first text from William of Ockham’s Quodlibeta. The title suggested that it was on the problem of universals, but I didn’t understand a word of what I had translated. By contrast, my students commonly want to grasp how things hang together. So they often ask how this relates to that. I love those questions and the eagerness to spot the system behind the remarks. But I often have to admit that I am not sure what the system is or whether there is one. My point is not to discourage consistent thinking. However, systematic consistency is first of all an expectation, typical for contemporary readers. There is no guarantee that a historical text will meet that expectation or meet it in the way we expect. Lowering expectations of systematicity, then, is what I mean by accepting confusion as the default. When opening a book, we often simply don’t know what to expect. So it helps to accept confusion and looking for islands that (seem to) make sense, rather than to start out wanting to get everything and see dark passages as outliers. Accept that you will understand very little. If you want to rush to conclusions, that’s very understandable, but you’re going to be frustrated much of the time.

What is the text about? The hermeneutic circle. – The first question that you will need to answer is: What is the text about? Assuming that you don’t understand much at this point, you will have to make a guess. That guess is usually prompted by the islands of understanding, i.e. some details that make sense. Perhaps this is the title of the text, although Platonic dialogues will be frustrating in this regard. Or it will be some line in the beginning, with some familiar words and phrases. Or it might be simply that your instructor has set the text as an instance of a text about a particular topic. The point is that, at this point, you’ll be hooked by some detail and draw a conclusion about the general topic. The projection of of such a general topic works like a hypothesis, to be confirmed or frustrated by the next details you’re going to look at. In any case, the move from some detail to a general assumption about a topic and back to further details back to the general topic or a refined understanding of it is what is called the hermeneutic circle.

Approaching details. – Once you decided that a text is about a particular topic, you will begin to see the details as relating to that topic. If the genre allows for it, you should try and see which general conclusion the text argues for. Typically, a conclusion is introduced by words like “thus” or “therefore”. But sometimes it’s more hidden than that. Anyway, once you think that a text is designed to make such a claim, you will begin to see arguments as an (attempted) support of that claim. In other words, your general understanding guides how you see details. If something doesn’t make sense or is not in keeping with your assumed topic or conclusion, you must either figure out whether this is owing to a deviation like special use of terminology or you must refine your hypothesis about the claim or topic. When you hit on something like this, try to analyse exactly where your understanding breaks down: Is it about an unusual term or the unusual use of a term? Try to search for such uses online! Is it a whole sentence? Or the connection between sentences? Try to analyse the sentence or find a paraphrase! Is it a whole section? Try to figure out the function of the section or paragraph! Is the author speaking sincerely? There are a number of questions you can ask. What helps me most of the time is look at related or similar texts. Do they have the same kind of oddities? – Above all, remember that understanding a text as whole is the exception, not the rule.

Placing your own steps in the conversation. – Many people think of reading as receiving what the author says or, perhaps worse, as receiving information. That is never true. When you read and begin to think or stumble along silently, you will have (at least) two voices. You’ll hear the voice of the author and your own voice. Your tacit questions, your despair or impatience, your paraphrases, or your nodding and occasional disagreement are present throughout. Take it seriously! Reading is a dialogical act. And your mumblings are the voice that engages with the text, making it come alive and vice versa. Keep a record of what you find important or strange in the text. But also keep a record of what you think and feel. A passage makes you feel uneasy? Note it and try to figure out what exactly makes you feel this way. You find yourself nodding agreement all the time? Why? Are there reasons in the text? Does it speak to your sentiments? You find yourself lost? Note what it is and start a search. – If you’re supposed to discuss the reading and you find that this is too difficult, begin by offering your own responses to the text. They are just as good as the other voices to enter the conversation.

Here is part five of this series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is part four of this series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is part three

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

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

How to read. Some basics (part one)

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

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

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

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

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Click here for part two of this series.

A review of ‘Handling Ideas’. Guest post by Timon Beeftink

As a student in Philosophy, you are expected to write some essays every now and then. You pick a topic, find some literature, design an argument, and write down your findings—preferably in a clear and organized format, with an introduction, three sections, and a conclusion. Looking back on my first essay in philosophy, an essay on the ‘Third Man Argument’ in Plato’s Parmenides, I clearly find a ‘scholastic approach’: there is no personal engagement—the essay is merely produced for the sake of fulfilling the assignment.

Of course, sometimes you have to write some essays on topics you are not really interested in. But in taking this scholastic attitude, you run the risk of extending this approach to anything you write: by distancing yourself from the content of the essay, you might produce something true—but what is the function of truth if it stood “before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I acknowledged it or not, inducing an anxious shiver rather than trusting devotion?”[1] What I often find lacking in my own essays, is exactly this personal engagement: I take truth as an external object, rather than something that is to be related to. But how do you write an engaged essay, without running the risk of falling into a non-academic subjectivism? As I see it, it is this question that countless students (and academics) struggle with, and the question that is at stake in various blog posts by Martin Lenz.

As such, I think that many students would be served by some thoughts on how to combine personal engagement with academic writing. Students commonly struggle with writing essays and theses, exactly because of this seemingly necessary lack of anything personal in academic writing. What I learned over the years, especially in Martin’s courses on Medieval Philosophy and Wittgenstein, is that finding your own voice is absolutely crucial: without your own voice, your essay lacks something crucial. Particularly the idea of thinking through the text and problems before consulting any secondary literature, is an approach that sticks to my mind: the problem is then not merely an abstract problem, but ‘your’ problem as well. It would have helped me when I had learned the following points in an earlier stage of the Bachelor:

  • Academic writing is no ‘scholastic’ writing: it is exactly your own voice that makes your academic writing vivid.
  • Formulate a clear question: engage with the texts and write down your own questions, before consulting any secondary literature.
  • Don’t be shy: have the courage to find and write in your own style—don’t think that you have to abstract from yourself in order to write something ‘good’.

In what follows, I’d like to focus on three of Martin’s blog posts, as they deal with the above points. They contain some thoughts every student could benefit from. I think that Martin’s future project of turning these and other blog posts into a book (Handling Ideas: Understanding, Expressing, and Applying Philosophical Thoughts) is a very good idea. A few questions that come to mind by reading your general idea of writing such a book, are the following:

  • What is the target group of the work? Is it particularly designed for students of philosophy, or for anyone writing academic, philosophical texts?
  • Are you planning to use an aphoristic approach in Handling Ideas, or do you want to offer a more ‘systematic’ approach in outlining this ‘handling’?
  • How are you going to structure the work? How do ‘understanding’, ‘expressing’, and ‘applying’ relate? Are you planning to write an introduction on what we are to understand with the ‘handling’ of ideas in the first place?

Anyway, these are some of my own experiences and thoughts on Martin’s general ideas. I will now turn to a more blog-specific feedback on the three posts.

1. How do you turn a half-baked idea into a paper?

The idea of ‘confidence’ that you discuss in this blog, is closely related to what I wrote on ‘Don’t be shy’ on the previous page: the idea that we lack the courage or confidence to actually write what we would like to write. This reminds me of a passage of Nietzsche you once quoted: “Was ist das Siegel der erreichten Freiheit? – Sich nicht mehr vor sich selber schämen”.[2]. At the same time, however, you primarily focus on “visible agreement with other ideas”. I think that this is indeed crucial for developing an idea, but that there is something else at play as well. As I told you in our chat a few months ago, and as you write in Don’t read! Or how to start writing, we might lose confidence in sight of secondary literature: faced with the countless ideas and commentaries, we think that our own idea is not worth pursuing. As the comments of ‘Anonymous’ on Don’t read! Or how to start writing indicate, we often want to say something ‘new’ in our writings. When faced with secondary literature, however, we find out that our idea lacks this ‘something new’, but contains something that is relentlessly discussed already. Even before consulting secondary literature, we might be plagued by insecurity: What if my idea is just a common idea? What if various people already had the very same idea? What if my idea is not original enough? I often ask these questions myself as well. In these instances, I try to be aware of the following fact: you are the person that has this specific idea, and as such, the idea is always something new—it is something new for you. This observation crucially relates to our initial reasons to pursue a career in philosophy: Do we want to teach others something new, or do we want to learn something new ourselves? If this first consideration is our reason for doing philosophy, we are going to have a hard time indeed.

Here in Copenhagen, they use an interesting approach for dealing with this feeling. In twelve weeks, we have to write twelve discussion board posts of 500 words. After four weeks, we take one of the four posts and elaborate on our observations in an 5-paged essay. We repeat this process another two times, and end up with three 5-paged essays that contain our own observations on a specific philosophical text. We pick one of these three essays, and expand it into a 10-paged paper. In this final paper, we engage with secondary literature on the topic, and try to formulate our own position in the debate. This might seem to be time-consuming, but it makes it a lot easier to identify your own questions, problems, and ideas. As such, it is closely related to the method you propose: try to narrow down your ideas, and start by writing an introduction containing a topic, problem, hypothesis, and question. We commonly think that writing is the act of writing—but it is equally well taking some time for thinking about what to write: taking a walk is just as part of the process as is the act of writing itself.

As such, having a half-baked idea might equally reflect the approach we take in writing philosophically. More often, we dive into literature in order to determine our point of view, but that is exactly the place where this point of view cannot be found. We should allow ourselves to take a considerable amount of time on developing our own questions—to actually think about what interests and moves us. Read the text, formulate your own questions. If an idea is half-baked, this might indicate that this idea is not actually yours.

2. Finding your voice in academic writing. Some practical considerations

The second blog nicely follows up on this point of finding your own voice in academic writing. As you express it here: “Rather, style is a result of something else: a result of emphasising those things that matter to you.”[3] Later in the blog, you explain how to find that what matters to us: “So your A and B are not authors or papers; they are two positions, isms, types of argument.” When reading this passage, I immediately had to think of Wittgenstein’s opening in Philosophische Untersuchungen: he uses the text of Augustine to illustrate a common way of understanding language.

At the same time, however, this approach worries me a bit. As you mention yourself, we have to be careful not to “build a straw man”. But as I see it, this is exactly what many philosophical texts do: they do not attack or defend an actual position, but an abstract position of some ‘-ism’. The problem with this approach, is that there is hardly anyone who identifies herself with this position in the first place. Let us take existentialism as an example. Suppose that we write a paper on why existentialism is short-sighted in approaching human life from an a priori concept of the subject. We might succeed in refuting this position—but whose position was it anyway? Camus rejects the label. Marcel rejects the label. Merleau-Ponty rejects the label. Heidegger rejects the label. Jaspers rejects the label. Nietzsche cannot be said to be an existentialist. Kierkegaard cannot be said to be an existentialist. Yes, we might only attack Sartre in doing so. But why, then, not responding to Sartre directly, rather than abstracting from his position in an ‘-ism’ which, besides him, nobody is willing to share? I sometimes get the feeling that this abstraction brings a certain form of artificiality in the academic debates.

But at the same time, you are right in saying that—in focusing on Sartre instead of existentialism, for example—we lose ourselves in details of a particular writer that are not at issue in the actual position we are willing to discuss. We might try to outline the meaning of, say, l’existence précède l’essence, and lose ourselves in innumerous details while doing so—but that in no means helps in the discussion of existentialism we were planning to perform. I feel that it is a difficult balance: not losing oneself in a particular author, nor losing oneself in a too general ‘-ism’. But yeah, it is always easy to lose oneself—as we might say in an Anti-Climacian spirit.

3. Alienation: On learning to talk philosophy

As with most of your blogs, this third blog post starts with something clearly recognizable: “Asking questions serves more as an opportunity to show off, making newcomers feel like outsiders.” I don’t know where this general urge comes from, but we all tend to do this—we only dare to pose a question if it is ‘smart’ enough. But in doing so, we prevent our questions from being genuine questions: they do not flow from a need to expose our very self (which a genuine question does), but from the need to show off ourselves.

Crucial to this post is the notion of ‘alienation’. That philosophy can indeed be alienating, is already clear from ordinary life. Once I told my hairdresser that I was studying philosophy, but she he had no idea what ‘philosophy’ was. So I had to explain—and I had a hard time in trying to do so. What seemed to be a normal way of thinking for me, was completely alien to her. The same applies to children—or even more so. What are we to make of this observation? Philosophy deliberately chooses to alienate from ordinary life, for it is exactly in this alienation that questions are to be found. As you write: “Moving within familiar territory generates no questions or ideas.” But at the same time, we can lose ourselves in this alienation: in posing too many questions, we become alien to ourselves. How do we prevent this risk of being alienated from existence? Might philosophy bring us too far?

To prevent this risk, we might speak of philosophy as having the task to bring about a ‘double movement’: it allows us to alienate from reality, to the end of returning us to reality with a new understanding. We might criticize Socrates for the lack of doing so: he merely asks questions. At the same time, we might use this to criticize overconfident philosophers as well: they never ask questions. As you write, “no one will learn anything if no one leaves the realm of mutual expectations”. Philosophy leaves this realm. But if we do not return to this state of mutual expectations and understanding, we lose ourselves in philosophy’s negative movement: the movement of alienation. The illustration on the Condemnation of 1277 clearly shows this process in a positive way: we leave the realm of expectation, but return to this realm with a new understanding. And it is here that philosophical writing has its place: express this very process of alienation and returning home again.

This brings me to another crucial point you mention: “You might end up having a real conversation.” As I’ve experienced it, it is difficult to have a ‘real conversation’ on philosophical matters when you’re a student in philosophy yourself. I tend to assume the position of ‘teacher’, rather than the position of someone who might learn something of the non-philosophical other. With other philosophers, I’ve no hard time in doing so. But with foreigners to the realm of philosophy, it is very difficult to ‘talk philosophy’. Where to start? What to say? How to depart from a common understanding? What I take to be crucial things, say, that we should not confuse Johannes de silentio with Kierkegaard himself, is completely non-crucial for the person I’m talking to. What to say, and what not to say? Is there a difference in the various ways in which we can ‘talk philosophy’? If so, what are the implications for the process of ‘handling ideas’? Who is the person that handles the idea? Do we ourselves do so? Or do we always depart from a common understanding of reality in order to handle some ideas? What is the relation between our handling of ideas and our relation to others? Can (our relation to) others shape the way in which we handle ideas? Who or what does the handling?


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Journalen AA (SKS 17, 24)

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, §275

[3] Your observation of finding someone “who encourages you to think that the things you find important can actually be said”, are clearly recognizable. It was only after reading Kierkegaard and Nietzsche that I felt the courage to actually formulate my ideas in my own terms.

Why don’t we mine contemporary philosophy for tools to do history?

Philosophers often turn to the history of philosophy for instrumental reasons. The aim is not to ‘do’ history but to prevent reinventing the wheel or to mine historical texts for interesting arguments or ideas. This approach is common both in teaching and research. Undergraduates are often taught surveys in order to develop some ‘vocabulary’, and philosophical discussions are often prefaced with some big names when introducing, for instance, a “Humean account of whatever”. To my surprise, I rarely find any appeal to the converse approach, that is: historians of philosophy instrumentalising contemporary philosophical arguments or ideas to capture historial ideas or debates. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that this might be a fruitful approach both for teachers and researchers.

Let me start with a simple example. I’m currently running a course on Condemned Philosophy where I discuss attempts at condemning or censoring philosophy. While focussing on a particular medieval case (the condemnation of 1277) I also introduced modern examples (such as the letter against Derrida’s honorary degree at Cambridge). The topic of this course is certainly interesting for a number of reasons. But when thinking about such motions and trying to capture what’s going on more generally I find it helpful to turn to terms coined in argumentation theory and social epistemology. An obvious feature of both condemnations is that certain standards of rationality or evidence are said to be protected against the opponents in question (against pagan or continental philosophers). So why not discuss these cases as instances of what contemporary philosophers call deep disagreement or epistemic injustice? Arguably, such classifications give us a way of capturing what is at stake in condemnations and what sort of reasons we should be looking for when exclusionary moves are being justified. What’s more, the notions of deep disagreement or epistemic injustice are of course controversial in themselves. But their controversial status actually helps in thinking about historical sources in pluralistic ways and helps in trying to get a nuanced understanding of what it is we’re looking at when poring over different cases of condemnation.

In a way, historians do this all the time. Interpreting historical ideas or debates involves taking them as something. Taking Ockham’s account of mental propositions or Locke’s theory of ideas as accounts of mental representation, for instance, is a common move amongst historians. But usually such interpretations are seen as historical accounts of the material, that is, they are either taken as historically well defended or as anachronistic failures that miss the mark. In other words, such interpretations are not taken as merely instrumental, but as proper or improper readings of the pertinent texts. By contrast, my take on the condemnations as cases of deep disagreements or cases of epistemic injustice does not involve the claim that the historical agents themselves would have accepted such descriptions as a valid reading of their disagreements. Rather, it is a tool to decidedly enrich our means of understanding, classifying and evaluating what is going on.

The point I’m trying to make is, then, that we historians should approach texts not just by trying to find historically adequate interpretations, but approach the material with various instruments and make good use of the ample conceptual resources provided in contemporary philosophy. Just like a contemporary philosopher engaging Aristotelian accounts of ethics doesn’t need to care about Aristotle, historians don’t always need to care about the question whether there is a real historical relation between projects or authors of different periods when using current conceptual tools. We don’t need to connect historical dots between the shunning of Aristotelianism in Paris in 1277 and the shunning of continental philosophy in 1992 in Cambridge to see that these events share more features than might meet the eye.

But why, you might ask, should historians bother to use such merely instrumental devices? Well, first of all they allow us to update our grasp of the material. Whether we like it or not, when we refrain from employing contemporary terms it doesn’t mean we’re closer to the actors’ categories, but most likely just closer to the 19th-century surveys that still dominate our historical approaches. Moreover, it allows philosophy students to connect the dots between historical texts and their courses in contemporary philosophy. So rather than arguing over adequate approaches to history, I’d suggest we make ample instrumental use of all the devices at hand.