Many scholars, academics, teachers, and intellectuals claim that people do not read anymore. When philosophers complain, it is usually to say that another academic interlocutor is not carefully reading that person’s claims and being a fair interpreter. What is going wrong?
Most frequently a philosopher insists that the appropriate texts are not being read at all, not carefully, not sympathetically, not with the appropriate background, etc. These may all be true, but let me suggest a two-part reason that is not obvious.
First, readers often do not attend to the network of words or ideas in a text, which implies how a singular word functions as part of the whole. When reading an unfamiliar work, whether an original work or a text from a tradition with which one is not familiar, one should note the denotations, connotations, diction, the actual work it performs, etc. in a work. This requires an uncommon attentiveness and discernment, but it also requires that the author pay some attention to this when writing. An author who has not done this, arguably, is not worth giving the time for an attentive reading.
A perfect example of this is when a reader balks upon seeing a certain word. In my experience, “phenomenology” is frequently such a word. When I use it, a reader typically thinks “Husserlian phenomenology” and is sympathetic or venomous depending upon one’s predispositions. I wish I were making this up, but I am not, and in my own work I constantly remind readers that phenomenology as a method was popularized by Husserl, but that there are many other phenomenologies, some of which predate him by decades. Some of them use the word “phenomenology” and some do not. Just as an author should write for attentive reading, a reader is usually at fault for not giving it.
I admit that I am taking a stand on this first point, because I would remind my fellow philosophers that we purport to be writing technical nonfiction, and though we may write in many literary genres, the emphasis on developing systems of thought should be constant. That said, I would also argue that this applies to most western and eastern philosophies, a claim that might shock, because each genre has its conventions with which a reader should become familiar. Lao Tzu is clear, but part of his genre’s expectations are not written in the work itself, and the reader should familiarize oneself in advance, especially since all philosophy should not be judged by contemporary academic conventions. An experienced reader should be able to identify one’s own genre expectations and whether the text is within one’s own known orbit of genre expectations. If not, then far more charity must be given.
Second, and this becomes a monolithic problem when reading a philosophical tradition within which one is not trained, is the problem of how to think a concept. Texts invoke ideas and networks of ideas. Some genres, notably analytic genres, attempt to “be clear” by allowing a simple correspondence of the written word and the ideas thought. (Apologies if I am too presumptuous here.) Others, notably continental and historic genres, implicitly require rigorous training in how to think a concept. One must know the root metaphor by which to think it, which is a matter of theory and knowledge, but must also have the practical ability to think the metaphor correctly. I have had this conversation with a number of analytics over the years, and they think it odd and often unnecessary, while the continentals grasp the issue immediately. Historians give me the “well, duh!” look. There are a number of qualifications that could be given on this point, yet I do not want to be bogged down in them.
Dialectic is an example. One can explain in great detail what it is as a method of conceiving a concept, but demonstration of understanding requires a performance of it. Further experience and training allows a flexibility and subtlety of thought in its employment, perhaps to the point where only the most astute reader recognizes a concept as dialectical.
The issues that I am pointing at in the second case are that there are limitations to anyone’s ability to 1) externalize one’s own thought and 2) represent it in such a way that 3) it is well communicated. Different traditions require different training, and sadly, I see far too little emphasis on this in philosophical studies in the U.S. outside of historically-focused programs.
Let’s keep it real. I’ve had a few tussles in the local blogosphere, and more and more I discover that part of the problem is a large schism in the kind and extent of training that different individuals have. Aside from the point of whether I am successful at bridging these schisms, which I will admit is not always a priority for me, I do wish to make them apparent since I do not think that communication can possibly be productive until this is acknowledged. I gladly accept the charge that pragmatism, especially what I discuss, employs radically different “networks of words and ideas” than those commonly familiar to readers. But that is also the point of my blog and my work—to explore the radically different side of a tradition, the dark side of the moon, whereas so many see only the lighted side. The friendly, familiar, but also sterile side. Welcome to the dark, where beastly ideas lurk.