Friday, May 25, 2012

Why Reading Is a Lost Art

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.


  1. This hits home. I usually assume I haven't been "clear" enough when something I've written is misinterpreted. But it's a two way street. I've been accused of not making arguments but merely asserting propositions, which may be a fair criticism. But I don't see philosophy as primarily about explanation or demonstration. As Whitehead put it, philosophy seeks "sheer disclosure," in a way similar to poetry. It begins and ends in wonder. Philosophcal systems are never refuted, only abandoned. Schelling similarly wrote that philosophy is not demonstrative, but generative, like artwork. Either philosophical language transforms our perception of a problem, or it doesn't. Words and thoughts are obviously entangled, but contra nominalism, thoughts do not = words. Words are like mneumonic devices to help remind readers of the soul's silent speech. Speaking and writing are always already a form of translation of something eternal and universal into something historical and particular.

    Incidentally, it is on the issue of style in philosophy that I really jive with Graham Harman. Re-wording a difficult or "unclear" statement almost always changes the statement's meaning.

  2. Matt,

    Whenever someone accuses you of making assertions, which may or may not be correct, do not let them perform the following common rhetorical move (rhetorical in the sense of taking command of the performative aspect of communication) that is also a form of ancient skepticism. Sometimes an interlocutor will demand ever more and more explanation, and at some point it becomes impractical to answer the repeated questions, and the person takes it as a sign that one does not know. That interlocutor will often attribute their own misinterpretation for your mistaken ideas. When you point this out to that person, and the the person disagrees, then at some point you should cease communicating if it is not productive.

    That said, it is true that many people do not truly understand the positions that they hold, and while this is true of all of us in some respect, for professionals there should be a limited tolerance of this. Being in graduate school or having a doctorate counts as being a "professional" by the way. Professionalization implies adhering to standards of conduct that others need not, and that includes calling someone out in certain contexts.

    Philosophy is not primarily about explanation in my view, but understanding. The former connotes linguistic communication, whereas the latter connotes wise action. This becomes a crucial difference in orthopraxic philosophies.

    Yes, thoughts are not the same as words, and that is precisely why my point about understanding the metaphors by which to think a philosophic concept is so crucial, especially if one is to work in more than one tradition, which is more than just reading another tradition's books.

    Have you read any Schleiermacher or Dilthey? Basically, 19th and 20th century hermeneutics? They discuss this in great detail, though its been too long for me to remember my own thoughts as distinct from how they put it.

    Yes, re-wording almost always changes a meaning. Likewise, "wording" or communicating at all changes a thought's meaning. In that sense, the act is truer than the word though far less communicative most of the time.