Friday, December 07, 2007

Should Philosophy Be Read Slowly?

Non-academics often think that skill in reading is measured by reading speed -- the faster the better. That is partly true, up to a point (up to about 7th grade, I suspect). I'm reminded of Woody Allen's joke about what he got from speed-reading War and Peace: "It's about Russia."

Philosophers, in contrast, sometimes seem to fetishize slow reading. "Deep" philosophy, it might seem -- or deep thinking about philosophy as one reads -- requires a glacial pace. Students sometimes excitedly report, "We spent the whole three-hour seminar reading a single page of Wittgenstein!"

I don't deny that glacial reading can, in the right mood, be exciting. And surely if you breeze through Wittgenstein or Heidegger at two minutes a page, you're missing something. But here's the compromise: If you cut your reading pace in half to get more out of what you read, you'll only be able to read half as much -- and that's another way of missing something.

The key to great philosophical reading, I think, is to vary your pace according to your projects and interests. In some ways, reading quickly is the harder skill. It's also the one less taught in philosophy seminars. How quickly can you assimilate the main ideas of 400 pages of articles on topic X? Can you detect and hone in on, slow down for, those crucial few paragraphs on which the issues really turn? Indeed, unless you can read quickly, you're likely not to have the broad understanding necessary to see where one should read slowly.

I used to begin graduate seminars with student presentations on the assigned reading. The dull blow-by-blow that typically resulted, dedicating an equal amount of energy to every page of the reading, is exactly the opposite of the skilled reader's adjustment of pace and focus. Now instead I ask students to come prepared with one or two well-developed questions or objections. This, I hope, encourages focus rather than plodding. I haven't yet dared to assign students 400 pages of a philosophy for a week, advising them to read it quickly and laser in on what seem to them to be key issues -- I think this might cause a riot! -- but the more I think about it, the more I'm tempted.

Reading philosophy quickly of course invites misunderstanding and oversimplification. But so does reading philosophy slowly, without a sufficient sense of context and alternative perspectives.

8 comments:

John Miedema said...

Hi, I agree that variability is the key to slow reading -- reading quickly over lighter passages and slowing down for the rich ones. Not all passages are equally deserving of slow reading.

KenF said...

Part of it is a talmudic thing. The assumption is that these great old philosophers were so profound, if only you could understand what they were trying to say, tease out the true meaning, you'd know everything. It's in the text we just need to discover it. A certain amount of that needs to go on, for historical research, translation, etc. But people forget that these were just men, not gods, and what they wrote wasn't perfect. The same thing is done with the constitution, as if the "founding fathers" were gods whose "original intent" is what we need to tease out to figure out what to do now.

Josh Weisberg said...

For what it's worth, I have heard that the late Richard Rorty was a speed reader. This can be taken as an argument for or against reading philosophy slowly, depending on one's view of Rorty's work.

Mark said...

I agree with the way you relate the two ideas of 1.) reading quickly and @.) reading closely/slowly. The way to bring these two ideas together though is by 3.) reading with a pen or pencil, marking what you find important, etc. Afterwards with the context in place one can better re-engage with the central theses and problematic margins that you marked. I think one of the most important skills to teach young students is the importance of "mapping" a text. With a good system of codes and signs, key points ("X") or what you don't understand ("?") and as to what is important (as well as secondary code for lesser important) can be retained. I also use a particular sign to mark a point exceptional in the text or thought ("!") and sometimes when a text makes a startling point and needs rethinking I put a exclamation point and a question mark ("!?!"). I don't think we should forget that good speed reading needs a good system of marking or mapping the text.

John Miedema said...

You may be interested in the discussion of variability in the Wikipedia entry I posted on slow reading a few months ago.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slow_reading

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

A story about Rorty pertinent to Josh's comment: In 1991 or 1992 I was at a conference on metaphysical realism at which Rorty and John Searle were both present. Rorty commented at the end of the conference on everyone else's presentations (of which written versions had been submitted in advance). When it came time to comment on Searle, Rorty said he was pleased to hear John say that "there is not a reality independent of our minds".

At that moment, Searle stood up in the audience and said, "I did not say that!" -- interrupting the talk. Rorty said, "Yes you did. I have the quote right here." Searle said "what page?". Rorty cited a page number and Searle whipped out his copy of the text. He read the quote aloud: "'There is a reality independent of our minds!' No 'not'! You added the 'not'!"

Needless to say, Rorty was quite embarrassed!

Thanks for all the comments, folks, and for the "slow reading" link, John!

Jonathan Meldrum said...

Did you ever do the 400-pages-in-a-week thing with the students, Eric? I'd be interested in how it panned out. I've just begun an undergrad degree and struggle with not just the fire-hose blast of material I'm asked to read, but equally my strong wish to actually read it all, comprehend, care about it, understand why it matters, and so forth.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Jonathan: I've never inflicted 400 pages in a week on students. It might be interesting to try that, since it's *so* unattainable the conventional way that they'll be forced to skim and choose, which could be an interesting exercise, as long as I'm very clear that that's the intent....