Tag Archives: philosophy

Merleau-Ponty on method

One of the interesting things about reading the working notes from The Invisible and the Invisible is that the reader gets to look inside the philosopher’s head; to see Merleau-Ponty trying to figure out his ideas, holding forth with himself, questioning his own approach, and testing out his own ideas. This is particularly the case with Merleau-Ponty for at least two reasons.

First, it seems that Merleau-Ponty thought on paper, working out his ideas with his pen. As Claude Lefort notes in his editorial introduction “The author was in the habit of jotting down ideas on paper, ordinarily without concerning himself with style nor even obliging himself to compose complete sentences. These notes, which sometimes contain but a few lines and sometimes extend over several pages, constitute drafts for developments that figure in the first part of the work or would have figured in its continuation.”

Second, Merleau-Ponty is a philosopher of work in progress, of the unfinished nature of work. When we close the question of being we lose being. It is rather, in our continued strivings for truthful expressions that we catch glimpses of truth. We often will complete works, and well we should, and we should also hope that they speak truthfully, that they are successful. But our work is never finished; at most it is passed down to those who follow. All this is to say that there is a certain sense in which Merleau-Ponty’s working notes showcase his work at its most truthful. The form of a finished book, with a concluding argument that wraps of the questions asked, cannot distort the fact that here is someone striving for truth and whose truthfulness is found to great degree in such authentic strivings.

This is perhaps no more the case than when Merleau-Ponty comes to questions of method: how will he present this book? There are numerous proposed outlines and various notes questioning where best to put different ideas. Here’s a gem that Merleau-Ponty jotted down in January 1959:

“Indicate from the start of the analysis of Nature that there is circularity: what we say here will be taken up again at the level of the logic (2nd volume). No matter. One does have to begin.”

Reading Comprehension — reading the controversial

Standardized tests are infamous for these little tasks: read a paragraph and answer some multiple choice questions. The SAT is a prime example.


Though there are many problems with these tests, I think the worst seems to be that there is no risk in what one reads. Why? The content is not important to the reader. If the reader is to be successful, they must adopt a method of reading that delivers results (high test scores). They are not reading the content because they are interested or because they think it might be important.

And yet! what one reads in one’s day to day living, research, or internet surfing is of the utmost importance: it informs, challenges and strengthens our attitudes. Granted, various materials require different methods of reading. Still, one researches about what one is interested in, even if that is for remuneration. One comes across certain texts with certain goals. One is looking for something in the text. When we come across articles that make us angry, we are often already sure of what we will take away from the article. We tend to project far more into the text than what is often there when the topic is meaningful.

Think, for example, when you post a controversial article online. There are those who will like it and support it if it has certain buzz words and if it is linked to a certain ideology. And there are those who will dislike it for the same reasons. That’s not surprising. But what is surprising is that from the comments, it’s often extremely hard to figure out what exactly the article was really about. This is where we will find the largest gap between what the article says and what the reader comprehends. This is true not only of social media but also true of scholars and readers in general.

And shouldn’t this be the job of the reader, to understand the text whether they with it or not? For, if a writer can only ever write to those who already agree with them, then what’s the point of writing?

Perhaps a better task for comprehension would be to first find out the reader’s background, attitudes and allegiances in order to determine what they already agree with and what they don’t. Second, give them a lengthy text to read that challenges their position so that they have to spend a great deal of time with their foes. Third, give the student sufficient time to make notes and go back through the text for nuances. This forces the student to find what they think was important in the text. Finally, have the reader answer some questions aurally. Perhaps the results would be similar to the SAT, but I doubt it.  Any educators out there have experience with this?

The ability to comprehend material that one disagrees with is the ability to change your own attitude. In his Theses On Feuerbach, Marx famously said that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” There is a great deal of truth to it. But one must not forget that the word philosophy means to love wisdom. In other words, to learn to change yourself.

A sentence per page

Often I find myself re-reading the pages of dense philosophical works over and over and over to try and remember what the development of the argument is and its relationship to what they are now discussing.

I decided to try and summarize each page with a sentence or two at the bottom of the page as a way to continually stay engaged with the work. This technique has helped me tremendously for three reasons.

First, I am forced to find the trajectory of the work and what is most important to it for that particular page.

Second, I am able to go back through my texts more easily for summaries and to know whether or not it is completed. When I see a page with a sentence at the bottom I have a feeling of completion.

Third, when I go back to these works, I can check whether my original interpretation is any good. And this becomes all the more profitable because I have a lens to read the work through, which I often find necessary to try and decipher these texts.

I often wonder whether I have turned reading too much into a technique. But I think that having ways of dealing with difficult things (texts, music, life decisions etc.) is a way of engaging that is often the most profitable for both parties.

Daniel Dennett’s Mis-step

Daniel Dennett’s steps for “How to compose a successful critical commentary” have been swimming around the internet recently. For those of you who haven’t read them, they are below.

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

They are quite helpful for, as its author intended, “composing a successful critical commentary.” But I would add another point, which could actually summarize the first four: How would your opponent respond? If you can successfully refute your own criticism of the work in question (target), a requirement of being able to do this would be both a firm grasp on the text (your target’s position) and, most importantly, understood the content, orienting principles, and trajectory of the work.

The fundamental difference between my step and Dennett’s is that of purpose. If one’s primary task is to compose a critique, then I would suggest that the primary intention or thrust of the critique is to show that your opponent is wrong and that you are right. In order to show you are right with intellectual rigor, then proceed with Dennett’s steps to success. If your task is to read and learn from the text, then the ability to “re-express your target’s position” should be your chief task in the first place.

Now, am I being fair to Dennett and his steps? First, the four steps were on a half-page article on the internet and seem to be taken from his book “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.” So he may have prefaced these four steps with something like “if you are going to criticize, here are some good tools to do so. Included in these tools are four helpful steps.” Second, closely related, these steps may be misquoting or mis representing the author. Third, he does say that they are tools for criticisms and not that they are four steps to learning or engaging with a text.

After having read the section of his book on the steps, the first two of my attempts to be fair are easily answered. The steps are actually those of Anatol Rapoport which Dennett follows with “somewhat of a struggle.” The article in question is rather misleading. First it says that the rules were formulated by Rapoport. In the next sentence it says that Dennett has “synthesized” the rules. So they are not of his own construction. They are a part of his bag of critical thinking tools.

So. Do the four steps embody a certain disposition towards people and their works? If I am reading him right, Dennett holds that it is more rewarding to follow the steps than to give a thoughtless critique (angry hatchet job). “It is worth reminding yourself that a heroic attempt to find a defensible interpretation of an author, if it comes up empty, can be even more devastating than an angry hatchet job. I recommend it.” This sentence comes at the end of his thoughts on the four steps. His last words are about the rewards one reaps by being right or wrong in a debate.

The final emphasis is on being right, on having an intellectually fortified position which one either wins or loses. Nowhere does he stress that the point of engaging with a text (opponent) is to learn from it. Put at its worst: learn from your opponent so that you can be in a better position to criticize them. You can re-express their position, but don’t try and answer for them.

I think the most profitable way to read a text is to be able to learn the author’s position and trajectory so that you can answer questions that they have not been able to answer yet and to let the text speak new thoughts by means of your newly posed questions (criticisms).

In sum, the four steps are centered around winning an intellectual argument and not about an engagement that would loosen the bonds that hold you to your own position; the loosening and distancing of these bonds i call change, and the practice of loosening and challenging these bonds — the opening up and engagement with inherently different practices — I call growth.

I would love to be convinced that Dennett advocates for this kind of growth, or, even better, that my conception of growth is flawed and is in need of revision.