A Plea For The Philosophy of Reading.
By Robert Hanna
You can also download and read or share the complete longer essay from which the short essay directly below has been extracted, “Caveat Lector: Six Investigations in The Philosophy of Reading,” HERE.
My six recent investigations in what I’m calling the philosophy of reading–available online HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE–began in response to a thought-provoking question in a philosophical conversation,[i] as an almost-Cartesian attempt to find skepticism-resistant knowledge in a contemporary world filled to the brim with “alternative facts,” “post-truth,” anti-science, and radical skepticism.
Reflecting afterwards on that conversation, I then remembered the pro-education slogan attributed to Harry S. Truman:
If you can read this, thank a teacher.
When I first encountered that slogan many years ago, I thought: how utterly obvious and redundant the antecedent phrase of that conditional sentence, i.e.,
If you can read this,
is! — what else could I, the reader of that very antecedent phrase, ever possibly be doing as I cognitively encountered it, if not reading it?
Then, as I remembered that thought, it suddenly occurred to me that the sentence
You, the reader of this very sentence, are reading this very sentence.
is in fact self-evidently true and epistemically indubitable, or skepticism-resistant, like Descartes’s celebrated Cogito sentence in the Second Meditation, quoted as the epigraph of this essay — although, as Jerrold Katz correctly pointed out, it’s more accurately called the Existo (Katz, 1988) — yet also intriguingly different from the Cogito/Existo and even more epistemically fundamental.
For, in order for me to perform or infer the Cogito/Existo for the first time (and any number of subsequent times) by reading the Second Meditation, I have to read the following sentence, extracted from the sentence from the Second Meditation that’s quoted in this essay’s epigraph —
[T]his proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind. (Descartes, 1985c: p. 17)
and therefore, in order to perform the Cogito/Existo myself for the first time (and any number of subsequent times) by reading the Second Meditation, I also have to read the following embedded sentence —
I am, I exist. (Descartes, 1985c: p. 17)
which, in the context of its larger embedding sentence, namely —
So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind. (Descartes, 1985c: p. 17)
is a sentence such that, when I myself performed or inferred the Cogito/Existo for the first time (and any number of subsequent times) by reading the Second Meditation, I also already implicitly knew in a skepticism-resistant way that I, the reader of that very sentence, was reading that very sentence and therefore existed as I read that very sentence: so, Descartes’s Cogito/Existo could just as accurately be called the Lego.[ii]
With all that running through my mind, I then remembered the fifteen fascinating sections in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations that are devoted to the philosophical grammar of the word “reading” (Wittgenstein, 1953: pp. 61e-70e, §§ 156–171), and promptly re-read those sections.
The six investigations then grew organically from those philosophical starting points, each one flowing naturally from the other without my having to outline the next one or ones in advance — a striking cognitive phenomenon which further convinced me that the philosophy of reading is an authentic, central, and fundamental enterprise, even despite the fact that it has been almost universally avoided by philosophers.
As I argued in the six investigations, the intentional targets of the act or process of reading are at-least minimally scannable, at-least minimally parse-able, and at-least minimally comprehensible structural objects belonging to some or another language L, that are ineluctably embedded in an egocentrically-centered, intrinsically directional or orientable, manifestly real, three-dimensional space, thereby necessarily requiring the actual existence and essential embodiment of the reader.
As linguistic structural objects, the intentional targets of reading are manifestly real linguistic physical tokens of manifestly real linguistic physical types, which in turn are inherently repeatable objects that are non-platonically and kantianly abstract according to this definition:
X is non-platonically and kantianly abstract if and only if X is not uniquely located and realized in manifestly real spacetime, and X is concrete otherwise. (Hanna, 2015: pp. 269–270)
Now, the rational human cognition of concrete tokens of the linguistic structural objects of reading, whether in perception, memory, or imagination, is what Kant calls sensibility (Sinnlichkeit), which in turn requires a capacity for first-order conscious or self-conscious, essentially non-conceptual, and non-empirical unified formal spatial or temporal representation, or what Kant calls pure intuition or reine Anschauung (Kant, 1998: p. 173, A20/B34–35).
Therefore, the act or process of reading is an essentially intuitionistic activity that doesn’t require any sort of platonic objects.
The philosophy of reading thereby wholly avoids the classical metaphysical/ontological and epistemic problems of platonism, especially including The Benacerraf Dilemma, which says:
(i) on the one hand, our standard Tarskian semantics of mathematical truth requires platonically abstract objects that exist outside of spacetime and are causally inert, but
(ii) on the other hand, our best theory of human knowledge requires directly sensibly accessible causal objects of perception, so
(iii) mathematical truth is humanly unknowable. (Benacerraf, 1973)
In short, the philosophy of reading is decisively (to coin a nifty neologism) trans-Benacerraf-Dilemma-istic, precisely because it’s metaphysically structuralist, ontologically non-platonistic, although fully accommodating non-platonically and kantianly abstract objects, and epistemically intuitionistic, from the get-go (Hanna, 2015: chs. 6–8).
Furthermore, the philosophy of reading predicts that there are texts rational human animals can read, that no computer will ever be able to “read,” even when we bracket the contested issue of the role of phenomenal consciousness/sentience vs. philosophical zombie-states/non-sentience in acts or processes of reading.
Let’s consider computational “reading” that’s based on optical character recognition (OCR):
There are two basic methods used for OCR: [m]atrix matching and feature extraction. Of the two ways to recognize characters, matrix matching is the simpler and more common.
Matrix Matching compares what the OCR scanner sees as a character with a library of character matrices or templates. When an image matches one of these prescribed matrices of dots within a given level of similarity, the computer labels that image as the corresponding ASCII character.
Feature Extraction is OCR without strict matching to prescribed templates. Also known as Intelligent Character Recognition (ICR), or Topological Feature Analysis, this method varies by how much “computer intelligence” is applied by the manufacturer. The computer looks for general features such as open areas, closed shapes, diagonal lines, line intersections, etc. This method is much more versatile than matrix matching. Matrix matching works best when the OCR encounters a limited repertoire of type styles, with little or no variation within each style. Where the characters are less predictable, [intelligent character recognition, or topological feature analysis,] is superior. (Data ID, 2022)
Now, consider garbled texts: that is, texts that contain misspelled sub-texts, sub-texts with missing characters, sub-texts with obscured characters, sub-texts whose characters are excessively large or excessively small, ungrammatical sub-texts, incomprehensible sub-texts, and above all, texts that contain disoriented sub-texts, that is, sub-texts reversed in a mirror, tipped sideways, or upside down.
Necessarily, any digital computer running an OCR program must process information in a step-by-step sequence, and whenever it encounters something that it cannot recognize as a determinate unit of information, whether by matrix matching, feature extraction, aka intelligent character recognition, aka topological feature analysis, or whatever, it simply stops processing and cannot go on.
In the logical theory of digital computing, this is known as the halting problem, and it’s provably unsolvable (Boolos and Jeffrey, 1989: pp. 28–33, 41–42, 49–50).
But, as rational human animals, we represent texts as complete Gestalt-structures embedded in manifestly real egocentrically-centered orientable space, and therefore we always have a unified formal spatial representation of the text as a whole for guiding us through our reading, not only before we begin scanning it sequentially, but also throughout the time we’re scanning it sequentially.
This enables us to jump over, fill in, or creatively interpret illegible sub-texts, and/or re-orient disoriented sub-texts in spatial imagination, when we encounter garbled texts, hence we’re able to read all sorts of garbled texts, provided that they’re otherwise at-least minimally legible by the criteria I provided in the Sixth Investigation, available online HERE.
Therefore, our rational human ability to read garbled texts, provided that they’re otherwise at-least minimally legible, will necessarily exceed the digital processing abilities of computers to “read” those texts, i.e., there are texts rational human animals can read, that no computer will ever be able to “read.”
Finally, I’m going to return briefly to the difficulty of the philosophy of reading, as so insightfully and rightly pointed up by Wittgenstein (Wittgenstein, 1953: p. 61e, §§155–156): precisely why is the philosophy of reading such hard work?
I think that it’s for two reasons.
First, it’s because the phenomenon of reading brings together central and fundamental issues and problems in philosophical logic, the philosophy of language, the philosophy of language-&-mind, epistemology, metaphysics, cognitive science, and the general theory of human rationality, in an inherently interconnected and indeed profoundly tightly-knotted-up way.
In that sense, my six Investigations in the philosophy of reading have been an extended exercise in patiently tugging away at this gnarly knot and, to the extent I’ve been able to succeed, untying it.
And second, it’s because the phenomenon of reading also presents itself as something so utterly obvious — after all, every single reader of this very sentence has already learned to read, and of course virtually all of us have also done so before the age of 6 or 7, so “even a child can do it!” — that we completely fail to notice its profound complexity and its central and fundamental importance in our rational human lives, a notable instance of the cognitive pathology I’ve called young fish syndrome in the Fifth Investigation, riffing on David Foster Wallace’s famous allegory:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?” (Wallace, 2012)
So in that sense, my six Investigations in the philosophy of reading have also been a six-part heads-up call to contemporary philosophers and cognitive scientists:
Caveat lector! You avoid the philosophy of reading inevitably and only at the excessively high theoretical cost of disastrously and even tragically going off the rails in the philosophy of mind-&-knowledge and the cognitive sciences, from the very start.
[ii] With Scott Heftler. I’m grateful to him for his question and also more generally for thought-provoking conversations on and around the basic topics of these essays.
[ii] That is: “I read” in Latin, not “I play with interlocking plastic toy bricks manufactured by a company based in Denmark” in English.
(Benacerraf, 1973). Benacerraf, P. “Mathematical Truth.” Journal of Philosophy 70: 661–680.
(Boolos and Jeffrey, 1989). Boolos, G. and Jeffrey, R. Computability and Logic.3rd edn., Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
(Data ID, 2022). Data Identification Online. “What’s OCR?” Available online at URL = <http://www.dataid.com/aboutocr.htm>.
(Descartes, 1985). Descartes, R. “Meditations on First Philosophy.” In R. Descartes, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Trans. J. Cottingham et al. 3 vols, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. Vol. 2, pp. 1–62.
(Dutch School, 2022). Dutch School. “A Philosopher Reading a Book.” Artnet. Available online at URL = <http://www.artnet.com/artists/dutch-school-19/a-philosopher-reading-a-book-PSlrodqY6DVYUPBN90CDoQ2>.
(Hanna, 2015). Hanna, R. Cognition, Content, and the A Priori: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind and Knowledge. THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 5. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. Also available online in preview HERE.
(Kant, 1998). Kant, I. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. P. Guyer and A. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. (1781/1787, Ak 3, 4: 1–252).
(Katz, 1988). Katz, J. Cogitations. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
(Wallace, 2012). Wallace, D.F. “This is Water.” farnam street/fs blog. Available online at URL = <https://fs.blog/2012/04/david-foster-wallace-this-is-water/>.
(Wittgenstein, 1953). Wittgenstein, L. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: Macmillan.
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