Proposed Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for Legibility and Reading.

By Robert Hanna

The walrus and the carpenter (Carroll, 1988)

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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.

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’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe. (Carroll, 1988)

In a recent essay, available online HERE, which in turn was a sequel to four other recent essays, also available online HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE, I explored some of the important logical features of the phenomenon of reading — an investigation I call the logic of legibility — in relation to the nature of science.

Correspondingly, as I did in that essay, for convenience and ease of expression, here again I’m going to use the terms legible, legibility, illegible, and illegibility, respectively, as synonyms for the terms readable, readability, unreadable, and unreadability, respectively.

I initiated the logic of legibility by pointing out that since it’s self-evidently true that you, the reader of this very sentence, are reading this very sentence, then we can safely assume that you already know how to read and also what reading is — at least, as the later Wittgenstein rightly puts it in the Philosophical Investigations, in a way that suffices for “the ordinary circumstances of our life,” even if the phenomenon of reading is “difficult to describe even in rough outline”:

For us it is the circumstances under which he had such an experience that justify him in saying in such a case that he understands, that he knows how to go on….This will become clearer if we interpolate the consideration of another word, namely “reading.”… The use of this word in the ordinary circumstances of our life is of course extremely familiar to us. But the part the word plays in our life, therewith the language-game in which we employ it, would be difficult to describe even in rough outline. (Wittgenstein, 1953: p. 61e, §§155–156)

Or in other words, the philosophy of reading is hard work, not to mention that it’s also consistently and even relentlessly avoided by Analytic philosophers in particular (Hanna, 2022a) and by professional academic philosophers more generally.[i]

So, in order to keep my philosophical workload at a fairly manageable level in that earlier essay, I temporarily left aside the task of proposing a set of precise necessary and sufficient conditions for legibility and reading.

Nevertheless —

The time has come,” the Walrus said,

“To talk of many things:

Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —

Of cabbages — and kings —

And why the sea is boiling hot —

And whether pigs have wings.” (Carroll, 1988)

Or in fewer and less whimsical words, in this very essay I want to undertake that very task of proposing a set of precise necessary and sufficient conditions for legibility and reading.

According to the Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary, “character” is defined as

a printed or written letter, symbol, or distinctive mark. (Hawkins and Allen, 1991: p. 247)

In view of that, then I’ll define a text as any sequence of one or more characters, where a one-character sequence is the lower-bound limiting case, and there’s no upper bound on the number of characters.

In turn, what I’ll call a text-in-L is defined as any sequence of one or more characters belonging to a particular language L.

It’s important to note that a language L can contain some characters (hence also some texts) that belong to one or more different languages L2, L3, L4, etc.

So, for example, English contains some letters, words, and sentences belonging to other languages, including Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, etc.

Then, I’ll provide necessary and sufficient conditions for legibility in two steps, as follows:

1. A text T-in-L is legible if and only if T-in-L satisfies the perceptibility condition, the syntactic condition, and the semantic condition, and 2. all and only such texts-in-L have legibility.

The perceptibility condition says that the basic orientable (i.e., intrinsically directional) spatial shape and structure of T-in-L must be at least minimally perceptually detectable, i.e., that T-in-L must be at least partially perceptually detectable, hence it’s not completely perceptually undetectable, and thereby T-in-L is able-to-be-scanned to at least that minimal extent.

For example, if a text is completely blacked out, erased, otherwise completely smudged out or obscured, invisibly small, or so big that its shape cannot be perceived, then it’s perceptually undetectable and illegible.

But on the other hand, as it were, even if a text T-in-L is right-to-left–>left-to-right mirror-reversed and turned upside down, like this one in English —

it’s still able-to-scanned to the minimal extent that it’s not completely undetectable; and indeed, with a little effort, one can see that in fact it’s an upside-down enantiomorph of the extremely interesting English sentence I’ve dubbed The Lector Sentence

1. You, the reader of this very sentence, can’t either coherently or self-consistently deny that it’s self-evidently true that you’re reading this very sentence.

in explicit comparison-&-contrast with the classical Liar Sentence (Hanna, 2022e).

The syntactic condition says that T-in-L must be at least minimally well-formed, i.e., that T-in-L must be at least partially well-formed, hence it’s not completely ill-formed, and thereby T-in-L is able-to-be-parsed to at least that minimal extent.

For example, even if a text T-in-L is perceptually detectable, it can be completely jumbled, completely misspelled, or completely ungrammatical, or its characters can be completely randomly distributed, and in any of those ways it would be syntactically illegible.

Indeed, ciphers or secret codes (as opposed to hidden messages in otherwise legible texts) are designed to approach syntactic illegibility, on the working assumption that the more illegible they are, the harder they are to break; so if there are some ciphers that have never been broken and all their creators are dead, or, more thought-experimentally, if there were a cipher created by intelligent non-human aliens that, even in principle, could never be broken by rational human animals, then they would be illegible in the syntactic sense.

Therefore, a text-in-L’s satisfying the perceptibility condition, as such, is not itself independently sufficient for readability and thus it’s not itself independently sufficient for being the target of any actual or possible act or process of reading.

And the semantic condition says that the conceptual content and/or essentially non-conceptual content of T-in-L must be at least minimally coherent, i.e., that the conceptual content and/or essentially non-conceptual content of T-in-L must be at least partially coherent, hence not completely incoherent, and thereby the conceptual content and/or essentially non-conceptual content of T-in-L is able-to-be comprehended to at least that minimal extent.

For example, even if a text is minimally perceptible and also minimally well-formed, nevertheless it can still violate minimal requirements of conceptual sortal correctness and/or essentially non-conceptual sortal correctness, or be strictly non-referential, and be semantic gibberish, hence be illegible in the semantic sense, like this non-poetical text-in-English, a paradigm case of sortal incorrectness, devised by Bertrand Russell (Russell, 1940: p. 166) —

quadruplicity drinks procrastination

or this famous poetical text-in-English, a paradigm case of strict non-referentiality, taken from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, that I quoted as the epigraph of this essay —

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe. (Carroll, 1988)

Therefore, that text from Jabberwocky’s satisfying the perceptibility condition together with the syntactic condition, yet also failing the semantic condition, shows that the first two conditions are not themselves conjointly sufficient for readability and thus that they’re not themselves conjointly sufficient for being the target of any actual or possible act or process of reading.

Of course, millions of people, including you, the reader of this very essay, have in some sense or another “read” that text from Jabberwocky; but my way of explaining away this apparent inconsistency is just to point out that Jabberwocky is indeed legible in both the perceptible and synactic senses (so in two senses, readable), but illegible in the semantic sense (so in one sense, unreadable), hence not legible in all relevant senses, hence illegible by my contextual definition, or conceptual analysis, of legibility.

The same point holds, mutatis mutandis, for “quadruplicity drinks procrastination” and all other essentially similar texts-in-L: you can “read” it in two senses (the perceptible sense and the syntactic sense), but strictly speaking, it’s illegible according to the necessary and sufficient conditions of legibility, precisely because it fails the semantic condition.

Assuming all of that so far, I’m now in a position to provide precise necessary and sufficient conditions for the act or process of reading.

In the following contextual definition, or conceptual analysis, by person I mean rational human animal: namely, a living human organism that’s capable of (i) consciousness, (ii) self-consciousness, (iii) all forms of cognition including sense-perception, memory, and imagination, conceptualization, judgment, inference, theorizing, and a posteriori or a priori knowledge (iv) affect or emotion, and (v) free will and practical agency (see, e.g., Hanna, 2015, 2018a, 2018b, 2018c).

Then, I’ll provide necessary and sufficient conditions for reading in two steps, as follows:

1. A person P reads a text T-in-L if and only if P consciously or self-consciously at least minimally scans, at least minimally parses, and also at least minimally comprehends T-in-L, and 2. all and only such acts or processes are reading.

It’s important to note that, consistently with this contextual definition, or conceptual analysis, of reading, a person P can read a text T-in-L either aloud or silently to themselves.

It’s also important to note that neither scanning, nor parsing, nor comprehending, need be self-consciously or reflectively performed: this can be done in a more-or-less or even altogether prereflectively or unself-consciously conscious way; indeed, we typically “look right through” what we’re reading in order to go directly to the meaning (whether sense, reference, or speech-act uptake) of what we’re reading, and altogether overlook the scanning, parsing, and comprehending dimensions of the act or process of reading itself.

In order to bring those dimensions back into view, all you have to do is to repeat any text-in-L — for example, a sentence or word — out loud a few times (say, ten times) until it sounds strangely bereft of meaning; that strange absence-of-meaning has then become vividly manifest to you precisely because the perceptibility and syntax of that particular text-in-L have been temporarily self-consciously detached from what you’ve been previously been pre-reflectively and unself-consciously yet still consciously comprehending.

And it’s also important to note that the point I made above about “readers” of Jabberwocky and “quadruplicity drinks procrastination” goes, mutatis mutandis, for my contextual definition, or conceptual analysis, of reading: of course, millions of people, including you, the reader of this very essay, are in some sense or another “readers” of that text from Jabberwocky; and no doubt a few thousand people have read “quadruplicity drinks procrastination”; but my way of explaining away this apparent inconsistency too, is just to point out that Jabberwocky and “quadruplicity drinks procrastination” can indeed be read in both the perceptible and synactic senses (so in two senses, that’s reading), but cannot be read in the semantic sense (so in one sense, that’s not reading), hence it’s not reading in all the relevant senses, hence it’s not reading by my contextual definition, or conceptual analysis, of reading.

I’ve now presented the basics of my proposed necessary and sufficient conditions for legibility and reading; and, when taken together with the logic of legibility (Hanna, 2022a), they amount to the basics of a philosophical theory of reading.

To be sure, in the interests of full philosophical disclosure, I must admit that for the purposes of these analyses and this theory, I’ve presupposed (i) the very ideas of (ia) a language, including its characteristic syntactic and semantic properties,and (ib) our knowledge of a language, including our knowledge of its characteristic syntactic and semantic properties (see, e.g., Chomsky, 1957, 1988), (ii) a certain theory of linguistic cognition and logical cognition (see, e.g., Hanna, 2006: esp. chs. 4 and 6), (iii) a specifically dual-content cognitive semantics of conceptual content and essentially non-conceptual content, the latter of which also crucially functions as the source of what Otto Paans and I call thought-shapers (see, e.g., Hanna, 2015: esp. chs. 2 and 4; and Hanna and Paans, 2021), for the explanation of linguistic meaning, and above all, another necessary condition of reading: (iv) the rational human capacity to understand at least one language, at least minimally (see, e.g., Wittgenstein, 1953; Chomsky, 1957, 1988).

But, one need not necessarily be able to speak a language L — in the sense of being able to talk-in L — in order to be able to read texts-in-L.

For example, like many other English-speaking people, I can understand and read a few words or sentences in some other languages (say, Finnish, Hungarian, or Russian) that I cannot talk-in at all.

More interestingly, perhaps, it seems that there are or at least have been some actual children who can understand texts-in-L, and thus, at least in principle, can read texts-in-L, where L is their first or native language, before they can talk-in L.

For example, Albert Einstein — pictured as a world-famous adult, at the beginning of the just-previous essay in this series, available online HERE — according to various sources, did not talk until he was 3, 4, or 5; but according to others’ testimony and his own, for some period prior to that time he was in fact able to understand German (see, e.g., Brian, 1996), a phenomenon that’s more generally known nowadays as late-talking syndrome or Einstein Syndrome (Smith-Garcia, 2020).

Given Einstein’s native intellectual brilliance, then presumably, during the time when he understood German but couldn’t yet talk-in German, he could still have been taught to read German or have learned on his own to read German.

So, my theory of reading predicts that for at least some actual children who are late-talkers, it should be possible for them to be taught to read texts-in-L or learn on their own to read texts-in-L, before they can talk-in L.

At the present time, I haven’t done a systematic survey of the relevant scientific literature in order to find out whether this prediction has already been empirically tested, and if so, whether it has been confirmed or disconfirmed by means of replicable studies, although at least one book by a non-scientist says that it has been confirmed (Sowell, 1997).

But in any case, it would be extremely philosophically interesting to me, and also perhaps of some real-world interest and value to late-talkers and their families, if it were indeed confirmed or at least confirmable by replicable studies.

Finally, here’s something about the relationship between reading and writing, in view of what I’ve just been arguing about the relationship between reading and talking.

If there actually are some late-talkers who read before they can talk, then reading logically precedes and sometimes also psychologically precedes talking.

Now, the very act or process of writing presupposes that the writer is already able to read, at the very least, their own writing: therefore, reading logically precedes writing.

Of course, writing is typically taught to children only after they can talk.

But if reading logically precedes and sometimes also psychologically precedes talking, and if reading logically precedes writing, then a late-talker who can read, could also, at least in principle, be taught to write or learn on their own to write.

So, my theory of reading also predicts that for at least some actual children who are late-talkers and readers, then it should also be possible for them to be taught to write texts-in-L or learn on their own to write texts-in-L, before they can talk-in L

And again, it would be extremely philosophically interesting to me, and also perhaps of some real-world interest and value to late-talkers and their families, if this prediction were indeed confirmed or at least confirmable by replicable studies.

NOTE

[i] An advanced search of the PHILOS-L list, which goes back to 1989, turned up exactly zero items under “the philosophy of reading” and “philosophy of reading” (PHILOS-L, 2022).

REFERENCES

(Brian, 1996). Brian, D. “Einstein: A Life, Ch 1.” The Washington Post. Available online at URL = <https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/books/chap1/einstein.htm>.

(Carroll, 1988). Carroll, L. Through the Looking-Glass. New York: Dial.

(Chomsky, 1957). Chomsky, N. Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton.

(Chomsky, 1988). Chomsky, N. Language and Problems of Knowledge. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

(Hanna, 2006). Hanna, R. Rationality and Logic. Cambridge: MIT Press. Available online in preview HERE.

(Hanna, 2018a). Hanna, R. Preface and General Introduction, Supplementary Essays, and General Bibliography. THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 1. New York: Nova Science. Available online in preview HERE.

(Hanna, 2018b). Hanna, R. Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in Metaphysics. THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 2. New York: Nova Science. Available online in preview at HERE.

(Hanna, 2018c). Hanna, R. Kantian Ethics and Human Existence: A Study in Moral Philosophy. THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 3. New York: Nova Science. Available online in preview HERE.

(Hanna and Paans, 2021). Hanna, R. and Paans, O. “Thought-Shapers.” Cosmos & History 17, 1: 1–72. Available online at URL = <http://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/view/923>.

(Hawkins and Allen, 1991). Hawkins, J.M. and Allen, R. (eds.), The Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon/Oxford Univ. Press.

(PHILOS-L, 2022). PHILOS-L Homepage. “PHILOS-L@LISTSERV.LIV.AC.UK.” Univ. of Liverpool. Available online = <https://listserv.liv.ac.uk/cgi-bin/wa?A0=PHILOS-L>.

(Russell, 1940). Russell, B. An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth. London: George Allen and Unwin.

(Smith-Garcia, 2020). Smith-Garcia, D. “Einstein Syndrome: Characteristics, Diagnosis, and Treatment.” Healthline. Available online at URL = <https://www.healthline.com/health/einstein-syndrome>.

(Sowell, 1997). Sowell, T. The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late. New York: Basic Books.

(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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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.