Teaching Philosophy By Reading Out Loud

This semester, while teaching my two classes (Freud and Psychoanalysis; Modern Philosophy), I’ve relied at times on reading out loud my assigned texts in class. In particular, I’ve read out, often at great length, Leibniz’s Discourses on Metaphysics and The Mondadology, portions from The Critique of Pure Reason, and in the Freud class, portions of Civilization and its Discontents. I’ve followed this strategy for a variety of reasons.

First, more careful exegesis becomes possible, and little subtle shadings of meaning which could be brushed over in a high-level synoptic discussion are noticed and paid attention to (by both myself and my students). Second, students become aware that reading the text closely pays dividends; when one sentence in the text becomes the topic of an involved discussion, they become aware of how pregnant with meanings these texts can be. Third, the literary quality of the writing, (more evident in Leibniz and Freud than in Kant) becomes more visible; I often stop and flag portions of the text as having been particularly well-expressed or framed. The students become aware that these arguments can be evaluated in more than one dimension: analytical and artistic perhaps.

This method is exhausting, and that is an understatement. There is the obvious physical strain, of course, but doing this kind of close reading is also intellectually taxing. There is more to explain, more to place in context. I could not, and will not, do this for all the material that I teach. Indeed, I have only done this once before: once again, while teaching Leibniz and Kant in the same class some six years ago. (I’m not counting the various instances where I make students consult the text in class).

But most fundamentally, what this method does for the students (I think) and for me, is that it reminds us all that there simply is no substitute for close, critical engagement with material that is intellectually challenging.

7 thoughts on “Teaching Philosophy By Reading Out Loud

  1. In The Sound of Two Hands Clapping, Georges Dreyfus talks about the experience of reciting and memorizing texts during the 20 years he spent in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery:

    The process of memorization is aural. Without relying on visual mnemonic devices, Tibetan monks memorize their texts by vocalizing them. The only support is a tune to which the words are set. In certain monasteries (such as Nam-gyel, where monks are expected to memorize an enormous amount of liturgical material), the text is memorized to the same tune to which it is later chanted. In scholastic monasteries or in smaller monasteries, there is no fixed tune. But in both cases, students concentrate entirely on the text’s sonic pattern, ignoring other associations as much as possible.

    The evening is spent practicing the texts previously memorized. The student starts by reciting that morning’s passage several times, until his recitation is fluent and almost effortless. He then goes back to the parts of the same text learned on preceding days, ending with the passage learned the same day. He may add other texts learned previously. This exercise, which usually takes one or two hours, is essential to ensure that passages once memorized are not forgotten. At first, the passage newly memorized, which could be recited quite fluently in the morning, comes in the evening with difficulty, if at all. It needs to be fixed again in the memory, a task best done just before the student goes to sleep. After a night of sleep, the text starts to take its fixed form, which has to be constantly strengthened until it becomes ingrained—a process that takes many days of repetition. In this way, the student’s hold on previous passages increases, and the new passage is integrated gradually into the memorized text as a whole. It is only when the texts are so well learned that they come to mind automatically that frequent recitation is no longer needed. At that point, reciting them a few times a year can keep them alive in the monk’s memory.

    But the noise picks up during the evening, when the main sessions of debate are held. Then the air is filled with the roar from the debating courtyard. When debates end, monks start their recitation sessions, as described above. At this point, hundreds of monks may be reciting as loudly as they can, and the cacophony can reach an almost unimaginable level. Around ten the noise diminishes, and by eleven only scattered recitations can be heard. There are times, however, when some monks decide to spend the whole night reciting.

    This educational process reflects the belief that knowledge needs to be immediately accessible rather than merely available. That is, scholars must have an active command of the texts that structure the curriculum, not simply the ability to retrieve information from them. Knowing where bits of information are stored is not enough: the texts must inform one’s thinking and become integrated into one’s way of looking at the world.

    1. David,

      Thanks very much for this excerpt. The last paragraph is very suggestive, as it reminds me of an analysis of knowledge I’ve offered in another context. I will post very soon about that – perhaps tomorrow, please stay tuned.

  2. I think reading passages of the text aloud is an excellent pedagogic device (for certain material and in certain courses) for many of the reasons you give, but most significantly because by giving these thoughts actual voice we provide them with a new vitality, and make them truly present at the gathering. This forces the students to engage (and teachers to engage again) with these thoughts in a dynamic, multi-sensory way, the sort of encounter normally reserved for minds in direct dialogue.

    The text is the thing; that is where the mind of the author is to be met and known, not in a third-party’s report.

    1. Joe,

      Good to see you here. Nicely put! Reading those texts out loud made them new for me, and as you point out well, they became “truly present.” I think I also acquired a new respect for the writers; the subtleties and shadings of various argumentative moves came through better. By the way, you are right; this will only work for some kinds of material and texts.

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