The Silent Reader
There’s a story that Saint Augustine (354 – 430 CE) tells about his meeting with Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. When Augustine turned up in Milan, it was in search of a teacher of rhetoric. And Ambrose was considered one of the best.
At the time, Augustine’s philosophical and religious commitments were to the doctrines of Manichaeanism. He was unimpressed by Ambrose’s Catholic teachings, even while he was impressed by his new mentor’s kindness and rhetorical skill. And at first, he managed to keep the two apart: the medium and the message, the teachings of Ambrose, and his skill in delivering them.
But as time went on, the lines between the two became blurred. The more Augustine enjoyed Ambrose’s rhetoric, the more the content of what Ambrose was saying entered into his mind. Before long, Augustine had gone through an existential and philosophical transformation. Rhetoric, the power of the spoken voice, can do that to you sometimes.
But there was something else odd about Ambrose as well, something that fascinated Augustine. When Ambrose read, he did so in silence. This is how Augustine puts it in his Confessions. It’s such a beautiful passage, it is worth quoting in full.
When he was reading, his eyes ran over the page and his heart perceived the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. He did not restrict access to anyone coming in, nor was it customary even for a visitor to be announced. Very often when we were there, we saw him silently reading and never otherwise. After sitting for a long time in silence (for who would dare to burden him in such intent concentration?) we used to go away. We supposed that in the brief time he could find for his mind’s refreshment, free from the hubbub of other people’s troubles, he would not want to be invited to consider another problem. We wondered if he read silently perhaps to protect himself in case he had a hearer interested and intent on the matter, to whom he might have to expound the text being read if it contained difficulties, or who might wish to debate some difficult questions. If his time were used up in that way, he would get through fewer books than he wished. Besides, the need to preserve his voice, which used easily to become hoarse, could have been a very fair reason for silent reading. Whatever motive he had for his habit, this man had a good reason for what he did.
Scholars are divided on what this means. Does it mean that nobody ever read silently back in Augustine’s day? Or is what is significant here the fact that Ambrose was silently reading in the company of others when the expectation would be that reading, if not done alone, was something to be shared?
Either way, for readers such as ourselves here in the present day, there is something astonishing about Augustine’s astonishment. We see silent reading as something so very natural, so very ordinary, we don’t really think about it. For us, reading and silent reading are synonymous. Reading is solitary, not social. It is one reason that we love it. And (if Augustine is right), perhaps it is one reason that Ambrose loved it as well: so that he could protect himself from conversation and other people’s troubles.
But for much of human history, reading has been a largely social activity rather than a solitary one, something that is done with the body and the tongue and the mouth, something that is shared.
Augustine and Ambrose. From a painting by Fra Filippo Lippi c. 1437. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The Silent Horror of Reading Husserl
So what does this have to do with reading philosophy, even if you are reading it alone? Let me tell you a story about when I was studying for my PhD.
I did my PhD on the work of Emmanuel Levinas. At the time, I was a practising Buddhist, and I was perplexed by the excessive ethical demands of the Mahayana Buddhist traditions: by the idea that we have an ethical responsibility towards all other beings. Somewhere along the way, as I was working through all this, I stumbled across Levinas. I was intrigued by Levinas because he argued that our ethical responsibilities increase in the measure to which we assume them. In other words, the more ethically responsive you are, the more your responsibilities deepen. For Levinas, there is never a point at which you can say, “I have done enough.” The more you do, the more there is to do. In short: ethics is infinite.
I was obsessed with this idea for a long time. So I started a PhD on Levinas (the Buddhism fell by the wayside, but that’s another story…). And from the first, I found Levinas is a tricky writer to get to grips with, his prose tangled and often obscure. I was reassured that it wasn’t just me: Levinas himself admitted that his work presents us with a “thicket of difficulties.” And the phenomenological tradition of which he was a part, founded by his teacher Edmund Husserl, was famous for its dense, technical language. So I knuckled down and started reading.
But it turned out that Levinas was not the worst of it. And after a couple of years of reading Levinas, I realised that to properly get to grips with what he was up to, I’d have to read Husserl as well. So I picked up the Cartesian Meditations, an introductory text by Husserl that Levinas himself translated into French. From the first, I found Husserl to be truly, deeply, maddeningly horrible to read. Worse, far worse, than Levinas.
As the Cartesian Meditations started, things didn’t seem too bad. The introduction to the book was okay, more or less. It was almost friendly. But by page ten, all hell had been let loose, and I found myself beginning to drown. Here’s an example (although you can scroll past the quote if you don’t want to give yourself a headache: it’s not important to my argument here):
Here belongs, first of all, an initial clarification of “judicative” doing and the “judgement” itself, along with the discrimination of immediate and mediate judgements: mediate judgements have such a sense-relatedness to other judgements that judicatively believing them “presupposes” believing these others in the manner characteristic of a believing on account of something believed already. Also clarification of the striving for grounded judgements, clarification of the grounding doing, in which the “correctness”, the “truth” of the judgement should be shown or, in case of a failure, the / incorrectness, the falsity, of the judgement. 
From here on in, things got worse and worse. My eyes skimmed the page. I nodded sagely along, hoping that clarity would dawn somewhere down the line (remember that it can be good to read philosophy Napoleonically). But by the time I got to the end (with a quote from Augustine, no less, telling us “Do not desire to go outwards, but go back into yourself. Truth dwells in our inward person”), I had to admit defeat.
I had understood pretty much nothing. I had not a damn clue what was going on.
Husserl as Performance Art
But I wasn’t going to be defeated. So I decided to take a different approach. I got up from my armchair (philosophers always have armchairs: it is the law). I turned back to the first page. And I started to pace around, reading Husserl’s clogged and difficult sentences out loud. The strategy I settled on was this:
- First, read a sentence or two out loud.
- Next, elaborate on the sentence, also out loud, as if giving a lecture to an invisible audience.
- Then, when I get to the end of the passage, sit down and make notes on my understanding (at the time, I wrote on a manual typewriter: it was more or less an affectation. My housemate was very tolerant).
- At the end of the chapter, pace around and read the notes out loud.
My tolerant housemate left me to my eccentricities as I turned the sitting room into a kind of phenomenological performance art space. I worked through the text slowly and painstakingly. I recited Husserl’s text, adding little dramatic flourishes, waving my hands in the air, pausing for effect in front of my imagined audience, injecting little moments of drama into his prose.
And as I continued, I found that reading like this, I was understanding more and more. Reading out loud brought the text alive in a way reading silently didn’t. Not only this, but reading Husserl became almost (and I say almost advisedly) fun.
We are sometimes told that talking to ourselves is a sign of madness. And I must have looked pretty crazy pacing back and forth blathering on about Husserl. But since that time, I have become a convert to the idea that we should read philosophy out loud, breaking our habit of silent reading. Because reading out loud can do things that silent reading can’t do nearly as well.
Bildet er hentet fra Nasjonalbibliotekets bildesamling. Public domain, national library of Norway. Via Wikimedia Commons.
But what things? I think there are at least three benefits: reading out loud can make new connections and help us learn; it can get our body involved in our reading, thus cementing and deepening our learning; and it can remind us that thinking is never as solitary as we might believe.
Back when I was studying anthropology, one of my anthropology professors liked to say that talking to yourself was a way of making a virtual connection between different parts of your brain. When internal connections are a bit tangled, why not speak out loud and funnel those words from the speaking bit of your brain, back through your ears into the listening bit of your brain? It’s not as if everything we think or know, or think we know, is apparent to us. Our brains are complex things, and our thoughts are not fully transparent to ourselves. So this isn’t just about reinforcing what we already know, but instead about how through self-talk we can learn genuinely new stuff.
But also, perhaps there is something about how speaking words out loud and hearing them makes words flesh once again. Silent reading can feel thin and abstract. But speaking out loud serves to re-incarnate language. It gets our body to sing along with our mind. It makes our hands dance like an orchestral conductor, tracing the shape of thoughts in the air. And this allows the words we are reading to settle more deeply into our physical, embodied experience of the world.
And finally, there is something about speaking out loud, even if we are on our own, that seems to rescue us from solitude, and return us to a sense of ourselves as social beings, and our thoughts as not just private, but social. Think of how, reading Husserl out loud, I imagined I was lecturing to an audience, making sure that I understood what I was saying well enough to communicate it to others, pausing to make sure my (imagined) audience understood. This virtual, imagined audience helped me gauge whether I myself had really understood what I was saying. And when this imagined audience seemed sceptical, I found myself rephrasing and reshaping what I was saying so that they could make more sense of it.
This suggests to me that when getting to grips with difficult philosophy, perhaps we should depart from the advice of both Husserl and Augustine. We should not desire to go back into ourselves, but should go outwards, speaking out loud, breaking with the solitude of inner thought, letting words become flesh. And perhaps then we might find understanding at last beginning to dawn.
So the next time you have a difficult philosophy text that you can’t get to grips with, here’s a suggestion. Why not speak it out loud? Why not wave your arms around, sing it, holler it or whisper it? When you do so, you will start to feel the text coursing through your body. It will come alive. And the knots and difficulties in the text may find themselves unravelling, almost magically, so that you finally come to understand.
- Saint Augustine, translated Henry Chadwick, The Confessions (Oxford University Press 1991), p. 92.
- Edmund Husserl, translated by Dorion Cairns, Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers 1982), p. 10.
Further reading (and listening):
Listen to Matthew Sweet’s episode of the Why Factor on Why do We Talk to Ourselves on BBC Sounds.
Read Felicity Deamer’s paper on ‘Why do we talk to ourselves?’ here.
The most well-known source for the history of silent reading, among many other things, is Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading (1996).