Sidenote: Reading toward writing

Tracking a pattern of repetition or identifying a contradiction is also a good way to work towards identifying the focus of your paper.  Most successful papers do not try to discuss the entire text in a general way but instead focus on a particular surprising and thought-provoking pattern, contradiction, or tension in the text.

The Harvard College Writing Program has produced a Brief Guide to Writing the English Paper, which covers strategies for shaping close reading assignments into good and thoughttul essays.  

Ms. Richardson 5, fol. 66v Book of Hours, Use of Sarum, England, ca. 1420. Available through the HOLLIS Catalog

Aristotle and Boethius

Woodcut (1490). From The Illustrated Bartsch. Vol. 87, German Book Illustration before 1500: Anonymous Artists, 1489-1491.  Image available in ARTstor

General Strategies for Close Reading

Many of the texts we are reading in the course are translations from Latin, Greek, Arabic, Italian, Hebrew and other foreign language originals. While translations can never be completely accurate rewritings of original works, for the purposes of this course, we will treat translations as primary texts. You should employ close reading techniques, like those described below, as if you were reading works of art in their original languages.

1.  Always read with a pencil in hand and annotate your text. Underline words, mark passages, write question marks in the margins.  Look in particular for passages that puzzle you; it’s often the puzzling passages that reward further analysis.  Candidates include:

  • Words or phrases that are repeated frequently in a text. These are often sites of particular concern and interest for the author and signal something important. Most importantly for this exercise, consider how the author might be using the same word differently in different passages and ask yourself why this might be the case. Is the author expressing ambivalence about something through different uses of the same word? Are different uses of the same word indications of a certain way in which the author’s ideas or views about something are changing throughout the course of the text?
  • Explicit contradictions within a text. If a writer expresses one view in one part of a text and another in a different part of the same text, this is always something to note. Literary critics often refer to this kind of contradiction as a “crux.” Again, is the author expressing   ambivalence from the start, or has something altered over the course of the text to produce this contradiction? Is the contradiction some form of rhetorical strategy, meant specifically to persuade the reader of a particular point?

2. Once you have isolated repetitions and contradictions, go back and look at the context of these repetitions and contradictions. What else is going on in the passages immediately surrounding these local examples? How might these contexts help inform your understanding of the meaning of the repetitions and contradictions?

3. Pay extremely close attention to the language of the text. This means that when you have isolated passages to quote and discuss, you should look up important words, using tools like the Oxford English Dictionary (described in the sidenote in this section). Make sure you pay attention to the way in which the word was used in the time period when the text was written. Repeated words of interest should certainly be investigated with the help of the OED. Ask yourself whether these words have contradictory meanings working with these contradictions in his or her use of the words.

4. When you are done reading a text all the way through, go back and re-read passages you have marked. Re-reading is always a new experience and will usually provide you with new ideas. Ask yourself whether something at the end of the text clarifies something that comes earlier or changes your sense of its meaning and importance. Having a perspective on a whole text can change your sense of specific passages within it, hence the value of selective re-reading.

Close Reading of Philosophical Texts

Because philosophical texts have their own special forms and goals, here are some guidelines to keep in mind as you read them.

1. Isolate “key words” in the text that are indicative of central concepts. For example, a key word for Aquinas is “necessity”; a key word for Aristotle is “judgment.” Organize your thoughts around these key words and concepts – they will help elucidate the complexities of the text. Try to think about what precisely these terms mean in the context of the philosopher you are reading and not merely based on your own preconceived notions of the term. For example, when Aristotle uses the term “opinion,” what does it mean in the context of his commentary on the soul? What consequences does the term have for his arguments about the nature of the imagination?

2. Follow closely the logic of the argument, and even draw a map or diagram of how the philosopher comes to the conclusion of his or her argument. This is especially important when trying to follow the logic of a syllogism, such as in Aquinas. See if you can poke holes in the argument or find places where the argument does not follow logically and try to articulate why the argument or the philosophical system put forth is inadequate or illogical.

3. Pay close attention when one philosopher is responding to another philosopher. For many medieval commentators, these authors are often Plato and Aristotle, both of whom we are reading. Consider the ways in which an author like Pecock is responding to, adapting and even challenging Aristotle’s views of the senses and the soul in The Donet and The Folewer.