Read charitably

March 27th, 2013

Writing at the Daily Princetonian, Princeton University’s independent student newspaper, Toni Alimi, a religion major from Katy, Texas, urges his fellow students to read texts charitably. In reading critically, he writes, “we’re asked to do more than just absorb information; we must engage arguments and their implications seriously.” However, he continues, “the instruction to read critically is often taken as a license to read uncharitably. Rather than attempting to understand arguments on their own terms, we often approach a text with the primary goal of exposing its flaws and demonstrating that those flaws ultimately cause the text’s argument to fail. In short, we fail to read texts as their writers would want us to read them.”

Alimi explains why it’s so important to engage texts on their own terms:

Academic discourse often employs two terms to describe how a critical reader can approach a text: a hermeneutic of charity or a hermeneutic of suspicion. The conditions of the former are met when we read with the intention of understanding how writers conceive of their own points and come to their conclusions. From there, the critical but charitable reader will consider arguments against the text and potential defenses against such arguments. On the other hand, suspicious readers are more interested in undermining the text. They ask questions of the text, not to understand it better, but to poke and pull in the hope of unravelling the basic thrust.

I don’t deny that we always ought to read critically. Furthermore, sometimes reading critically will bring bad arguments to light. Many classes will read and discuss texts that are flawed in potentially severe ways and for a host of reasons. A comprehensive education may very well mandate that, as students, we must consider ideas that are bad. But when we approach texts only suspiciously and without charity, we do not actually consider these bad ideas because we are not reading with the goal of fully understanding. Deconstructing an argument cannot be the sole purpose of critical reading; if the argument has not been constructed as wholly as it could be, its deconstruction cannot be very meaningful. . . .

What are some steps toward reading charitably? For one thing, we have to ask of an argument why the person putting it forth believes it is the case—without skepticism. Our goal is to uncover the argument’s origins without poisoning the well. Another useful task is to assume the argument is good and consider conditions under which the argument would be valid. In imagining those conditions, we can sometimes get to the author’s underlying convictions in a critical way. From there, it’s simple to encourage conversation about texts with an understanding that the author might be assuming some basic things about the world to be true. . . .

[C]haritable reading can actually strengthen our critiques. It’s quite easy to come up with a superficial criticism of a paper, but if one’s goal is to understand what the author is actually trying to say, one’s knowledge and understanding of the text will be deeper when it does come time to criticize. As a result, one’s criticism will almost certainly be more dynamic, thoughtful and relevant.

Finally, a hermeneutic of charity helps facilitate discussion. While many academic arguments take place on one intellectual plane—as I’m sure many of us have experienced in precept — digging deeper can reveal fundamental disagreements between authors and readers. The suspicious reader might be tempted to too quickly say, “Well, I disagree with this argument’s assumptions and therefore cannot engage with it on its own terms.” While these fundamental disagreements are often interesting and important, charitable readers will converse about what the argument’s own terms are and whether it is successful according to those terms.

Sounds like good advice as teachers emphasize close and critical reading in their classrooms under the Common Core. Read Alimi’s entire article here.

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