What Is Reading?

10 May 2019

This is an important question, but there is a surprising lack of research in analytic philosophy on this topic. To be fair, considerations about reading are central to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s discussion of rule-following in his later work, especially in the Philosophical Investigations. This discussion is rightly famous, but not because it is about reading in particular. What it is to follow a rule is a deep and important issue in philosophy. But its attention to reading as such has gotten lost by the wayside.


How hard can it be to say what reading is? We all do it, every day, in at least brief spurts. I’m not just talking about reading in the sense of reading Difficult But Important Books—I’m talking about all kinds of reading that you are able to do when you are literate. In this very broad sense, texting involves reading. Following street signs in your car involves reading. Pushing the right elevator button involves reading. Following the instructions on the back of the mac and cheese box involves reading.


But it is one thing to be able to do something, and another thing to be able to say what you are doing when you do that. Think of how hard it is to explain to someone else in words how to do some physical skill you’ve developed, like whistling or knitting. The same point applies here. It’s one thing to know how to read, and another to be able to describe clearly and carefully what you’re doing when you read.


Reading (in the very inclusive sense I’m trying to capture here) need not involve words: you can read written music in order to play a tune. It need not even involve moving through a pattern in a prescribed order; you can read a map to figure out a way home. What you read might even be a dynamically changing measuring instrument; think of reading a compass, a thermometer, or odometer. Sometimes reading involves looking at photographs in particular ways; think of reading an X-ray or a mammogram image. People even talk of reading tea leaves, reading palms, and reading the stars.


Even if we just think about reading in the most familiar sense—that is, reading written texts—there are still different ways of reading. There’s reading out loud, and there’s reading ‘in your head.’ Sometimes you can read out loud without having any idea what you are saying; imagine knowing how to pronounce all the written words of a foreign language without understanding what they mean. Perhaps you can also read ‘in your head’ without having any idea of how the relevant words are meant to be pronounced.


(By the way, if you’re interested, it seems to be a myth that the ancients never read silently but only out loud. Reading silently has a long history.)


There are similar distinctions in ways of reading for any kind of thing you can read—you might only be able to read music without ‘hearing’ it in your head, but some people can look at a musical score and vividly imagine what it would sound like if played out loud. You might be able to say what a map signifies—the bus stop is west of the library, etc.—without really being able to use it to navigate around the area it maps.


Does anything unite these otherwise quite disparate kinds and ways of reading? You might think there isn’t any deep feature shared by, say, palm-reading and map-reading. Things get even trickier when we consider forms of reading that may seem more figuratively than literally ways of reading: think of reading a room, reading someone’s mind, or reading the defense in football. These kinds of ‘reading’ might only be called “reading” in an honorary, analogical, or metaphorical way.


Some philosophers might say that calling all of these ways of “reading” is just to lasso together a bunch of otherwise unrelated activities with the same linguistic label. But I think that’s a position of last resort. It seems intuitive that there should be some reason why we tend to call all of these activities “reading.” Only if we work hard and yet still fail to find that reason should we give up our search.


I suspect that the answer to our question about what all these activities have in common is mental action. There is always something you do, actively, in thought when you are reading. This might be a different type of mental activity in each case. Reading a palm and reading music differ in this respect, but so do reading fiction and reading the news. When you are reading fiction, you imagine the scenes described in the story. When you are reading the news—or at least the news that you trust—you come to accept or even believe that various events took place.


The thought that reading essentially involves mental action—of varying forms in varying forms of reading—is just a hypothesis for now. But I’ll say three more things to back up my suggestion that mental action has an essential role in reading.


The first point is that there is no analog of the distinction between hearing and listening when it comes to reading. The distinction between hearing and listening seems to be a distinction between something passive and something active. If all reading involves mental action of some form or another, that would explain why there is no analog of mere hearing in the case of reading: there’s no such thing as purely passive reading.


The second point—which is more of a precautionary defense—is that even those cases of immediate or unavoidable reading can be explained if all reading involves mental action. Think of a case where you cannot avoid reading a word, like the word “STOP” on a red hexagonal sign at an intersection. These cases of sudden reading might seem passive, in part because you don’t have to make any effort or even pay special attention to read such simple words in these cases. But they can equally well be cases of automatic action—just like braking at the sight of a stop sign is.


My third and final point is this: the role of mental action in reading dovetails nicely with Wittgenstein’s own connection between reading and following a rule. When you do something intentionally—in bodily or mental action—you (usually) have an aim in mind. Having an aim in mind can be understood as setting up a success condition for yourself, or trying to follow some standard or norm. A rule that you are trying to follow can give you some such standard or norm. This connection needs to be made clearer, but there is something promising in the vicinity.


For these reasons and more, I hope that we can make sense of reading in terms of mental action—and intentional mental action in particular.


Photo by Blaz Photo on Unsplash

Comments (4)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, May 10, 2019 -- 11:37 AM

Reading ,as an adjunct to

Reading ,as an adjunct to language, is a larger part of who we are and how we interact with the world.It helps us know what is going on, and sometimes why. For example, in his 1957 update of Counter-Statement, Kenneth Burke said: ..."The growth of science is also evidence of a radical change in a culture's evolution. At this stage, the intellectualistic, critical and irreligious elements of culture gradually rise to the ascendancy." I had not previously thought of the growth of science as evolutionary. But, on reflection, I realized there are many sorts of evolution, over-and-above the biological kind. Astute fellow, that Burke. He lived a long time, and as an autodidact, did exceptionally well. I am indebted to him and his inspirational life and work. While I believe it is true that we were able to think before we developed language, it seems clear that we would not be where we are now---if at all---without it. Others might disagree, but the point is really moot. The rest is, after all, history.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, May 18, 2019 -- 11:27 AM

Another thought... Reading is

Another thought... Reading is an ultimate expression of symbology. Everything we know; many things we don't; and some things we are only able to imagine can be expressed, more-or-less adequately, in the written words of language. Maybe this is why pre-linguistic man is thought of as a thinker in only a limited sense. It would seem to be a sound judgment: while he was experiencing the world, as surely as were his fellows, there would have been things lost in translation, there being no cogent language from which to translate.

detail's picture


Friday, May 31, 2019 -- 11:54 PM

Reading is not only the

Reading is not only the symbolical translation of thoughts, events, circumstances. It contains a reader dependent , so called ontological,
metaphysical translation in to your own thought reality. Thus reading is not simply a parsing of words of an alphabet describing some
algebraic signature but more. It is reader dependen due to the mulitplicity of interpretations of the same phrase and even the metaphysical interpretation of depicted words can even vary from culture to culture. The understanding of written words and it's decoding can be always seen in the context of the experiences the reader has had before, thus reading at least if it includes the interpretation and understanding of the written words stay even dependent on the previous experiences the person that reads did have. So reading stays something metaphysical , dependent on the context of the situation and the background of the person that
reads the text.

biowed23's picture


Monday, December 18, 2023 -- 5:20 PM

nice post keep it up! legit

nice post keep it up! legit gta 5 modded accounts

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines