‘Everyone’s right’ : a useful reminder of the principle of charity

As I keep telling my students, one of the main skills of philosophy is the ability to read well.  Along with logic, this art of reading forms perhaps the most basic of philosophical skills…trying to hear what an author is saying often relies upon the ‘principle of charity’.  There’s this interesting quote I came across today whilst I was going through some notes of mine from a course I delivered a couple of years ago (a third year philosophy of mind course at Wolverhampton University) – it’s from Brian Cantwell Smith:

Everyone’s right.  Or anyway that’s what I tell my students.  ‘Look’ I say, ‘this paper you are reading was written by a dedicated, intelligent person, who has devoted their life to studying these issues.  The author’s had an insight, uncovered some subtelty, which they’re trying to tell us about.  Imagine that they’re showing us a path through the forest.  Problem is, people write in words; and words are blunt instruments: intellectual bulldozers … big bruisers, that cut wide swathes …

‘So here’s my advice’ I go on. ‘Don’t assume this text is written in a language you know, and take your task to be one of figuring out whether what they’ve written is true or false.  You will almost certainly judge it false.  Be more generous!  Assume what you are reading is true, and tell me what language it is written in … tell me, if we were to follow their path further, where would it lead” – p.170; Philosophy of mental representation, ed. H.Clapin; Oxford 2002.

Good advice…

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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