Processes of study in the arts and humanities
Processes of study in the arts and humanities

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Processes of study in the arts and humanities

2 Becoming familiar with the text

2.1 Reading

Before you begin your interrogation of a text, though, you have to get to know it in a general way. In a sense, you can ‘see’ visual texts (such as paintings, sculptures and buildings) all at once; there they are before you. You can move around them, looking at them from different angles. But with written, aural and moving image texts – in which words, sounds or images follow on from one another – you cannot become familiar with the whole thing until you have read, heard or seen it right through. If it is quite short there is no problem about this; before you begin your analysis you will do so several times probably. But what if it is a lengthy text, such as a novel or a symphony? How should you approach it?

There are many different kinds of written text, and you need to approach and read them differently.

On first reading a novel, it is best to read through the way you normally do – and enjoy yourself. Some people read very quickly. That's fine, because when you get down to analysing it you are anyway forced to re-read its various sections much more slowly and study some parts of it particularly carefully. Part of the process of analysing anything as long as a novel (a play, film, symphony) is finding a way of dividing it up into manageable ‘episodes’ – combining certain chapters, scenes or passages together to form groups. Then you can study each episode in detail, while keeping a grasp on the whole thing in your mind. So, as you read, you might just be thinking about some suitable way of doing that.

However, if you are reading a philosophical text you need to approach it in quite a different way. It is a mistake even to try reading it quickly because you will very soon lose the gist. If you keep going regardless, there's a danger that you will ‘blame’ yourself for failing to understand what you read, decide you are no good at philosophy and give up. In fact you are not even giving yourself a chance. Nobody can read a philosophical text at the speed they read a novel and understand what they read. You have to take it very slowly, trying to make some sense of it as you go along, a bit at a time. That is because these texts take the form of an argument about certain ideas. Unless you understand the first stage of the argument reasonably well you will not be able to make sense of the next stage, and so on. And, often, the argument is dense. Abstract ideas just are hard to understand, so every sentence may take a while to sort out.

Your reactions to the text

A few moments ago I said you might read through a novel and just enjoy it. But what if you are not enjoying it? What if you don't like a piece of music you will have to spend a lot of time thinking about? Or perhaps you feel thoroughly bewildered by a philosophical argument and at first you can't make head or tail of it.

Obviously, you cannot force yourself to find such a text enjoyable or interesting. But what you can do is give it a chance. At this stage you've hardly even been introduced. It may be that you are trying to read too quickly or expecting it to be something it is not. In any case, when you get down to studying it, looking more closely at this part and that, it will almost certainly make more sense to you. You may even come to enjoy it.

Having said that, you may not. We all have to study some things because they are important ‘landmarks’ in the subject, regardless of whether we enjoy the experience. So you need to be aware that, from time to time, you may have to just grit your teeth and press on.

However, it is always a good idea to talk things over with other people. See what fellow students make of the text. What they say may help you to ‘come at’ it from a different angle and see new possibilities in it.

Reading an historical document is different again. Much of it may be easy enough to follow, but there will probably be a number of terms that are ‘of the period’ or references to unfamiliar people and events that you need to look up. So reading it may be a stop-start process. In any case, you will be reading with certain questions in mind, such as:

  • who wrote the document – what do we know about these people's background and particular interest in the matter?

  • when was it written – how soon after the events it refers to?

  • why was it written – who or what was it written ‘for’?

  • what was the author in a position to know; is it likely to provide sound information?

Then you can judge whether the document is a reliable source for your purposes, and just what it might mean.

So when you read philosophical texts and historical documents even for the first time, you will be beginning your interrogation. This is true of symbolic texts too, such as maps and music scores – you have to start ‘deciphering’ them straight away to make much sense of them.


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