Monday, May 05, 2014

The Ethics of Reading

The narrow issue of plagiarism is embedded in a broad range of concerns about our reading practices. Borrowing Wayne Booth's evocative title for his book on the ethics of fiction, we can say that our reading shows us "the company we keep". And who we associate with, of course, isn't just a sign of character, it has a deep effect on who we are. More importantly, how we associate with them, and how they associate with us, develops into a habit, and becomes formative for the style with which we relate to our peers. In an important sense, that just is the style of our writing.

The obligation to cite others accurately for the ideas we get from them is, of course, in part an obligation to those others. In some cases there is an obligation to read them in the first place, however. Some scholarship is so important for work in our field that ignorance of it is shameful, and undermines our own credibility as scholars (our "ethos" in the rhetorical sense). Interestingly, the more obligated we are to be familiar with a text, the less obligated we are to cite it precisely or even to represent it accurately. After all, the reader is bound by the same obligations, and we can presume a familiarity that others also presume of us. The more obligated we are to read something, the more entitled we are to make of it what we will. If we are not free to ignore it, we are at least free to interpret it.

In most cases, it should be noted, our obligation is not to other writers, but to our readers. We owe it to those who take the time to read our texts to write it at a level of knowledge that they will find useful. The way we construct the presumptive knowledge of our reader in our own writing is a basic ethical gesture. It assigns the reader an initial amount of dignity.

When our own reading strays outside the familiar domain of our reader's reading, we have to respect the reader's unfamiliarity. That means we now have to be very careful to get the ideas we are getting from our reading right in our writing, and we have to make sure that we provide the reader with enough information to find our source and check it against our claims. We may have few or no obligations to the writer of the source, by the way. The writer may be long dead or far outside of our research community. Our primary duty is to our reader: to be upfront about relationship between our own text and the texts on which it is based; to be upfront about the company we have kept.


randwest said...

I find myself to be more annoyed at authors in the management fields who cease their familiarity with scholars whom they wish to cite with a quick reference to some recent derivative work. In the field of entrepreneurship, for example, this leads to failures of apprehension of important primary references like Schumpeter. When all the references in the paper are post-2000, or the older references are loaded into the bibliography without being read, tge reader is cheated. Perhaps not as egregiously as in the case of plagiarism, but cheated nonetheless.

Thomas said...

Yes, or in philosophy (and management, actually) when you're asked to move "beyond Heidegger" by people who are clearly still struggling to digest (an introductory textbook about) Deleuze or Derrida. There is an ethical principle here that is being violated: don't claim to know something you don't. Don't pretend to know that a notion is obsolete if you haven't done a lot of work to understand why it was once relevant.

j. said...

i like the 'my reading' / 'your reading' / 'author's reading' / 'readers' reading' distinction.

just by itself it clarifies a lot about citation and quotation and interpretation practices (and dysfunctions of same) in philosophy.