Two ways to seminar

There are two basic ways to engage with a text. I call them:

1. Critical engagement.

2. Reverential engagement.

Critical engagement means that you tackle the main ideas of the author. If you think the text is great, you pick out its key insights and elaborate on them. You show how they can be applied or extended or modified to yield even more fruits than the author may have mentioned. You play them off other aspects of your worldview and observe the mutual illumination this interplay brings. If you think the text is crap and fundamentally misguided, you pinpoint the reasons for this and propose an alternative. You extract from the text its fundamental purpose and its fundamental strategy for achieving it, and you question whether the purpose is well-conceived or the strategy for achieving it the best possible one.

Reverential engagement means that you treat the text as holy writ. The author is wiser than thou. From this point of view it makes no sense to question or elaborate on the text, since that would imply that your own capacity for thought was something more than insignificant compared to the author. Instead you reverentially go over the text with a microscope as if every last word dripped with divine insight. More often than not, a seminar in this spirit will focus on the most obscure and parenthetical passages. “What does the author mean by ____?” is the most popular question, where the blank is some vague word whose precise meaning is usually tangential at best to the main point of the text. This is reminiscent of the way some people obsessively scrape every last drop out of soup bowl, as if the last few drops contained more nutrients than all the previous spoonfuls combined.

Thus (1) is associated with key ideas, independent thought, creative thought, critical thought, while (2) is associated with getting bogged down in details, missing the forrest for the trees, nitpicking, hairsplitting, chiding any attempts at a bigger-picture take as dangerous and disrespectful exuberance.

Proponents of (2) pride themselves on being more “sensitive” to the text, but in my view this is a transparent fallacy. Being truly sensitive to what someone is saying means understanding and engaging with the gist of their argument, not going off on a rambling tangent about an incidental word choice.

Obviously, (1) is the way human thought has progressed. (1) is the way Descartes engaged with Plato, and Kant with Descartes, and so on. It’s the way great minds have always engaged with each other’s works. And it’s the way, I’m sure, they would want us to engage with their works today.

(2), on the other hand, has its clearest historical precedence in medieval scholasticism. Those were the dark ages indeed, when so-called scholars thought the way to progress was to write baroque commentaries on commentaries on Aristotle. This of course led to nothing but tomes upon tomes of pretentious and worthless drivel. Only when mankind started engaging with Greek thought in the manner of (1) did the great conversation pick up again, and only then did progress in understanding ensue.

Nevertheless (2) remains the most popular style of seminar. Why? In part, no doubt, because human beings are obsequious by nature and schooling, but there are also reasons pertaining the specifics of the contrast between (1) and (2). Basically, (2) is better suited for people of limited abilities.

We see this first of all in the fact that (1) requires original and independent thought, whereas (2) gives you a license to be puzzled about some technical detail under the pretence that you are ever so concerned about understanding every last word like a good student. For (1) you need a clear understanding of the structure and purpose of the text. You need to have read it, analysed it, digested it into a coherent outline. For (2) you don’t. In a (2)-seminar any one sentence is as important as any other. You can just pick a sentence at random and start musing about its supposed complexities.

It is also true that while a successful (1)-seminar is human thought at its best, aiming for it but failing can quite easily lead to human thought at its worst. The worst-case seminar is one in which insular people shout preconceived opinions, without engaging with neither text nor peers. Such self-absorbed fools will have a much easier time justifying their idiocy by pretending to be aspiring to the noble ideals of (1) than to those of (2).

A seminar leader can thus “play it safe” by keeping to (2). This is the middle-of-the-road option. It precludes true greatness and massive disasters alike. In a (2)-seminar you are at least paying attention to the text and making some kind of technical progress, however far you are from engaging with its main ideas in a meaningful way. Though it may be tempting for seminar leaders and participants alike to settle for this, in principle it nevertheless remains ultimately a recipe for regression.