Wittgenstein and the Elements of Reading

It is not particularly novel to say that reading is a process that involves decoding, meaning making and interpretation (or assessment). It is also quite straightforward to say that this sequence occurs within a context in which factors such as the immediate purpose, expectations and other participants affect how and why one reads. The sequence is represented in the following diagram (with further commentary to follow).

In Wittgensteinian terms, the reader progresses from aspect seeing (decoding) to meaning making (picture theory) to assessing (language games). The reader sees the text, gathers some sense from the text and extracts some meaning from the text as part of overarching conversations and conventions.

Let us imagine that I have a newspaper article in front of me. In order for me to have any hope of understanding the text, I need to take the following into account:

  • I need to be able to decode the language if I am going to have any hope of extracting any meaning from this text;
  • Even if I can decode the text, I will need to be able to extract some sense from the sentences in text, which would involve construing the states of affairs being represented (or referred to) in the text;
  • I will need to be struck by the content of the article, which means I will need to know the significance of what I am reading, of what particular details mean, of why the article was written in the first place, and of the tradition of long  information reporting; and 
  • I will need to be part of the greater conversation ( of the language-game ) of which the text is part.

What if it was not a newspaper article but an economic text? I would be at a loss even though I may have sophisticated decoding skills and robust general comprehension practices. My exclusion from general conversations of economics demonstrates that the above process works just was well in the reverse. That is, if I am aware of the "conversation" to which the text belongs and I understand the intention of the reader-writing exchange, then I am in a better position to know what may and may not be significant in the text, even I may need some help. I may be able to read more strategically and I am also in a better position to clarify ambiguities in the text because I have prior experience and knowledge to call upon when I am stuck by particularly dense or awkward phrasings.

In a teaching sense, certain texts may be more or less within a learning zone of proximal development . We want to be able to facilitate contexts in which students have the time to practice development in each of the four areas:

  • decoding --> moving toward fluency
  • meaning making --> process information to interpret, visualise, draw connections, compare, represent, clarify, etc
  • assessing --> extract significance, apply ideas, understand intentions, respond and react, summarise and synthesise, etc. 
  • participating --> being part of knowledge communities and practices in which it may be necessary to consult a text in order to take part. 

Last but not least ... whenever I see the following quote, I think of the satisfaction when someone has thoroughly comprehended a text:

"Often, when I have had a picture well framed or have hung it in the right surroundings, I have caught myself feeling as proud as if I had painted the picture myself. That is not quite right: not “as proud as if I painted it, but as proud as if I had helped to paint it, as if I had, so to speak, painted a little bit of it. It is as though an exceptionally gifted arranger of grasses should eventually come to think that he had produced at least a tiny blade of grass himself." (Wittgenstein, Culture & Value)