The space between charitable and uncharitable

Judging from the reactions to my “Read the dead uncharitably” post, including Leah Libresco’s, I think that post may have suffered from a poor choice of words. When I talk about “uncharitable” reading, all I mean is making no special effort to read charitably. But Leah’s post talks about the problems with reading “antagonistically,” and says, “When I read or argue with anyone uncharitably, I am training uncharity in myself.” That doesn’t reflect my intention–I don’t even know what that last sentence means.

I think the language of charitable vs. uncharitable creates a false dichotomy: either you’re actively trying to read someone in a nice way, or you’re actively reading them in a mean way. It leaves no room for simply calling it as you see it.

I also think it’s a mistake to conflate charity with reading carefully, or that to be charitable means “to make sure you fully understand the other position before you put it to critique.” Sure, sometimes when you read carefully, you realize the other person’s position is more plausible than you thought, but other times a careful reading is what makes a position fall apart.

Recently, I’ve been reading Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near as part of a project for the Singularity Institute, and it’s turning out to be a good example of the latter case. A lot of what he says looks plausible at first glance, but then on a more careful reading it starts to look like quite a mess. (Equating uncharitable and superficial is one mistake that Eric Schwitzgebel makes, by the way.)

This is something that should be more obvious than it is. Why on Earth would you assume a careful reading will make someone look better? When all you have is a first impression, how do you know how a more careful reading will turn out? You haven’t done it yet!