A reading machine

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein undertakes a rather rigorous investigation of language. Funnily enough, he investigates language using language. This seems to me like explaining a word by giving the word itself as an explanation—relatively bizarre—but what choice did he have? Nevertheless, it is a book that is stretching and folding my thoughts in unprecedented ways. One minor example. Wittgenstein wonders about the nature of reading:

“Now what goes on when, say, he reads a newspaper? —— His eye passes — as we say — along the printed words; he says them out loud — or only to himself; that is, he reads certain words by taking in their printed shapes as wholes, others when his eye has taken in the first syllables; others again he reads syllable by syllable, and an occasional one perhaps letter by letter. — We would also say that he had read a sentence if he spoke neither aloud nor to himself during the reading, but was afterwards able to repeat the sentence word for word or nearly so. — He may attend to what he reads, or again — as we might put it — function as a mere reading-machine: I mean, read aloud and correctly without attending to what he is reading; perhaps with his attention on something quite different (so that he is unable to say what he has been reading if he is asked about it immediately afterwards).”

Reading the above passage was embarrassing because it generated a kind of recursion—I was reading about reading and reading machines, realising that I was myself, for the most part, a reading machine, consuming Wittgenstein’s words without consideration, allowing his rivers of prose to make unchecked assaults on the rhythm of my mind. I realised that, if someone asked me, I would be unable to articulate the previous few pages of Wittgenstein’s book. I would even have struggled to articulate the sense of what he was saying or thinking.

Embarrassing. As someone who writes, I need to be a demanding reader. Yet this is a mission at which, over the past few months, I have been failing. Hopefully, thanks to Wittgenstein’s wake up call, I can change that and get back to being a sentient reading being, instead of a mindless reading machine.