Truth in Society: Prompt 47 Truth in Society

January 10, 1995

Prompt #47

Some Independent Reading

As Prompt 46 explains, a great deal of what we're going to be doing for the first few weeks of this term is focused on reflecting in a disciplined way, and from different disciplinary perspectives, on what the research and reading and writing we did during the first term can help us understand about how people come to hold the beliefs they hold; how they manage to change deeply-held beliefs, and how the beliefs they hold are related to those held by members of the society they're part of.

At the same time (that's what this prompt is about), we're going to try to expand our repertoire of examples of believing and changes in belief, and, as well, explore some of the ways in which such matters are being written about (and have been written about) among people for whom writing about ideas and beliefs -- and truths -- is important.

Further (also at the same time), we want to help you become acquainted with some of the central ways in which most of the important public ideas in our society are discussed in print, by people who participate centrally in the processes by which our whole society comes to believe things.

Here's how we propose to do those things.

During the next three weeks, you should plan to spend a substantial amount of time in the library. You'll be finding and reading pieces of writing from the list of magazines below. We chose the magazines because they're the kind in which we, as readers and participants in the process by which our society agrees on truths, regularly find articles that make a difference to how we think -- and because the library currently subscribes to them. We also think it likely that you'll be able, in them, to find articles you think you might be, or become, interested in.

To help you find such pieces of writing, we've set up some parameters for your work. Here they are:

  1. Your reading can come from any one of the following periodicals:
  2. You can read anything you want from those periodicals, subject only to the provisos that it be more than a couple of pages long, and that it be something about which you can write a short statement of what it has to do with believing (yours or other people's) or changes in belief (yours or other people's). There's more about this below.
  3. You should read at least the equivalent of 35 book-size pages every week. Periodicals often are laid out in ways that make it difficult to tell how much "a page" is; roughly, we're assuming a book page is about 400 words. But we're not looking for word counts; we expect that everyone will find herself reading rather more than the minimum.
  4. While you do this, you'll be keeping a diary of where you've looked for something to read; and for each piece you actually read, you'll write a statement of how it relates to belief and truth. The diary, and the statements, will be entered into the Q: directory.

Partly to help you stay at this, and to help you budget your time appropriately, you'll be required to make two entries a week in a file in the Q: directory, each saying (a) exactly which periodicals (titles and dates) you've looked through, (b) which articles (author, title, and journal) you considered reading, and, finally, (c) which specific articles you've read and how you'd relate them to the questions we're exploring. These entries will be due in Q: at 8:00 Tuesday and Friday mornings (but obviously it would be a good idea to put them in during the day on Monday and Thursday). The way it will work is this: for each person in the class there'll be a file in Q: (an example of what will be in this file is on page 4), and you'll insert your diary and statements into that file. The first file will be called READLOG1.XXX (XXX is, as always, your initials). What will happen is this: at the deadline the files will all be copied to a new directory, called P: (actually, it will be a subdirectory of P:, called P:\READLOGS), which everyone in the class can read, but cannot edit, erase or change. At the same time a new set of files, called READLOG2.XXX, will be put into Q:. This will allow us to accumulate a set of articles which people have thought offer illumination or insight about belief and truth. We'll use all those files at the end of this process.

What should you read? How will you know whether an article or book review has, or can be argued to have, anything to do with belief and truth? In one sense, of course, almost anything has something to do with those broad issues -- even if it's only a matter of changing your own ideas of what's true. So in one sense it's merely a matter of finding an article that is about something you think particularly interesting or important. But it's also a matter of discovering which of the infinite variety of articles out there actually are about things you think you might find yourself becoming interested in. Making this decision is part of what we're trying to help you learn to do. You'll have to do some thinking about titles and the ways in which various publications organize and advertise their articles; you'll have to do some skimming of articles, asking yourself whether this particular one is attractive, and why. This is a question which doesn't often come up in school assignments (though it probably did come up regularly, we expect, last term). Read lots of "leads," or first paragraphs, to see whether you're engaged by the writer's tone. Read the blurbs many journals include with their tables of contents (don't trust them, but do read them). Make sure not to overlook reviews (many review-essays, of one or more separate books, are skilful and readable syntheses of whole bodies of knowledge or research). Don't bother with articles less than a couple of pages long. Don't be put off by magazine formats that seem unfamiliar or unwelcoming; spend some time with one before you give up on it.

What should you write? Remember that your readers are the rest of the members of this group -- people concerned to learn how people come to believe things. Imagine how you might help them become interested in it, and write a descriptive statement of the article, thinking about that -- considering why it might be of interest to someone concerned with these questions (why, that is, it was of interest to you). As you read the article, hold in mind the question, "what's to be learned here about how people come to believe things?" The article might be on a subject we've never talked about at all; it might be on something that you've never heard of before, but which just seemed interesting. It might never mention the word "truth" or "belief." It might be about baseball, or the Pope, or welfare mothers, or psychology. (Those are some things we found articles about that interested us.) In most cases you'll want to draft your statement right there at the time (current periodicals don't circulate, and bound volumes only circulate for a couple of days at the most) so -- as we said earlier -- you'll want to budget some time to work in the library.

It's difficult, of course, for us to predict what you might find, or what you might find interesting, or which periodicals you might find it in. Our suggestion for proceeding is that you go with someone else, someone you can discuss the periodicals and the articles you find with as you look. Pick a periodical you can find copies of in the current periodical reading room (all of those on the list are ones the library currently subscribes to), and leaf through some issues to see whether it looks as though it might have some articles that might interest you. Spend some time with it, and change to another if it doesn't seem to be generating much. Eventually, you'll probably want to go find the bound back volumes of it in the stacks (they're easier to work with in many ways). Remember to keep a detailed record of everywhere you looked, though. If you want to add comments on whole periodicals to the diary you leave in Q:, as a help to others, you're welcome to do so.

Remember, the point here is to explore. Allow yourself to be surprised. Keep your eyes open for things you wouldn't have thought you'd be interested in. Because you'll be reading against the background of a term spent thinking about beliefs and truths, and because you'll be discussing those issues in the seminar meetings every week, you'll be surprised how many connections you'll find. Or make (we never know whether connections between ideas are found or made.)

What the READLOG1.XXX file will say:
 Reading Log of: 

I've looked through the following periodicals:

Name of Periodical       Inclusive dates 

I looked more than superficially at the following articles:

Author    Title           Name and date of Periodical

I read the following article(s):

[Begin by putting the author and title of the article, and name and date of periodical, on the top line, and write a statement which describes the article and indicates as specifically and concretely as you can what it has to do with how people come to believe things.]

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