Last year I created a new concept in reading called ultrareading. The gist of it is to download as much information about a topic as you can and then process and reflect on it later when you are ready to use the information. With this protocol you can preview a lot of information. ChatGPT makes this process even faster.
Case Study #1: Sartre
Last night, as I fell asleep I had Sartre pop into my head for no reason. I remembered my article on ultrareading and decided I was going to ultraread my way through Sartre using ChatGPT. This morning I woke up, did my morning routine, then hit the AI up. Everything I did took about an hour.
Sartre is someone who I’ve read about before, but I don’t believe I’ve ever read any of his actual books. Last night I couldn’t tell you much about who is was and what did he contribute to philosophy. I only remembered he was a French philosopher who read a ton of books, like 350 a year, very critically, created a ton of drama with women and had a period where he was a Marxist. I knew he wrote plays and novels as well as philosophy. Beyond that I couldn’t tell you much, but now I know much more within the space of a morning.
First I made a goal: to get the gist of Sartre. Then I had ChatGPT summarize 18 of Sartre’s works, one by one. I opened a .txt file on my computer and summarized the summaries down to a sentence or three. From these initial moves I grokked that Sartre was an existentialist philosopher and that his existentialism had a lot to do with individualism, freedom, taking responsibility for our actions, and being authentic. But why?
Existentialism deals with the meaningless and purposeless of our lives (fantastic!) which causes anxiety and dread. Because our lives are pointless we have to create our own values and we are capable of doing this because of the freedom we possess as individuals. Sartre doesn’t allow us to be complete misanthropes, though, he delves into the responsibility we each must take seriously if we want to have authentic relationships with others, the shorthand of this is: be real. I also have an idea now why he was attracted to Marxism, or was Marxist, because individuals simply don’t have enough control on their own, it takes collective action to make impactful change in society, and Sartre wrote an essay on the role of intellectuals needing to make social change to overcome systemic injustices.
I really could go on, about his novels, his plays, some of things that strike me as still going on today in our social commentary debates about the rights of the marginalized, systemic oppression, social movements and how many people act like existentialists even if they are unaware. Many people want others to be real with them, authentic, to treat them like the autonomous human beings they are, or demand others to take responsibility for their actions and decisions, to not allow people to shrug away responsibility by blaming social norms or external factors.
I asked ChatGPT to give the names of other prominent existentialist philosophers and then I asked it to tell me how they differed from Sartre. I learned that some emphasized relationships, one focused on marginalized groups, one thought that we couldn’t create meaning or values out of our meaningless lives, one focused on the importance of language and so on. I then asked for the major works of those other existentialists. I asked some more questions about existentialism, like how it would deal with malicious people, I asked for clarification on authenticity, I asked what movies have been made from Sartre’s works.
I stopped there, but I could have kept going. I now feel like I have the gist of Sartre and existentialism, enough so that I can probe deeper at will. I could have gone further asking more clarifying questions, asking for expansion on certain works, asking for summaries of the other existentialist’s works. Depending on how much I would need I could keep going but with ultrareading you go until you have the gist, enough, the minimum viable product of information on a thing. With the knowledge I’ve gained and the notes I retained, I can approach my Sartre book, Being and Nothingness, with more confidence. I can see myself checking out Nausea, or The Age of Reason from the library and focus on the details of the novels instead of focus on trying to understand them in the first place.
That’s an important part of ultrareading, to give you enough prerequisite information so when you get to the meat of a subject you spend your time more productively on it gaining deep insight instead of fighting to understand in the first place.
ChatGPT saved me a lot of time and extended ultrareading by allowing one to ask questions. Some words repeated a lot among Sartre’s works, like individualism and freedom. That’s great, you think, but what do those words mean to an existentialist? ChatGPT quickly clarifies what Sartre meant when he wrote about individualism (for the sake of brevity, I won’t expound upon what that is).
So far I have found ChatGPT to be a tool that enhances ultrareading further. Since ultrareading is concerned with practical knowledge I next want to see what would be different about trying to utilize ChatGPT to ultraread my way through the works of Al Sweigart, who writes about python. Is it possible to ultraread highly technical, step-by-step subjects? Stay tuned for Case Study 2, until then, go ahead and try summarizing the complete works of any author you want then delve deeper into having ChatGPT summarize for you articles and essays by the author or by others who study the author. Try to find an author who writes about something that is relevant to you or at least something you’ve always wanted to start learning or understanding but have yet to spend the time. Now you can get a lot done in an hour of focused ultrareading with ChatGPT.