© 2000-2019 Colin Allen <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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A Guide to Reading Philosophy
If this is your first philosophy class, you may find the nature of the
reading assignments somewhat unusual. In most other classes you are
asked to read and memorize relatively large quantities of material.
In most philosophy courses, however, the amount of reading that is
required of you will be relatively small (although there are
exceptions, especially in more advanced classes). In comparison to
some other classes you have taken it may also seem difficult to figure
out what you are being expected to memorize. It is not as if the
material presents facts, like a science textbook, or has a plot and
characters, like a piece of literature. Instead you will find
philosophers arguing for conclusions that may seem utterly implausible
to you, and giving arguments that initially seem impenetrable.
The first thing to realize is that philosophical positions are
initially interesting precisely because of their apparent
implausibility. The ancient Greek philosopher Zeno argued that motion
is impossible - a result that is so much at odds with our common sense
view of the world that no one who first encounters it can think it the
least bit plausible. What makes Zeno's conclusion of
enduring interest are the very clever arguments he
constructed to support it. Implausible conclusions in themselves have
little enduring interest. Implausible conclusions supported by good
arguments challenge us to think hard about our preconceptions of the
world, and about how to defend our most cherished views in the face of
arguments that seem to undermine them. Discovering what is wrong with
an argument is the single most important skill in critical thinking.
What philosophy aims to do is to teach you to do this for yourself,
when presented with any argument.
The next thing to realize is that philosophers, being human, suffer
from the same cognitive limitations as the rest of us. They have
sometimes been more attached to their conclusions than the evidence
would warrant, and they sometimes try to give arguments that are more
complicated than they can successfully keep track of. Some of them
are also tempted to rely on jargon rather than explaining their ideas
clearly, and some of them simply have confused ideas. All these
things mean that the arguments presented are often less than complete
and less than completely clear, and this can make it difficult to
decide exactly what argument a given author is presenting (and in the
worst cases, even, what conclusions they are arguing for).
So, what to do? Realize that to make progress with reading philosophy
texts you should expect to have to read the material more than
once. Save the yellow highlighter until after you have read
the material several times, because on a first reading you will not
typically be able to decide what is really important. Only after you
feel as though you have a handle on the sections you are reading, go
back and mark what seem to be the key conclusions and supporting
Read the text once through, relatively quickly, to get an overall
sense of the piece. Then go back to the beginning and read very
slowly, stopping after every sentence and asking
yourself these questions:
The final thing to know about reading philosophy is that there
are no short cuts. The subject matter is hard, the arguments
are complicated, and the terrain is unfamiliar. Don't expect to get
everything out of a piece of philosophy right away. It may take weeks
or months to feel that you really understand what is going on. Even
those of us who have made an academic career in philosophy have had
the experience of rereading something that we first encountered as
undergraduates, and suddenly realizing that we had not fully
understood it until now, or that we have found a new way of
criticizing or defending the view. Just like physical training, taking
on intellectual challenges builds capacities that produce benefits
many years later, even if you aren't planning a career in philosophy.
- Do I understand the sentence?
If the answer
to the first question is "no", ask yourself why you don't understand
it. Are there words you don't understand? Look them up in a
Are they not in the standard dictionary? Try a specialized
dictionary of philosophy.
If you still can't find them, are they jargon that is
to the author?
Does the author define them? If they are idiosyncratic jargon that is
not explained, you might begin to doubt whether this is a philosopher
whose style you should emulate.
There are quite a few, unfortunately, who fall into this category, but
I'll try to protect you from the worst offenders in my courses! If
you still can't understand the sentence, ask for
help! Email your instructor with a question or bring it to
class - you are almost certainly not the only person having
trouble figuring it out.
- Do I believe the sentence?
(Of course you can't answer this question if you don't understand
it! So a positive answer to the first question is a prerequisite for
answering the second.) If you do believe it, make a mental note not
to be too forgiving of gaps in the author's arguments just because you
are sympathetic to the conclusion, otherwise you'll be engaged in a
form self deception. If you do not believe it, perhaps it is because
you don't have any belief one way or another (ask yourself: why not?)
or because you have a contrary belief (try to make that belief as
explicit in your own mind as you can: it will help you as you try to
formulate objections to what you are reading).
- Does it follow from what the author has written?
Distinguish premises from conclusions, and distinguish places
where the author is presenting a view that is not his or her own,
perhaps in order to refute it. You can safely skip over statements
that seem to be autobiographical, anecdotal, or otherwise not part of
the argumentative structure of the piece. (For example, the first
paragraph of Descartes' First Meditation contains much that can be
ignored, consisting mostly of the confessions of a procrastinator.)
Try to assess how good an argument the author has given for or
against the statement you have just read. Compare this assessment
with your answer to the previous question. If you think the author
appears to have given a good argument for the statement, but you
disbelieve it, then think harder about what might be wrong with the
argument. (Does it involve a logical mistake? What mistake? Does it
rest on false premises? Which ones?) Conversely, if you think that
statement is true, but the the author has given a bad argument for it,
try to formulate a better argument.