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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 premises.

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:

  1. 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 dictionary! 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 idiosyncratic 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
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.