Read a Philosophy Text

Even if you are very smart and very literate, as I assume you are, confusion and frustration may occur if you do not read philosophy in the way philosophers expect you to. There is more than one way to read. In this document, I describe the basics of how to read philosophy.

What to Expect

Read­ing phi­los­o­phy is an activ­i­ty and, like any activ­i­ty (e.g., play­ing vol­ley­ball), it takes prac­tice to become good at it. As with any attempt to learn a new skill, you will make some mis­takes along the way, get frus­trat­ed with the fact that you are pro­gress­ing more slow­ly than you would like, and need to ask for help. You may become angry with authors because they say things that go against what you were brought up to believe and you may become frus­trat­ed because those same authors argue so well that you can­not prove them wrong. It is like­ly that you will find unfa­mil­iar vocab­u­lary, abstract ideas, com­plex­ly orga­nized writ­ing, and unset­tling views. I men­tion this because it is nor­mal to have cer­tain reac­tions, such as con­fu­sion, out­rage, and frus­tra­tion, when first encoun­ter­ing phi­los­o­phy. Don’t con­fuse these reac­tions with fail­ure. Many stu­dents who have come before you have had the same ini­tial reac­tions and suc­ceed­ed, even your pro­fes­sor.

The Ultimate Goal

Your aim is to devel­op, or become more con­fi­dent in, your per­son­al belief sys­tem, by build­ing on what you already know about your­self and the world. By eval­u­at­ing argu­ments regard­ing con­tro­ver­sial issues, you should learn to take a well-jus­ti­fied stand that you are able to defend. When you read phi­los­o­phy you should look for argu­ments, rea­sons, and con­clu­sions, not facts, plot or char­ac­ter devel­op­ment, to help you reach your goal of eval­u­at­ing the plau­si­bil­i­ty of var­i­ous posi­tions a per­son might take on some issue.

Basic Good Reading Behaviors

  • Take care of your­self
    • Take breaks
    • SIT (lying down is a bad idea) where you won’t be dis­tract­ed
    • Give your­self enough time to read well
    • Sit in an uncom­fort­able chair (I like wood­en library chairs) to avoid doz­ing off
    • Get enough sleep, exer­cise, and eat well (all of this has a sig­nif­i­cant impact on your abil­i­ty to focus)
  • Inter­act with the mate­r­i­al
    • Talk to your friends and class­mates about what you have read
    • Use a dic­tio­nary and philo­soph­i­cal ency­clo­pe­dia (The Pen­guin Dic­tio­nary of Phi­los­o­phy and The Oxford Dic­tio­nary of Phi­los­o­phy are both good choic­es) while read­ing
    • Remem­ber you are read­ing one person’s con­tri­bu­tion to an ongo­ing debate
    • Dis­agree with the author
  • Keep rea­son­able expec­ta­tions
    • You may not under­stand every­thing with­out some effort
    • You may need to ask for help or clar­i­fi­ca­tion
    • It may take you a lot of time to read care­ful­ly (you should expect an out­side-the-class­room-to-inside-the-class­room time ratio of three-to-one, e.g., 7.5 out­side to 2.5 inside)
  • Be able to state the author’s con­clu­sion and the gist of the argu­ment for that con­clu­sion BEFORE you come to class
  • Eval­u­ate the gist of the author’s argu­ment BEFORE class
  • FLAG and TAKE NOTES (Flag­ging is explained below)

Important Background Information

1. Reading for Information versus Reading for Enlightenment

You are famil­iar with read­ing for infor­ma­tion: You pass your eyes over some words until some infor­ma­tion about the world sticks in your head. Read­ing for enlight­en­ment may be less famil­iar. When you read for enlight­en­ment you use a text as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to reflect upon your­self and your beliefs. Part of the rea­son why read­ing for enlight­en­ment is not easy is because self-eval­u­a­tion often results in per­son­al growth and some­times when we grow, we expe­ri­ence grow­ing pains.

2. Problem-Based, Historical, or Figure-Based Philosophy Classes

This is a prob­lem-based class. In prob­lem-based class­es, stu­dents spend most of their time iden­ti­fy­ing, reflect­ing upon, and defend­ing their beliefs. This is not a his­tor­i­cal or fig­ure-based course. In his­tor­i­cal class­es, stu­dents spend most of their time learn­ing cer­tain themes in the his­to­ry of phi­los­o­phy. In fig­ure-based class­es, stu­dents spend most of their time mas­ter­ing what cer­tain philoso­phers think.

In prob­lem-based cours­es like this one, stu­dents read rel­a­tive­ly short pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary sources. A sec­ondary source is a text that describes what oth­er peo­ple have argued. The text­book for this class is a sec­ondary source. A pri­ma­ry source is a text where a per­son actu­al­ly argues that a cer­tain posi­tion is cor­rect. Pri­ma­ry sources are pro­vid­ed on-line.

So, you are in a prob­lem-based course where you are sup­posed to read pri­ma­ry sources for enlight­en­ment. But how, exact­ly, does one read for enlight­en­ment? Well, strong phi­los­o­phy read­ers, peo­ple who read with care, do three things. As peo­ple increase their abil­i­ty to read phi­los­o­phy well they grad­u­al­ly become unaware that they do facet one and they com­bine facets two and three. How­ev­er, it is a good idea for non-experts to do one thing at a time.

A Three-Part Reading Process

1. Facet One—Stage Setting

A. Pre-Read:

For a very short time, exam­ine the gen­er­al fea­tures of the text. Look at the title, sec­tion head­ings, foot­notes, bib­li­og­ra­phy, read­ing ques­tions, and biog­ra­phy of the author. The goal of the pre-read is to get a basic idea of what the text is about. If you know what a text is about, it is eas­i­er to make sense of the indi­vid­ual sen­tences in it. It helps if you can phrase the top­ic of the text as a ques­tion (e.g., “Why is knowl­edge more valu­able than mere true belief?”) Also, skim the first and last para­graph to see if you can eas­i­ly iden­ti­fy a focal or the­sis state­ment. A focal state­ment describes the top­ic of the text. Focal state­ments often begin with phras­es such as “I will dis­cuss X, Y, and Z.” A the­sis state­ment is a more spe­cif­ic descrip­tion of the author’s goal. The­sis state­ments often begin with phras­es such as “I will show that X is true and Y and Z are false.” If you’ve accu­rate­ly iden­ti­fied the top­ic and phrased it as a ques­tion, the the­sis state­ment will answer that ques­tion (e.g. “Knowl­edge is more valu­able than mere true belief because knowl­edge is more durable than mere true belief.”) While doing the pre-read, ask your­self “How am I doing?” by answer­ing the fol­low­ing ques­tions:

  • Is this a pri­ma­ry or sec­ondary text? Should I expect an argu­ment or, instead, a descrip­tion of an argu­ment?
  • Am I read­ing for infor­ma­tion or enlight­en­ment?
  • What is the top­ic of this text? What ques­tion is the author try­ing to answer?
  • What is the focal state­ment of the text? Is there a the­sis state­ment? What is it?
  • What does the title of the text tell me about the text?
  • Are there sec­tion head­ings? If yes, what can I learn about the text from them?
  • Is there a bib­li­og­ra­phy? If yes, what can I learn about the text from it?
  • Are there foot­notes? Are they essen­tial­ly doc­u­men­ta­tion or do they say some­thing? (This lets you know whether you need to read them when you see a num­ber in the text.)
  • Are there read­ing ques­tions attached? If yes, what do they tell me about what I can expect to find in the text?

B. Fast-Read:

Read the entire text fair­ly quick­ly. The goal of the fast-read is to devel­op a basic under­stand­ing of the text. When doing the fast read, remem­ber to do the fol­low­ing:

  • Iden­ti­fy the the­sis state­ment
    • Warn­ing: You may not be able to do this until you reach the end of the text
    • Mark any­thing that seems like it might be a the­sis state­ment or con­clu­sion when you first notice it, then pick the one that seems most cen­tral when you are done
    • In some cas­es, the author may not even actu­al­ly write a the­sis state­ment down, so you may need to write one for the author
  • Look up def­i­n­i­tions of words you don’t know and write them in the mar­gins
    • Warn­ing: Don’t get bogged down while doing this
    • If it is too dif­fi­cult to fig­ure out which mean­ing of a term an author seems to have in mind, or if you have to read an entire ency­clo­pe­dia entry to fig­ure out the mean­ing, just move on (If you read near a com­put­er, use an online dic­tio­nary.  You should, how­ev­er, try to avoid read­ing near a com­put­er since you will be tempt­ed to “just check your email real fast”)
  • FLAG the struc­ture of the text in as much detail as pos­si­ble with­out get­ting bogged down
    • When you flag a text you put marks in it that will allow you to recon­struct the mean­ing of the text with­out hav­ing to re-read the entire text again
    • See below for spe­cif­ic sug­ges­tions on how to flag an text
  • Don’t let any­thing stop your progress
  • This is a fast read so you may skim long exam­ples
  • While doing the fast-read, ask your­self “How am I doing?” by answer­ing the fol­low­ing ques­tions:
    • Have I iden­ti­fied the the­sis state­ment and writ­ten it down?
    • Do I know what the con­clu­sion of the author’s argu­ment is and have I marked places in the text where impor­tant steps toward that con­clu­sion occur?

2. Facet Two—Understanding

Devel­op a sophis­ti­cat­ed under­stand­ing of the text. You should be able to explain to a friend how the author defends her/his con­clu­sion. Once you are able to coher­ent­ly explain the text in your own words, you have tru­ly inter­nal­ized it—good job.  When read­ing for under­stand­ing, remem­ber to do the fol­low­ing:

  • Re-read the entire text VERY CAREFULLY
  • Cor­rect and add to your pre­vi­ous flag­ging
  • Take lots of notes
    • In these notes, rephrase what the author says in your own words
    • Remem­ber: You should prac­tice the prin­ci­ple of char­i­ty when tak­ing notes
      • Describe the author’s view in the most favor­able way pos­si­ble
    • If you have trou­ble tak­ing notes, stop at the end of every sec­tion or para­graph (some­times even every sen­tence) and men­tal­ly rephrase the mean­ing of the text in your own words
  • Draw dia­grams or flow charts of the major moves in the text if doing so helps you
  • Bring togeth­er all your work so far into a sum­ma­ry that is detailed enough that you won’t have re-read the text again to remind your­self of the author’s argu­ment
  • While read­ing for under­stand­ing, ask your­self “How am I doing?” by answer­ing the fol­low­ing ques­tions:
    • Do I know exact­ly what the author is say­ing?
    • Have I re-re-read pas­sages that were con­fus­ing at first?
    • Can I con­nect the dots?
    • Can I explain in my own words why the author con­cludes what she or he con­cludes? (In the fast-read you find the con­clu­sion and do your best to fig­ure out the steps to it. In the read-for-under­stand­ing, you come to ful­ly under­stand each step in detail.)

3. Facet Three—Evaluating

Now that you have made your­self a con­cise and easy to artic­u­late sum­ma­ry of the author’s argu­ment, it is time to eval­u­ate it. When eval­u­at­ing, your main tool is the sum­ma­ry you made, but you will need to re-re-read cer­tain pas­sages. You are now enter­ing the debate, rather than sim­ply learn­ing about it. When eval­u­at­ing a text, remem­ber to do the fol­low­ing:

  • Fix any mis­tak­en flag­ging as you re-re-read impor­tant pas­sages
  • Write down any­thing new that you dis­cov­er as you go through the text again
  • While eval­u­at­ing a text, ask your­self “How am I doing?” by answer­ing the fol­low­ing ques­tions:
    • Have I looked to see if every con­clu­sion in the text is well defend­ed?
    • Have I thought about how an unde­fend­ed con­clu­sion could be defend­ed? (Have I been char­i­ta­ble?)
    • Do I think the argu­ments for the con­clu­sions are per­sua­sive? Why or why not?
    • Can I think of any counter-exam­ples to any asser­tion made by the author?
    • Can I put my fin­ger on exact­ly what both­ers me about what the author says? Can I explain where and why I think the author made a mis­take?
    • Have I thought about how the author might respond to my crit­i­cism?
    • Have I iden­ti­fied some of my own beliefs that can’t be true if the author is right?
    • Is there is a con­flict between what I believe and what the author says?
      • If so, to avoid being a hyp­ocrite I must ulti­mate­ly change my mind or show that the author’s rea­son­ing fails in some way
      • Sim­ply iden­ti­fy­ing a dis­agree­ment does not con­sti­tute an eval­u­a­tion
    • Have I fig­ured out, exact­ly, what the author got wrong so that I may con­tin­ue to believe as I always have with con­fi­dence?
    • Have I fig­ured out, exact­ly, which of my beliefs I must change in light of what I have learned from the author?
    • Have I looked for some point that the author did not con­sid­er that might influ­ence what I think is true?

4. Two Important Details

A. Flag­ging

When you flag a text you put short notes, prefer­ably in pen­cil, in the mar­gins of the text (unless you are using a library book, in which case DO NOT WRITE IN THE BOOK, YOU MONSTER) that will remind you of many details in the text so that you will not have to re-read an entire text to recon­struct its mean­ing in your head. Flag­ging marks allow you to pick out var­i­ous impor­tant fea­tures of the text for fur­ther study. A part of the text is impor­tant when it must be present for the author’s con­clu­sion to make sense. On some occa­sions impor­tant things are sen­tence- or clause-length, but oth­er times impor­tant things are a para­graph or a page long.

Flag­ging is bet­ter than high­light­ing because flag­ging is more detailed than high­light­ing. If all you’re inter­est­ed in doing is dis­tin­guish­ing some­thing that seems impor­tant from oth­er stuff that doesn’t seem impor­tant then high­light­ing is fine.

But you want to do more than just dis­tin­guish impor­tant from unim­por­tant. There is more than one kind of impor­tant thing in a phi­los­o­phy text, and you want to mark your text in such a way that you can tell the dif­fer­ence.

Anoth­er good thing about flag­ging is that you can “unflag” and you can’t “unhigh­light.” The flex­i­bil­i­ty to change your notes is impor­tant because some­times as you read fur­ther into a text, or read it a sec­ond time, you real­ize that some­thing that seemed impor­tant real­ly isn’t impor­tant.

There are many ways to flag a text. You should devel­op your own method and nota­tions. You should use what­ev­er marks help you attain the goal of not­ing the dif­fer­ent types of impor­tant parts of a text. The fol­low­ing are sug­ges­tions of abbre­vi­a­tions that have been par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful to me. At the end of this doc­u­ment you will find a brief read­ing that illus­trates how the flag­ging can be used.

But, again, feel free to use terms not on the list that you find help­ful and ignore any, or all, of these if you find them unhelp­ful (in addi­tion to these terms, I cir­cle “list” words, e.g., First, sec­ond, [i], [ii] and I under­line def­i­n­i­tions):

  • Track­ing the Flow
    • Focal - Gen­er­al top­ic this text will dis­cuss
    • The­sis — Spe­cif­ic claim the author hopes to prove
    • Df — Def­i­n­i­tion
    • Dst — Dis­tinc­tion
    • e.g. — Exam­ple
    • i.e. — In oth­er words
    • Asn — Asser­tion of fact or an impor­tant claim the author will argue is true
    • Dis­cuss — A dis­cus­sion or expla­na­tion of a view, asser­tion, or prob­lem
    • Rsn — Rea­son sup­port­ing an asser­tion or con­clu­sion, a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of a claim
    • Arg — An argu­ment (com­bi­na­tion of an asser­tion and a rea­son)
    • Obj — Objec­tion to an argu­ment or rea­son
    • Reply — Reply to an objec­tion
    • Rejoin — Rejoin­der or response to a reply
    • Con — Con­clu­sion of an argu­ment
    • Sum — Sum­ma­ry
    • Spost — A sign­post or state­ment that explic­it­ly marks an impor­tant tran­si­tion in the text
  • Self-Mon­i­tor­ing
    • ??? — What? I don’t get it. I must reread this pas­sage care­ful­ly
    • =x? — This means what exact­ly?
  • Read­er Eval­u­a­tion
    • Why? — Why should some­one agree with this?
    • [Under­line] — This is impor­tant

Flag­ging should nat­u­ral­ly evolve into note tak­ing. If you are inclined to write “???” in a mar­gin, it is a good idea to write out more ful­ly what con­fused you. If you can artic­u­late your con­fu­sion you are a good way down the road to fig­ur­ing out what’s going on. Dur­ing your re-read for under­stand­ing make sure to spend as much time as nec­es­sary to ful­ly grasp what is going on in the “???” sec­tion.

B. Key Words

Some stu­dents find the fol­low­ing list of words or phras­es that sig­nal a sig­nif­i­cant moment in a text help­ful. How­ev­er, there are many texts where authors will not use any of these terms or phras­es. These are words or phras­es to be aware of so that if they come up you are ready, but you should not read a text as if you are on a trea­sure hunt for these words or phras­es.

Focal state­ments are often sig­naled by phras­es such as: The­sis state­ments are often sig­naled by phras­es such as:
  • I will dis­cuss
  • Con­sid­er­a­tion will be giv­en to
  • My main con­cern is
  • In this paper I argue that
  • I hope to con­clude that
  • I will show that
Premis­es, Rea­sons, or Asser­tions are often sig­naled by words or phras­es such as: Objec­tions or crit­i­cisms are often sig­naled by words or phras­es such as:
  • Because, Since, For, Where­as
  • Sec­ond­ly, It fol­lows that
  • Giv­en that
  • As shown or indi­cat­ed by
  • The rea­son is that
  • More­over, How­ev­er
  • It could be object­ed that
  • Oppo­nents of my view might claim
  • Crit­ics might say, On the oth­er hand
  • There is rea­son to doubt
Replies or Rejoin­ders are often sig­naled by words or phras­es such as: Con­clu­sions are often sig­naled by words or phras­es such as:
  • This crit­i­cism fails because
  • My oppo­nent does not notice that
  • In response we should remem­ber
  • Nev­er­the­less, On the oth­er hand
  • In sum­ma­ry, Thus, There­fore, So,
  • Hence, Accord­ing­ly, Con­se­quent­ly
  • As a result
  • We may infer, Which entails that

A Final Complication: Linear versus Dialogical Writing

Stu­dents some­times ask me one or all of the fol­low­ing ques­tions:

  • Why does the author con­tra­dict her­self?
  • Why does the author repeat him­self so much?
  • Why is this read­ing so wordy?

Stu­dents ask these ques­tions, I think, because they expect the read­ing to be lin­ear when, in fact, philo­soph­i­cal writ­ing is usu­al­ly dia­log­i­cal. So, let me tell you a lit­tle bit about dia­log­i­cal writ­ing and then I will answer each ques­tion indi­vid­u­al­ly.

Lin­ear writ­ing moves in a straight­for­ward way from one idea to the next, with­out exam­in­ing (m)any sup­port­ing or con­tra­dic­to­ry ideas. Dia­log­i­cal writ­ing explic­it­ly acknowl­edges and responds to crit­i­cism. It may be help­ful to think of philo­soph­i­cal writ­ing as a mono­logue that con­tains a dia­logue. The author is speak­ing direct­ly to you, deliv­er­ing a mono­logue for your con­sid­er­a­tion. But in the mono­logue, the author is telling you about a dia­logue or debate that she or he knows about, while giv­ing you rea­sons for think­ing that her or his under­stand­ing of that debate is right.

As you know, in some debates there are more than two sides and some­times peo­ple on the same side have dif­fer­ent rea­sons for believ­ing what they believe. Authors will take the time to tell you about as many sides, or dif­fer­ent camps with­in one side, as they think you need to know about to under­stand, and be per­suad­ed by, their view. This con­fus­es peo­ple some­times because it is hard to keep track of whether the author is argu­ing for their side or talk­ing from anoth­er point of view or camp with­in the same side for the sake of (good) argu­ment. When read­ing dia­log­i­cal texts, remem­ber:

  • Authors some­times sup­port their views with thought-exper­i­ments (i.e., exam­ples that ask you to imag­ine how things would be if some­thing that is not true, were true)
  • Authors some­times argue that oth­er thinkers haven’t noticed an impor­tant dif­fer­ence between two things
  • Authors draw dis­tinc­tions
  • Authors some­times argue that anoth­er philosopher’s views or argu­ments ought to be reject­ed (There is some­thing real­ly tricky here. Fair-mind­ed writ­ers will prac­tice the prin­ci­ple of char­i­ty. Accord­ing to the prin­ci­ple of char­i­ty, one should give one’s oppo­nents the ben­e­fit of the doubt; one should respond to the best thing that some­one who dis­agrees with you could say, even if they didn’t notice it. Some­times attempts to abide by the prin­ci­ple of char­i­ty results in authors pre­sent­ing argu­ments for the cor­rect­ness of views they ulti­mate­ly reject. That is, for the sake of (good) argu­ment some authors will present rea­sons for think­ing that their crit­ics are right. Try to avoid mis­tak­ing char­i­ta­ble elu­ci­da­tion for the author’s main argu­ment.)

Now that you are more famil­iar with dia­log­i­cal texts I can answer the ques­tions stu­dents some­times ask about them.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why does the author con­tra­dict her­self?

Some­times thinkers do unwit­ting­ly con­tra­dict them­selves. Most of the time, how­ev­er, peo­ple per­ceive a con­tra­dic­tion where there isn’t one because they fail to notice a change in “voice.” Authors will describe many sides, and camps with­in a side, but they will voice agree­ment with only one side or camp. If you lose track of the fact that the author is con­sid­er­ing an alter­na­tive view, you will mis­tak­en­ly think that a fair-mind­ed exam­i­na­tion of a dif­fer­ent point of view is a con­tra­dic­tion. Keep­ing track of where you are in the argu­ment is cru­cial to under­stand­ing. If you think you see a con­tra­dic­tion, dou­ble or triple check your flag­ging to make sure that you are not sim­ply miss­ing some­thing.

  • Why does the author repeat him­self so much?

Usu­al­ly philoso­phers do not repeat them­selves all that much. Some­times, how­ev­er, they use exam­ples that are so long, or dis­cuss mate­r­i­al that is inter­est­ing but ulti­mate­ly tan­gen­tial for such a long time, that they (cor­rect­ly) assume that their read­ers have lost track of the point being made. In such cas­es, a sim­ple rep­e­ti­tion may occur for the ben­e­fit of the read­er. More often, how­ev­er, peo­ple lose track of where they are in an argu­ment and con­se­quent­ly mis­take some­thing new for rep­e­ti­tion. Again, keep­ing track of where you are in an argu­ment is cru­cial to under­stand­ing and flag­ging real­ly helps read­ers keep track of where they are.

  • Why is the writ­ing so wordy?

Some peo­ple think philoso­phers use all sorts of fan­cy words to intim­i­date their read­ers or show off. This reac­tion is under­stand­able but mis­tak­en in at least four ways.

First, it is a mis­take to become angry with an author because you have a lim­it­ed vocab­u­lary. There is an oppor­tu­ni­ty for learn­ing here. Take it.

Sec­ond, there is an inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty of philoso­phers, and like all spe­cial­ized com­mu­ni­ties (such as you and your friends), there are cer­tain pat­terns in the way mem­bers of that com­mu­ni­ty talk to one anoth­er. Metaphor­i­cal­ly, when you enrolled in phi­los­o­phy class you walked into a room where a bunch of peo­ple have been hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion for a very long time (2,500+ years). You need to adapt to their idio­syn­crat­ic ways of talk­ing if you want to par­tic­i­pate in their con­ver­sa­tion. Of course, philoso­phers shouldn’t be rude and inten­tion­al­ly try to exclude you with their words. But it is impor­tant to real­ize that they didn’t know you were com­ing, so they might not have done every­thing pos­si­ble to make your inclu­sion as easy as you would like. What­ev­er the author’s faults, do your part — be open to what is being said, try your hard­est to under­stand, and don’t assume the worst about the author, even if the author doesn’t always behave as you would like (the prin­ci­ple of char­i­ty applies here, too).

Third, and most impor­tant­ly, not every com­plex idea can be stat­ed in sim­ple terms. Some­times sim­pli­fi­ca­tion is over-sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, where the impor­tant nuances of what a per­son real­ly thinks are lost. It is true that some philo­soph­i­cal writ­ing is more com­pli­cat­ed than it needs to be, but not all of it is. Some philo­soph­i­cal writ­ing needs to be com­pli­cat­ed to express a com­pli­cat­ed idea. Part of the beau­ty of phi­los­o­phy is its com­plex­i­ty. Do your best to appre­ci­ate the beau­ty of com­plex­i­ty.

Fourth, and relat­ed to the third, philoso­phers are par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cerned with the log­i­cal mean­ing of their claims. In ordi­nary Eng­lish, if you would pre­fer to not go to a par­ty you would prob­a­bly express that by say­ing, “I don’t want to go to the par­ty.” A philoso­pher, on the oth­er hand, might say “I want to not go to the par­ty” to express the same thing. Why the dif­fer­ence? If you’re indif­fer­ent to whether or not you go to the par­ty, then it is tech­ni­cal­ly true that you do not want to go to the par­ty; you lack that desire. So, if you want to be absolute­ly clear about what you do or do not want, you should say, “I want to not go to the par­ty” to express the idea that you’d pre­fer not to go to the par­ty. We don’t talk this way in ordi­nary Eng­lish because the con­text usu­al­ly clears these ambi­gu­i­ties up, but in philo­soph­i­cal writ­ing authors want to be as unam­bigu­ous as pos­si­ble since they do not know the con­text in which the text will be read. So, they occa­sion­al­ly tor­ture the lan­guage in order to get it to express exact­ly what they mean.

Summary: What Successful Philosophy Readers Do

  • Abide by the “Basic Good Read­ing Behav­iors”
  • Before class, com­plete all three facets of read­ing well
  • Flag and Take Notes to keep track of where you are in the dia­logue

Thanks for reading all of that! I hope that it makes your semester more productive and enjoyable.

You can download a .pdf of this guide here: How to Read Philosophy
This guide was developed by David W. Concepción – Ball State University, and modified by Tim Loughrist. Many thanks to Prof. Concepción for his hard work and dedication to improving the quality of philosophy education.

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