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How to Read Philosophy

Ten tips for approaching philosophical texts

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So you have a philosophical piece in your hand, be it a book or an essay, and chances are that the title will sound fascinating and impossibly daunting at the same time. How do you approach it?

1. Reading for Understanding

First of all, a bit of context. Bear in mind that when you are reading philosophy what you are actually doing is trying to understand a piece of writing. This is remarkably different from other forms of reading, like - say - going through a newspaper page to find out what the mayor said or how's the weather today. Philosophical reading is an exercise in understanding: you should treat it as such, starting from how you organize your reading time.

2. Philosophy is About Arguing

Second point of context: philosophical writing is persuasive writing. To face a philosophical piece keep in mind you are facing the opinion of an author who is trying to persuade you of the plausibility or implausibility of a position. Will you buy the author's position? This is why it's so important to understand as clearly as possible what's that about and the rhetorical strategies employed: let's see how to do it.

3. Take Your Time

Third, something to always bear in mind while you are reading: you want to understand what's the issue, but not too fast. Philosophy does its best when taken in small pills. Don't go for quantity, but for depth. Set realistic goals. While reading a page of a novel can take as little as thirty seconds, some pages in philosophy are worth at least ten minutes, even at the very first approach. If you read ten pages in an hour, that's a medium to fast pace for philosophical reading.     

4. What's the Problem?

Onward with a very useful trick: before actually starting reading, skim the paper to get a sense of the main point the author is trying to make and the structure of the piece. If it's an essay, read the first and last paragraphs in their entirety; if you could not guess the point still, go through the text. If it's a book, look at the table of contents and go through the opening remarks; if necessary, read excerpts trying to guess which ones are most salient. Of course, with experience you can get much better at this. 

5. Sit Back and Enjoy the Ride

Now it's time to read: sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride! Keep a pencil with you and mark down what seem to you the crucial passages: where the main thesis is stated; where key concepts are introduced; where key arguments or reasons are provided. Try also to get a sense also of the weakest points in the overall piece. That's going to help with your next task.

6. Think on Your Own

To many 'philosophy' is synonymous of 'critical thinking.' While that may be an exaggeration, there is certainly something to it. Your task as a philosophy reader is not just taking stock of a piece of information, as you would do with a biology textbook: you are taking on a challenge and you cannot but face it right on. So, start looking for critical but constructive comments to the text. Bear in mind that you would score many more points if you can find some constructive suggestion affecting the overall piece than if you spot a fix to a minute detail. At any rate, anything counts. If nothing comes to mind, it means you did not search well enough: go through the text, and try be creative. This is an art, really.

7. ... But Don't Think on Your Feet

Philosophical criticism does not typically go well with speed-thinking. Philosophy is reflective: while it's perfectly OK to think on your feet while you are reading, you should go through your objections at least three times before mildly committing to them and saying them aloud. What seems brilliant at first sight, most often than not turns out to be rubbish at a second or third take. So, remember: this is a game of patience: be humble, patient, and meticulous. 

8. Cultivate Philosophical Empathy and Self-Criticism

If a philosophical piece is making an effort in trying to persuade you of something, expect to do at least twice the work to persuade the author of the contrary. To build great philosophical reading skills you ought to cultivate some philosophical empathy and self-criticism. Writing philosophy is challenging. Be empathic: after you come up with some possible criticism, go to your greatest length in trying to rebut them; imagine taking the role of your opponent and try to answer your criticisms. Be as lucid as you can: this exercise can improve your understanding of a philosophical text dramatically, showing you viewpoints that were not clear to you before.

9. Keep Re-Reading

As you are sorting and fine-tuning your critical remarks, double-check the text to refresh your memory, sharpen your thoughts, and make sure you properly interpreted the author.

10. Engage in Philosophical Discussion

One of the most prolific ways to sharpen one's thoughts on a philosophical piece is to discuss it with others. At first, it may be prudent to test your remarks with trusted philosophical buddies or - if you have the opportunity - with your class peers; in return, try to find out what their remarks are and see if they can improve your understanding of the piece. Eventually, you want to be able to expose your philosophical ideas on a piece you read in front of an audience of unknown, expert philosophers, while having some confidence that they will somehow stand their scrutiny.

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