How to Read Philosophy

I’m Dr. Anadale and I teach philosophy at Mount Saint Mary’s University and Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Today I want to talk about how to read philosophy. Most of what I’m going to say today is based upon a 2014 blog post on the Falasafaz blog. I’ll put a link down below in the description. Go ahead and read that blog post for more details, it’s excellent, it’s well worth your time.

I’m also going to sprinkle in a couple of my own ideas, things that have worked for me and for my students in the course of my teaching. Now, philosophy is not the kind of thing that you can read just by dropping into a chair and opening the book, expecting it to speak to you. It’s not a short story or a novel, where you can expect to be introduced to the characters early on. You’re going to need to take some specific steps and use a method to read it. So here’s the method that works.

Falasafaz gives six steps that you can follow in reading philosophy. Step one is to prepare: get comfortable but not too comfortable, and get a pen, not a highlighter, a pen. You are going to be marking in your books.

You need to get used to marking in your books, writing things in the margins, underlining things, making notations in them. This is vital to your education. In my experience writing in books *is* the way to read actively and to learn the material that’s in them. So think of the book as a tool that’s designed for the sake of your education.

To get the best use possible out of the tool you’re going to have to write in it. This will mean sacrificing the eight bucks or twenty bucks that you would have expected to get back by reselling the book at the end of the semester. But I cannot urge you strongly enough to be willing to make that sacrifice.

Think of it as the cost of the pizza over the course of a semester. That’s a slice a week or less. You can give up a slice of pizza a week for the sake of your education. Use a pencil if you’re squeamish, or sticky notes if you really must. If money is really tight and you say “Gee, look, I can’t possibly do that,” try it with one book this semester, one book that you’re pretty sure you’re not going to resell, are not going to get any money back for. Try it with one book and I guarantee you will know the contents of that book much better than you know the contents of other books that you are trying to keep pristine for resale.

Step two: some questions to keep in mind as you are reading. There are four questions to keep in mind: What’s the point? That is, what is the issue or question that drives this book? What area is it in?

Why is it being written? Second question: Why did the author bother? Why did somebody bother to write down something like this? Despite what you might be told, philosophers do not generally write things with no purpose in mind.

They want you to think or believe something that you do not currently think or believe. What you’re trying to discover is their motivation. And then the third question: What are they trying to prove? This is going to be their thesis, the thing that they’re trying to convince you to believe, the view that they’re trying to get you to share. And question four: How do they try to prove it?

What’s the evidence that they’re citing? What’s the argument that they’re giving in favor of the point of view that they are pushing? So: what’s the point, what why did they bother, what are they trying to prove, how are they trying to prove it? You should have these four questions in mind before you read the first page of the text.

Before you even crack the text open you need to prepare yourself with these questions to answer. Keep them in mind always while you are reading. Your goal in reading the book is to get answers to these questions. Step 3: interrogate the text. You should think of yourself as a detective looking for clues, investigating, searching through the text, trying to find out the answers to these four… these four questions, especially those last two, about the thesis and the argument.

So you can begin by reading the blurb, reading the inside jacket copy and the back cover of the book. Read the first and last paragraphs of the book, of each chapter of the particular section you’re focusing on for this day or for this week, and then review what you have found. What should you expect from this work?

In this sense you’re kind of like a detective making an initial once-over of the crime scene before investigating more deeply. What is it that we should expect to find when we look closer? Where are we going to pay close attention? Step 4: make a fast read through the text. Here you can be looking for overall movement and for the architecture of the work.

I’ll typically make a couple of marks with my pen in a book and chapter that I’m reading this way. One thing I’ll do is to mark horizontal lines in the margin of the text where there is a break in the text–where the author says ‘we’ve now finished with this question and now we will turn to addressing these objections.’ Any time there’s an indication like that in what I’m reading I draw a horizontal line at the break.

This gives me a visual way of going back to find the beginning and end of each section that I’m looking for. It makes it much easier for me to reread the text later on and find the particular part that I’m looking for. On this fast read through it’s very important not to get bogged down with particular questions of comprehension. Your goal is to get through the text, to read all of it as much as you can… get as much as you can out of it with a first read through. So if you find yourself struggling over a particular sentence or a particular paragraph, put a question mark next to it in the margin and just be on your way.

Don’t get trapped reading the same material over and over again for fifteen minutes or half an hour. Just push on through it and figure you will come back and pick that up later on. Step 5: the slow slow slow read through. This is where you will spend most of your time, going through the work paragraph by paragraph, trying to unlock its meaning and find the answers to those questions. Now this is also where you’re going to annotate as you go, in pen. You can look for more structural clues, for where the author indicates the introduction, the thesis, indicates the outline of the argument.

I often will, whenever I find an author mentioning a number, if he says ‘there are three reasons for this’ or ‘there are four objections to this view,’ I’ll write that number in the margin. For ‘four objections’ I would write ‘4 O’ and then I would go down as I find each objection in the subsequent paragraphs I would write the O1 O2 O3 in the margin next to those. This gives me a quick reference for going through and finding the bits of the essay that the author has called attention to by assigning them numbers.

You can also at this point mark key passages. These are the parts that you would have highlighted back when you were using a highlighter; now you’re using a pen. I usually draw a vertical line in the margin to indicate a really key passage.

If it’s especially important, I’ll put a star next to it. And I also would say as you’re going through on your slow read through try to put a word or two describing each paragraph in the margin next to it. It can be something as simple as “being/freedom” or “Plato=wrong,” whatever you think the author is trying to accomplish, or the view that he’s trying to push, whatever he’s trying to do; as soon as you recognize what’s going on in that paragraph, write something in the margin for future reference about what’s going on there. This will make it much easier if you to go back through when you’re trying to write a paper or trying to study for an exam and identify which parts of the essay are doing what. If you miss a paragraph, if you can’t figure it out, put a question mark next to it and go on. And then lastly, put question marks in the margins where you are confused, but try to indicate what confuses you: what is it that gives you a problem?

If you don’t understand what this particular word means, circle the word or underline it. Give yourself something to go back to when you’re trying to do your own research, or ask your professor or another student for help understanding what’s going on in the work. And then step 6: summarize what you’ve read. You can either do this in the book if you have a vacant half page at the end of the chapter or the section or on a sticky note which you then would put into the book.

Very important: try to do this within the first 10 minutes after you finish reading or if you know you’re gonna have to go to class at 2 o’clock, stop 10 minutes early so you can write your summary. Don’t try to go back and do it later, or do it in evening, or do it when you finish the book– do it immediately after finishing up with your reading. This will make your future read-throughs much, much easier and help to cement the material that you’ve read into your brain. So those are the six step process for how to read philosophy effectively. I’d encourage you still to go through to the blog post that’s linked below and read the whole thing; it’s quite good.