The Basics


Tips For Reading Philosophy

Philosophy is a “text driven” discipline. That means that we focus on reading texts.  As reading comprehension is vital in this discipline, you will need to be able to pay close attention when you read.  Typically, courses in philosophy will use three different types of writing: philosophical prose, dialogues, and literature.  The texts will come from a wide variety of time periods, and commonly belong to the history of Western thought.  However, you will be confronted with unfamiliar words, technical terminology, complicated sentence structures, and antiquated styles. The result is that students, even good ones, can find philosophy courses fairly demanding. To perform requires reflection, intelligence, and time. The rewards are high:  increased personal satisfaction when dealing with complex issues, increased understanding of highly influential ideas, and amplified appreciation for the ideas and points of view different than your own. Thus, even if you had no trouble getting through high school or some other college courses, I strongly suggest that you take the time to read over this guide before going further, and then  afterward think it through.

Preparing to Read                                                                                   

1. Be sure to give yourself enough time to get into the material.  You should glance through the material to see how long it will take you to read it successfully.  Give yourself at least an hour at a time, so that you can get into the text.  Read when you are awake and alert, so that you do not end up daydreaming as you turn the pages.  You know even before you begin that the text will take you through new areas of thought and that it will be easy to lose the thread of the author’s view.  So take appropriate precautions.

2.  Focus on the text, rather than your reaction to it.  Academic assignments usually begin with a close reading of a text, not a cursory reading; you cannot skim a text and read it carefully at the same time.  You can not pick out the important points in a text unless you are focused and involved in the line of thought presented.  I use the word “read” as a success term.  To read well is to grasp the author’s position -– to understand, based on the text, what view the author takes, and why the author takes that view.  Alternatively, your reaction to a text is what you think of it, or how you feel about it, which is never a substitute for understanding a text.

3. Keep a good dictionary handy, and use it!  You will not truly understand the meaning of a text or be able to evaluate it if you do not understand the meanings of several key terms. You are responsible for using resources, when necessary, grasp the ideas.  Just as medicine, law, chemistry, and literature have their own terminology, so does philosophy.  Do not make the mistake of thinking that every term you come across is identical to its meaning in ordinary conversation.  You will need a philosophical dictionary in addition to a college dictionary to enable you to understand and interpret the texts you will encounter.  So keep in mind the general rule that “technical terms” are used in each discipline in ways that might be quite different from ordinary use.

How to Read Philosophy

1. Read for Understanding. Before you can begin to analyze, discuss, critically evaluate, summarize, or whatever else your assignment asks you to do, you must first understand what you are reading. You do not understand a text until you are able to provide a coherent interpretation of what the text means, and do so in your own words. Among the most basic questions about the text that you should be able to answer intelligibly are:

  • What is the subject matter under consideration?
  • What is the point in a particular passage?
  • What main points does the author make?
  • What significance is there in the author’s choice of words, images, or metaphors?
  • What conclusions does the author draw?

2. Read Actively. One basic mistake students often make in reading is to expect that the meaning of a text will be obvious.  Some reading, like reading the sports page of a newspaper, is easy. You can read a newspaper passively because the meaning of the words is on the surface, and most are written with a six-grade level vocabulary or lower. Such texts are intended to be superficial.  By contrast, academic articles and books will be comparatively hard work, since you need to be involved in order to discover the ideas behind the words. This requires reading actively. Here are some ways to do this:

  • Interrogate the text.  Reading a text closely requires that you think actively, to ask questions of the text as you work through it, and make careful observations of what ideas the author is presenting. You need to look for things like notable structural elements (signposts such as “firstly,” “secondly,” “in contrast,” etc.), the use of metaphor, irony, and other rhetorical features, assumptions made by the author, etc.
  • Read with a pencil in hand and annotate the text. You annotate a text when you write in it. At the most basic level this means deciding what is important (based on your considered thoughts) and then marking the text to point this out so that you can return to it if things get shaky.  Make notes in the margin of your book or in a separate journal whenever you observe something that seems surprising or significant. This provides you with a record of your questions, critical remarks, and general observations that will be helpful when re-reading the text, preparing for test or assignments, or during class discussions.
  • Be sure your annotations are focused on the most important points.  There is little use in underlining or highlighting almost everything – this is something people quickly discover when they go back to look over the text.  Highlighting almost everything is a waste of time, and pat to create future frustration.  If you find yourself highlighting almost everything, it is a sure sign that you are NOTreading carefully.
  • When you take notes, be sure to use your own words. If you cannot summarize an author’s ideas in your own words, that means you do not really understand what the author is saying.  Do not overstate or trivialize an author’s main points.
  • Try to relate the material you are reading to other ideas relevant to the course or subject area. You should try to understand new passages by asking how they fit within the broader context of the text as a whole, and how the main point in one section builds upon previous points.  That is, try to see how ideas fit within the structure of an argument so you can follow the logical progression from the premises to the conclusion.  Be on the lookout for repetition of ideas and themes across different authors and texts; look for contrasts or contradictions, and for ways in which one author modifies another author’s view.  More than this, however, in this course you should compare and contrast ideas that you encounter in each new discussion with ideas on the same topic addressed previously.

3. Read Critically. This does not mean that you need to attack the ideas of every text you read. To read critically is to exercise judgment — the word “critical” actually means “reason based” rather than “negative.” When you read you need to make decisions. You need to decide, what is important and what is not. You also need to decide how best to interpret the text, and whether or not the author has done what he or she set out to do. These are examples of reading a text critically. If done well, such decisions are based on a close reading of the text, and you will be able to provide other people with good reasons to accept the judgments you make. In other words when you read critically you must be prepared to defend your reading of the text by showing how the text itself supports your position.


Reading Russell’s “The Value of Philosophy”

As an example of the points made in the discussion above, we will consider the initial paragraphs of Russell’s “The Value of Philosophy.”  At the start of his essay Russell writes,

. . . it will be well to consider . . . what is the value of philosophy and why it ought to be studied.  It is the more necessary to consider this question, in view of the fact that many men, under the influence of science or of practical affairs, are inclined to doubt whether philosophy is anything better that innocent but useless trifling, hair-splitting distinctions, and controversies on matters concerning which knowledge is impossible. 

This view of philosophy appears to result, partly from a wrong conception of the ends of life, partly from a wrong conception ob the kind of goods which philosophy strives to achieve.

Here, Russell is clearly addressing his discussion to those who are not really sure about the value of philosophy.  His discussion will focus on his opponents, those apt to think that philosophy has no significant value at all – that it is nothing but ivory tower speculation, a completely pointless type of investigation.  His thesis is that those who view philosophy this way make one of two mistakes.  The first mistake concerns the way they view the point, or purpose of human life.  The second concerns what they think philosophy is trying to accomplish.  According to Russell, both types of mistake are common, and both lead to the same view of philosophy.

At this point it is already clear what Russell is going to do in the essay.  He is going to discuss each type of error, and why it is an error.  He, of course, believes that philosophy is of considerable value, but he does not think that people will automatically recognize its value.  Nor does he think that his assertion that it is of value should simply be accepted.  His aim, instead, is to offer a counter-argument against those who think that philosophy is “useless trifling.”  His audience, however, are those who are still not sure.   But why does he start this way?

Russell starts this way because he assumes that those who really think philosophy is useless are not going to seriously consider the alternative.  They have already made up their minds and are not still trying to decide what is true.  Thus, his discussion is addressed to those who are not yet decided, and he addresses them by offering reasons for rejecting the view that philosophy is a pointless pursuit. If he is successful, then those who are undecided will have reason to think that philosophy has value.

Thus, at this point we can already answer a number of questions.  First, Russell is discussing the value of philosophy.  Second, Russell’s point is to provide a defense of philosophy against those who think it has no value. Third, Russell will proceed by discussing two errors that those who deny philosophy’s value typically make.  Fourth, Russell is addressing people who have not yet made up their minds about the question. It is clear, then, what Russell must do if he is to be successful.  He must more clearly identify the two common mistakes, and explain why they are mistakes.  He will then need to show how avoiding those mistakes makes the value of philosophy more evident.  It will also be important for him to explore the value of philosophy, and to show those who are as yet undecided what it is that philosophy can offer.

In each of the subsequent paragraphs of Russell’s essay he takes up a part of these two tasks.  To understand his argument, you will need to identify his central point in each paragraph and the reasons he offers for each point.  You will not be able to do this with a cursory reading.  You will, instead, need to “get into” the text, and follow his train of thought.  Once you have done this – which will likely take at least two readings – you will be able to begin to consider whether Russell has provided good reasons for thinking that philosophy really does have value. That consideration could then be the topic of a short essay.


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