In all likelihood this will probably be the most demanding reading you’ll do in your life. For the most part, the language itself is not difficult; what makes reading philosophy challenging is the fact that philosophers tend to investigate things that most people take for granted. Following are some hints for reading philosophical texts.
- Read the text before coming to class. Do not rely on my lectures as the sole means of “learning” these texts. It is easier to read the text for yourself than to try to figure out what you think I want you to say about them. What I want is for you yourself to come to an understanding of the text, and to talk intelligently about your interpretation.
- Think of the text as the author’s answer to a question. Your task, as the reader, is to discover what the question is. If you can do this, the text will become much more clear to you.
- Assume that this question is an important one. The questions asked by philosophers tend to be so fundamental that they seem simplistic, but if you put aside this prejudice and read the text in good faith, you’ll see that this isn’t so.
- Mark your book. Make margin notes, bend pages over, underline, use a highlighter; your book is a tool, not a holy relic. Philosophers make arguments for their positions, so it’s not a bad idea to become sensitive to certain words and phrases which characterize argument, and circle them. This will help you follow the author’s line of thought. Here’s a few examples of such words and phrases:
“In considering . . .” indicates a thesis or project; “if-then” indicates a conditional statement; “but,” “yet,” “however,” “still,” are qualifiers; “first,” “second,” “next,” list points of argument; “or,” “on the other hand,” indicates a comparison; “thus,” “as a result,” “in conclusion,” denotes the end of a line of argument.
- Once you have discovered the question that the author is attempting to answer, keep it in mind at all times. Oftentimes (though not always) the author’s thesis is to be found early on in the text. Once you have located it, bend the page over. When you get lost in the argument, come back to this passage and get your bearings.
- Ask yourself whether this question is really that important to your or anyone’s life. Why or why not? In other words, reflect honestly on whether the question is relevant to our present world.
- When you come across puzzling claims in the text, try to figure them out. (E.g., Socrates’ claim that “it is better to suffer injustice than to commit injustice.”) What makes this claim confusing? Does it conflict with your beliefs? Does it clash with what you think most people believe? What might make the claim less puzzling? Can you offer an alternative interpretation or explanation that would make it more plausible to you, or more acceptable to general opinion? What must the author believe that would make this claim more believable? Does the claim become any less puzzling if the key words are construed differently?
- Examine the author’s approach (the “answer”) to the question. Can you pick out any patterns, any guiding principles? Is the author faithful to these principles throughout the work, or does s/he stray from them? Can you find any contradictions, any inconsistencies? Could the author have offered a better answer to the question? If so, in what way?
© D. R. Koukal