How to Read Philosophy: A Partial List of Strategies

General Guidelines

1. Read slowly. Philosophical works are often difficult and densely packed. Every word and phrase counts. "Speed-reading" generally leads to confusion.

2. Keep a dictionary handy. Look up words you do not understand. However, keep in mind that key words are often "terms," words that have special meaning in each philosophy studied. Terms have to be understood in the context of the work in which they appear. Philosophers redefine terms in the process of thinking them through.

3. Read the work at least three times (perhaps more, in the case of certain more difficult writings). Do not be discouraged. The first time you read, try to get an overall (though perhaps vague) comprehension of what the author is saying. The second time you read, move more slowly and ponder each word and phrase, underlining or highlighting or marking difficult or important passages. Keep a notebook, and take notes while you read. Put what he or she is saying into your own words. Summarize or outline if it helps. Pretend you are having a conversation with the author. Ask questions. Try to understand how the author would respond. Read sympathetically. Actively debate with the author. The third time you read, try to gather together the parts of the whole into a unity, and try to grasp the sense of it all. Again, read with a pen and paper or notebook at your side.

4. You will want to evaluate and criticize, but make sure you understand first and then criticize; otherwise you will be fighting with a "straw man," rather than with the actual meaning of the author. It is similar to a live conversation: We cannot really agree or disagree until we really understand what the other person is saying and appreciate the context from which those spoken words arise. It takes time to understand what other people (including philosophers) are trying to say.

Some Levels of Analysis or Interpretation

1. The literal meaning, what the author is apparently or "superficially" saying: On this level, it is important to understand the ordinary meanings of the words and phrases the author uses.

2. The intended meaning, what the author is trying to get across, what the author means by the words he or she uses: This requires an understanding that goes beyond the literal meaning of the words used to a comprehension of the author's ideas or insights. To do this, it is important to look at each statement in the context of the rest of the author's writing.

3. The unstated presuppositions or hidden premises underlying what the author intends to say: In other words, what basic world-view or principles lie behind or are presupposed in what he/she is saying? Also, what types of questions prompted the author to pursue his or her line of thought? Every thoughtful statement can be assumed to be an attempt to respond to a question or an inquiry.

4. The implications or consequences of the author's view: What happens if what he/she says is true? What kinds of beliefs or actions would result? What would happen if one's actions (deeds) would conform to these ideas (words)?

5. Reasons or evidence: How well does the author support his/her conclusions? What types of reasons are offered? Are they based upon experience, generally held views, proven principles, or what? Does the evidence support the conclusion reached or does it point perhaps to some other conclusion?

6. Logic and non-contradiction: Are the author's statements logically coherent? Or are they inconsistent or contradictory in some way? Do the statements make sense together, or do they fight among themselves?

7. Alternatives: What alternative views might be possible, and what evidence or reasons might be advanced to support these alternative views? What would be the consequences of holding these alternative views? Imagine, think through, and weigh alternative lines of thought (dialectic).