Reading Philosophy: Observations & Advice

“I didn’t know that there is a field of study that counted as sensible the questions that were always in my head. Even more amazing is that the type of thoughts I offered as answers, while ramshackle, were the same type of answers philosophers provide. I changed my major before the end of the semester. But I had a problem. I did not know how to read philosophy.”

Those are the words of David W. Concepción, professor of philosophy at Ball State University, in a great little essay at The Philosophers’ Magazine in which he shares some observations about and advice for reading philosophy. I think the situation he describes himself being in is fairly common: students often find philosophy difficult to understand and have trouble approaching and reading philosophical texts.

Alexis Arnold, “Encyclopedia of Superstitions” (detail)

Here are Professor Concepción’s observations, in abbreviated form:

  1. “There is no such thing as reading without qualification. Instead there is reading as a philosopher, historian, cartographer, journalist, and so on. Even within a discipline there is no single way to read. In part, this is because there are many sub-types of writing within each field.”
  2. “The experience of reading philosophy is strange.”
  3. “The experience of reading philosophy is often disquieting.”
  4. “To read philosophy well one needs courage.”And then the advice:
  5. “Set the stage… By gaining some understanding of the conceptual terrain within which the essay I am reading resides, I can usually make better sense of the fine-grained discussion found in the essay.”
  6. “Track the structure and voice of the argumentation.”
  7. “Assess and note progress. Some passages are particularly thorny. As a result, it is very common to read philosophy much slower than one reads other texts. Indeed, many philosophers stop at the end of sections, and sometimes paragraphs or even sentences, to check if they can restate the ideas in their own words.”
  8. “Bring it all together. I find it very helpful to write out a summary of the argument once I reach the end of an essay.”
  9.  “Evaluate. At one’s leisure ruminate on what additional reasons there might be to think the author is correct or incorrect.”
  10. “Decide. After sufficient time, move from evaluating the arguments to your own conclusions.”

See the whole essay for Professor Concepción’s elaborations on each of these points.

If you have advice you provide to your students about how to read philosophy, or thoughts about it you wished someone had shared with you when you were first starting out, please share them in the comments.

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Martin Lenz
5 years ago

Thanks! This is very helpful. – One of the things I had to learn the hard way is that the answer to the question of what a text is about is hardly ever to be found in the text under discussion. For me at least, things start moving by relating a text to *other texts*, because most texts are responses to other texts.

Here are a couple of thoughts about this:

Just Another Wiseguy
Just Another Wiseguy
5 years ago

I can say that one of the most valuable skills I’ve learned in higher-ed, and I think even in my life, is the ability to read critically. And I think that philosophy uniquely helps us develop that skill particularly well.

As I’m writing my dissertation, those moments when I’ve had a chance to jump into a meaty article, perhaps especially one not directly related to my research, have been wonderful. A crisp, tight, clean piece of philosophy is just such a pleasure to read. It’s remarkably stimulating.

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
5 years ago

I give my students question-based reading guides. These are designed to help students follow the structure of a book/article and draw their attention to important details without providing a summary that could be used as a substitute for reading the text itself. You can find early versions of these guides here: (Since I distribute them to students via our course management software, I haven’t gotten around to updating the public version in some time).

Alan White
Alan White
5 years ago

These are thoughtful suggestions indeed. The only thing I’d add–and pressed into my student’s minds at every opportunity–is that philosophy demands not just close reading, but re-reading. My own experience is that I frequently gather real understanding of a piece only upon reading it again, and sometimes after reading a third time or more.

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
5 years ago

The difficulty with the advice laid out in #5-10 is that, as I’ve learned from experience, it means nothing to someone who isn’t already familiar with what it is (or what it takes, or what it’s like) to read a piece of philosophy. We should, in accordance with what Concepción notes in #2, keep in mind what a strange genre of writing philosophy is.

With respect to #1, I think it can be useful (for pedagogy especially) to distinguish different kinds of writing, and not just different kinds of reading. Think of all the kinds of writing students might have encountered before philosophy: textbooks, magazine and news articles, blog posts, tweets, instructions and recipes, novels, biographies and histories, etc. It helps to ask: How is reading philosophy like reading any of these? How is reading philosophy different from reading any of these?

These answers to these questions are probably several and controversial, but I think they need to be addressed before the advice in #5-10 can find any traction.

I tell my students that to get the most out of reading a piece of philosophy, you have to think of the experience as less like that of reading a textbook and more like that of reading a first-person narrative: you work your way into, or allow yourself to join, the author’s point of view; you see how they think through things; and you try to think along with them, anticipating moves, obstacles, etc. In reading a science textbook, for example, you read a description of an experiment and its result; in reading a piece of philosophy, you and the author carry out the “experiment” right there together. One salutary effect of putting things this way is that it prepares my students to shed the “okay-now-I’m-ready-to-passively-memorize-presented-facts” mode associated with much textbook reading (and much education in general).

There might be better ways to get the same effect. But my point is that advice like “Track the structure and voice of the argumentation” is meaningless to someone who isn’t already familiar with reading philosophy. It’s meaningless not (simply) because the student doesn’t yet know what an argument is or what its having a structure comes to; it’s meaningless because the student doesn’t yet know what frame of mind to be in to “track” those things, whatever they are.