“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.
Here are Professor Concepción’s observations, in abbreviated form:
- “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.”
- “The experience of reading philosophy is strange.”
- “The experience of reading philosophy is often disquieting.”
- “To read philosophy well one needs courage.”And then the advice:
- “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.”
- “Track the structure and voice of the argumentation.”
- “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.”
- “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.”
- “Evaluate. At one’s leisure ruminate on what additional reasons there might be to think the author is correct or incorrect.”
- “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.