Reading as a Philosopher

David W. Concepción’s Top Ten Pointers

Next to the large red “D” at the bottom of the term paper I wrote for a mid-level political science course during my second semester in college, was written, “You think like a philosopher, not a political scientist.” Blithely taking this comment, the only comment, as sage advice rather than dismissive insult, I signed up to take “Theories of Human Nature” in the philosophy department the next semester.

I remember having a profound but vague feeling that was a mixture of relief and exhilaration during the first week of Theories of Human Nature. “I have found my people,” I thought. 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. I did not know how to connect reasons to conclusions, track changes in voice, decipher nuance, evaluate arguments, or use the text to critique my own views. I knew how to read so as to extract information that I might be asked to regurgitate at some later point, but I didn’t know how to read as philosophers read. While accurate basic information distillation is necessary for a meaningful philosophy reading experience, it is woefully insufficient. In my first philosophy course, I read every assignment slowly with a dictionary and thesaurus at my side. With the exception of Kant – which I knew I didn’t understand – I discovered and rediscovered each day in class that what I had done, the way I had read, did not prepare me to engage the ideas in the way that was expected of me. As a nascent philosophy enthusiast, I was spinning my wheels. What follows is a top 10 list of the things I wish I had known when I started reading philosophy.

(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. Perhaps the most prevalent form of writing among philosophers is argumentative writing. In this form, the author defends a thesis by attempting to show that certain inferences from something uncontroversial to something surprising are plausible. The author is also likely to try to show that attempts to prove that an inference they make fails are unsuccessful. But some philosophers work near the intersection of philosophy and literary criticism, where the phrase “I argue that …” simply means “I believe that …” and where few inferences may be offered. Other philosophers work near the intersection of philosophy and physics, where sentences such as “∀n (Q(n) P(n))” might occur. Some philosophers quote a lot in an attempt to show that one interpretation of a text is superior to an alternative interpretation, while yet other philosophers attempt to prove a point in a way where quotations and footnotes are merely to notice that others have said something about the topic. And, a recent upsurge in experimental philosophy has given birth to yet another form of philosophical writing.

I mention this variety to make it clear that what follows must be understood as incomplete. It reflects my training as an ethicist who works predominantly with article and chapter length, English language, twentieth and twenty-first century writing in a pluralist but analytic-leaning tradition.

In addition to differences in types of philosophical writing, there are differences in the goals one might have when reading philosophy. Which goals one has influences how one should read. What excites me so much about reading philosophy is the opportunity to have my beliefs and values challenged. I read philosophy to identify, clarify, and test my current beliefs and values. As such, reading philosophy is an act of creation, self-creation of perspicuous wisdom regarding how to live well with others. As a step toward this wisdom making, I hope that the first-year students in my philosophy courses become more intellectually humble and less dogmatic as a result of reading philosophy. For most people, these goals are unattainable unless they give themselves over to the strangeness and disquiet that so often comes with reading philosophy.

(2) The experience of reading philosophy is strange. It is strange, in part, because the subject matter of philosophy is immaterial. This shouldn’t suggest that facts don’t matter in philosophy. A mantra of an ethics teacher of mine was “Good ethics starts with good facts”. Right he was. Rather, to say that the subject matter of philosophy is immaterial is to say that questions such as “What is justice?,” “Does the God of Abraham exist?,” and “What can I know?” are not answered by plumbing the depths of empirical or even social objects. They are answered by drawing inferences to increase the coherence among one’s set of beliefs, and, in the unusual case, deriving corollaries from (apparently) self-evident truths. What is strange about this is that philosophy is ostensibly a truth-seeking practice. Yet it seeks truth without assuming doctrinal foundations or the use of the scientific method; Philosophy tries to achieve an end without using either of the centuries old means thought appropriate for the task. What’s worse, more often than not the attempt fails. Philosophy shows that many things which are thought true are not, but it doesn’t establish very many truths. Philosophy is strange because it is more of a falsity shedding venture than a truth building one. This strangeness confirms for me that philosophy is centrally about gaining wisdom and not truth, although one shouldn’t turn one’s nose up at a truth if one is found.

The strangeness of philosophy has implications for the reader of philosophy. The philosophy reader should not be searching for bits of established fact or even for evidence designed to confirm a hypothesis regarding an empirical (or social) fact. Rather, in a text, a reader of philosophy should look for inferences or connections between highly plausible assumptions and surprising conclusions that are difficult reject.

(3) The experience of reading philosophy is often disquieting. When reading philosophy, the values around which one has heretofore organised one’s life may come to look provincial, flatly wrong, or even evil. When beliefs previously held as truths are rendered implausible, new beliefs, values, and ways of living may be required. This philosophical cut at one’s core beliefs, values, and way of life is difficult enough. What’s worse, philosophers admonish each other to remain unsutured until such time as a defensible new answer is revealed or constructed. Sometimes philosophical writing is even strictly critical in that it does not even attempt to provide an alternative after tearing down a cultural or conceptual citadel. The reader of philosophy must be prepared for the possibility of this experience. While reading philosophy can help one clarify one’s values, and even make one self-conscious for the first time of the fact that there are good reasons for believing what one believes, it can also generate unremediated doubt that is difficult to live with. (4) To read philosophy well one needs courage.

Lastly, before moving to more concrete reading practices, let’s remember that when done well reading philosophy is an instance of doing philosophy. If one uses the arguments found in a philosophical text as the occasion to evaluate the plausibility of one’s own justifications for believing what one believes, then one is doing philosophy. After reading philosophy one will often have gathered some information and been entertained. But reading philosophy is at its core an act of creation. Reading philosophy is most exciting when the reader puts themself at risk by being open to persuasion. Sometimes nothing short of one’s identity is at stake.

So, philosophers read courageously, evaluating the plausibility of inferences, with an openness to self-re-creation wrenched from a dissipation and reconstruction of truth. But how does one read this way? There are two major steps: understanding and evaluating.

Understanding. (5) Set the Stage. Before reading an essay about which I know very little I sometimes find it helpful to read a Wikipedia summary. But too often Wikipedia is not detailed enough. When I need more background information, I turn to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Internet Encyclopedia is usually a bit more accessible, while the Stanford Encyclopedia is usually more thorough. 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.

Understanding. (6) Track the structure and voice of the argumentation. Philosophical texts have conclusions, reasons, criticisms, and replies. First, discern what the author hopes to show. While the conclusion is usually stated rather early, it might be at the end of the first section, and it might not be explicitly stated until the concluding section of the essay. Second, figure out why the author thinks they are right. Typically, the initial argument should begin early in the essay, but it might not be pulled together until the end. Throughout the paper, the author is likely to consider objections to the assertions they make. It is important to notice the change in voice that proceeds the explanation of an objection. For example, a reader might see “critics of this idea might argue …” These oftentimes brief and sometimes only implied shifts to the critic’s voice are crucial for tracking the argument. In almost every case an objection will be followed by a return to the author’s voice: “By way of reply …” Marking where the moves from argument, criticism, and response take place make it much easier to pull the entire argument together.

Understanding. (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. If it is difficult to do so, some re-reading before moving on is necessary. For the most difficult texts, I create paragraph by paragraph summaries as I go by writing a clause or a sentence that is a paraphrase of the central content of a paragraph. By making sure that I understand a paragraph well enough to state its main point in my own words, I know I am ready to move on.

Understanding. (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. This summary compiles the assumptions and inferences the author believes leads to the conclusion, as well as the objections and replies considered along the way. Typically, these summaries are quite abbreviated; they contain bullet points and lists. The aim of such a summary isn’t to generate an accessible prose abridgment, but rather to capture purely for my own use the major argumentative moves in the essay. Without the argumentative moves readily at hand it would be difficult to do the fun stuff: it would be difficult to evaluate the text.

(9) Evaluate. At one’s leisure ruminate on what additional reasons there might be to think the author is correct or incorrect. Consider whether one’s lived experience provides any insights regarding the merits of the arguments? What are the implications of the author being correct? For truth? For your beliefs? For how you should live? Talk with friends about the arguments, especially those who are likely to disagree with you. Draft additional criticisms and see if you can imagine replies on the author’s behalf.

(10) Decide. After sufficient time, move from evaluating the arguments to your own conclusions. Is the author right, wrong, or, more likely, partly right and partly wrong? About what, if anything, ought you change your mind? Once you’ve decided what you think about the ideas in the essay, pick up another one that contains new arguments that might change your mind again.

As for what to read, who knows? Read what excites you. I believe people who are early in a philosophy reading career are well served by sticking to article and chapter length works until they come across an author or topic they really like. If you aren’t sure where your interests lie, or you’re looking for something unlike what you normally read, start by browsing the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. If you’re lucky there will be a book that collects essays around a theme that provokes you. If you are really lucky, a favorited author will have a book that collects the author’s essays, such that you get revised versions that have something of a thread, even as they continue to stand alone.

Three of my favourites as I began my journey as a philosophy reader were Thomas Nagel’s Mortal Questions, Bernard Williams’ Moral Luck, and Marilyn Frye’s The Politics of Reality. On the more literary side of philosophy are James Baldwin, Collected Essays  and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. Finally, when you really fall in love with a thinker, as I did with John Rawls, it’s time to pick up a tome. Rawls’ A Theory of Justice might just change your life.

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 David W. Concepción is professor of philosophy at Ball State University, chair of the American Philosophical Association, Committee on Teaching, and author of Reading Philosophy with Background Knowledge and Metacognition.