10 Tips for Understanding Philosophical Texts

So you have a philosophical piece in your hand, for the very first time. You can see it's nothing like a novel or an encyclopedia entry. How do you approach it?

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Reading for Understanding

Woman reading a book on sofa.
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First of all, a bit of context. Bear in mind that when you are reading philosophy what you are actually doing is trying to understand a piece of writing. This is remarkably different from other forms of reading, like — say — going through a newspaper page to collect information or reading a novel to enjoy a good story. Philosophical reading is an exercise in understanding and should be treated as such. 

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Philosophy Is About Arguing

Philosophical writing is persuasive writing. When you read a philosophical piece you are reading the opinion of an author who is trying to persuade you of the plausibility or implausibility of a position. Will you buy the author's position? To decide you'll need to fully understand the ideas being presented and the rhetorical strategies employed.

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Take Your Time

Philosophical writings are dense and difficult. When reading, set realistic goals. While reading a page of a novel can take as little as thirty seconds, some pages in philosophy require at least ten minutes or even more. 

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What Is the Main Point?

Before actually starting to read, skim the paper to get a sense of the main point the author is trying to make and the structure of the piece. If it's an essay, read the first and last paragraphs in their entirety. If it's a book, look at the table of contents and go through the opening remarks. Once you've skimmed the piece, you'll be better equipped to dive in and read the entire text intelligently.

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Keep a pencil and highlighter with you and mark down what seems to you the crucial passages: where the main thesis is stated; where key concepts are introduced; where key arguments or reasons are provided. Try also to get a sense also of the weakest points in the overall piece. 

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Think Critically

Your task as a philosophy reader is not just to take in information, as you would do with a biology textbook: you are engaging with an argument. You may agree or disagree — but either way, you need to know why you've formed a particular opinion. As you're reading, look for flaws in the writer's argument, and mark them. If you're reading for a class, you'll almost certainly be asked to write or speak about your response to the writer's argument.

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... But Don't Think on Your Feet

Philosophical criticism does not typically go well with speed-thinking. Philosophy is reflective: while it's perfectly OK to think while you are reading, you should go through your responses at least three times to be sure they really hold up. Your brilliant insights and criticisms may turn out to be poorly constructed. So, remember: be humble, patient, and meticulous. 

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Cultivate Philosophical Empathy and Self-Criticism

To build great philosophical reading skills you'll need to cultivate some philosophical empathy and self-criticism. Writing philosophy is challenging. Be empathetic: after you come up with some possible criticism, imagine taking the role of your opponent and try to answer your criticisms. This exercise can improve your understanding of a philosophical text dramatically, showing you viewpoints that were not clear to you before.

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Keep Re-Reading

As you are sorting and fine-tuning your critical remarks, double-check the text to refresh your memory, sharpen your thoughts, and make sure you properly interpreted the author.

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Engage in Philosophical Discussion

One of the best ways to understand and analyze a philosophical piece is to discuss it with others. It isn't always easy to find friends interesting in discussing philosophy at length — but often other members of your class will be willing to talk about the content of assignments. Together, you may come to conclusions you wouldn't have thought of on your own.

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Borghini, Andrea. "10 Tips for Understanding Philosophical Texts." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/how-to-read-philosophy-2670729. Borghini, Andrea. (2020, August 27). 10 Tips for Understanding Philosophical Texts. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-to-read-philosophy-2670729 Borghini, Andrea. "10 Tips for Understanding Philosophical Texts." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-to-read-philosophy-2670729 (accessed April 1, 2023).