Confessions of a Philosopher: How I Learned to Read
by Dr. John Draeger
I will never forget the day I realized that I didn't know how to read philosophy. My friends thought I was crazy. They were puzzled because I always seemed to have my nose in a book. I had done an undergraduate degree in philosophy and I'd already completed a year of graduate study. Still, I spent a week saying things like "I don't know how to read" and "how do you read?" Of course I had basic reading skills. But I'd realized that I didn't know how to extract the deeper meaning and how to organize parts into a coherent whole. I had managed to do these things (at least some of the time), but my new revelation was that I didn't know how I'd done it. It wasn't a question of laziness, but a question of skill --- skills that I lacked and skills that I wanted. Since then, I've worked hard to master good philosophical reading skills. I think I am better, but I still have a ways to go. In order to help you with these skills, the following are tips that I've found useful:
The goal is not simply to get to the end of a text (though that is important). It is not enough to remember who said what, when, and how. Rather, reading philosophy well requires critically reflecting upon the ideas contained in that text. So, I must think critically (even when I don't feel like it).
Philosophy texts are intellectual adventures. Consequently, I always try to read them in that spirit.
When I read through a text for the first time, I give myself permission not to understand most of what I've read. The goal is simply to acquaint myself with the major questions and themes.
The second time through a text, I read with a purpose. I want to locate the stages of the argument by identifying the various parts and connections. I make note of passages that seem especially relevant (e.g. those containing definitions, summaries, conclusions, controversial claims, etc.). I also use various reading speeds to begin constructing the bigger picture from the smaller parts. This often requires moving back forth (and not simply turning one page after another).
I try to set aside fifteen minutes after I've finished reading to write a brief reflection. Sometimes it turns into a summary. Sometimes it is an overall impression. Other times, it is a worry that I'd like to get on paper. I know that this won't be my final word on the subject, but this exercise forces me to engage with the reading enough to say something meaningful.
It is often helpful to set a text aside for a few days to think about something else. This gives me a chance to reset my intuitions. When I return to the text, I can check my interpretation and insure that my critical thoughts have not been confused with the author's intention.
I think the most important lesson is that reading philosophy requires being actively engaged with the material. This particular text may not be the thing I most want to read, but finding ways of becoming sucked up into it often yields some fantastic results.
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