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How do I Read Philosophy?

          So, now that you’ve found some philosophy, it’s important to know some helpful ways to approach reading it! There are many ways to read philosophy, but here are some of the basics:         


So, you are just getting started out with doing philosophy. Way to go! It’s going to be a wonderful time. But, perhaps you’re at a bit of a loss when it comes to knowing exactly where to start when it comes to finding philosophy—especially philosophy that you’d interested in. Should I just read the books and articles my teacher shows in class? What if I’m just doing it on my own? Is philosophy only in hard-to-read books? Should I only read work by professional philosophers? Where do I look? If you’ve found yourself asking questions like those, hopefully, this guide will get you on the right track on your philosophical journey.

Expectations and Goals: Even if you are smart and read a lot, you are likely to experience some frustration when reading philosophy. But, you can do it! Like many worthwhile things in life, reading philosophy takes practice. In many pieces of philosophical work, you’ll encounter unfamiliar vocabulary, abstract ideas, complexly organized writing, and even unsettling views— all of which might induce some confusion. This is normal, but do not confuse those reactions for failure. You are just getting started. 

Your aim is to develop your belief system by building on what you already know about yourself and the world around you. Philosophy is also a system of beliefs, made up of different conclusions, supported by various premises—or in other words, arguments. When a philosopher offers an argument, what they are really doing is trying to convince you to accept or believe something by offering their reasoning. Keep this in mind as you read philosophy, because philosophy is not about plots, character development, or presenting information—it’s about defending and justifying various positions on certain issues or ideas.

Like many worthwhile things in life,
reading philosophy takes practice. In many pieces of philosophical work, you’ll encounter vocabulary, abstract ideas, complexly organized writing, and even unsettling views.

Basic Good Reading Behaviors:

“Like many worthwhile things in life, reading philosophy takes practice. In many pieces of philosophical work, you’ll encounter vocabulary, abstract ideas, complexly organized writing, and even unsettling views.”​

Take Care of Yourself

Take breaks and sit where you are less likely to get distracted.

Keep Reasonable Expectations

You may not understand everything at once—don’t let that stop you!

Interact and Engage with the Material

Talk your friends and classmates about what you’ve read. Refer to dictionaries or philosophical encyclopedia while reading for clarification. Think about how the philosophy is applicable to your life or things you know about the world or history.

Work on Explaining the Author's Argument Aloud

If you can, try to write out the conclusion and supporting points.

Always Flag the Text and Take Notes!

If you own the book or have printed the article, go ahead and use a pencil to underline key points and circle interesting or difficult words. Write your thoughts in the margins next to paragraphs that intrigues or confuse you. If the book isn’t yours, keep a notebook ready to put down page numbers and exact paragraphs to refer to later. By the time you’re done reading, your article should have writing all over it!

2) Read for Understanding: This is where you develop a better understanding of the text. When reading for understanding remember to do the following:

  • Re-read the whole text very carefully. Add to and correct your notes and previous flagging.

  • Continuously re-explain the meaning of the text in your own words to make sure you understand it. Draw charts and diagrams to map out the flow of premises in the argument, leading to the main conclusion.

  • Ask yourself some more questions: How am I doing? Have I found the thesis statement and written it down? Do I know the general argument the author is making? Can I list all the premises and the conclusion? Did I re-re-read the parts that were confusing at first?

1) Set the Stage: Start by quickly examining the general features of the text. Check out the title, section headings, and footnotes. This is to help you get a basic idea of what the piece is about.

  • You can then begin to ask yourself questions like: is this a primary or secondary text? What do the title and subheading tell me about the argument of the text? What is the main point of this text?

  • Next, fast-read the text. If you’re working with just an article, read the whole thing fairly quickly to get a general understanding of the text.

  • Try to find the thesis statement in the text and underline it—just know that you might not find the true thesis until later in the piece, so mark what seems most important at first; then pick what seems most central later.

  • Take notes and circle words you don’t understand so you can look them up later.

  • Don’t let anything stop your progress! You can skim through certain parts of the texts if they are too long (but try to read shorter pieces when

       starting out).

A Three-Part Reading Process

3) Time to Evaluate: At this point, you should have a written summary of the author’s argument in your own words. You’re able to explain the general meaning of the text to a friend or classmate. This is the stage of reading when you’re thinking about how well the author supports their conclusion—you are now in the debate!

  • Now is your chance to look critically at the argument of the author. Reflect on what you’ve learned and determine whether or not you have been effectively convinced and why.

  • Ask yourself if you found the argument to be persuasive. Are all the conclusions well defended? Can you think of counter-examples to the author’s premises? Can you think of criticisms to the author’s argument? Did the author get you to believe what they concluded?

The Specifics of Flagging and Note Taking: There are some important things to keep in mind when flagging and taking notes while reading philosophical texts. Flagging is the act of putting short notes in the margins of the text along while also circling and underlining different pieces of information (like key phrases and confusing terms.) This is preferably done in pencil because you are likely to erase and change your flagging upon learning new information and gaining a better understanding of the material in the re-reading and evaluation stages. Flagging is also better than highlighting because its erasable and it provides better detail than just highlighting; when you highlight, you might come back to passage and not remember why you highlighted it. With flagging, you write down why you underlined or circled something, so it’s more useful later.

There are many ways to flag when reading, so feel free to develop your own method and notations. For example, you can put question marks beside things you don’t get (you can try “???” for things you really don’t understand). Below are a few examples of helpful flagging abbreviations you might use:


Abbreviation Meaning:

RSN Reason: This is a premise or reason for the conclusion. THESIS This is a thesis statement.

DEF Definition: This is a definition of a technical term.
EX Example: This is an example or case of a concept.
SPOST Signpost: This is a signpost or statement that makes a transition in the text. ??? I really don’t get this part.

Key Words: There are a number of key words and phrases that author’s use to signal (or “signpost”) different transitions in the flow of the text as well as to highlight what kind of information is coming up. Below is a list of some of these key words and phrases and what they mean:

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