Appendix B: Tips for Reading Philosophy Actively

1. Pre-reading

Your aim in pre-reading should be simply to get a general sense of the text. You might look up terms that you don’t know and flag what you take to be key points or arguments. (It’s a good idea to write the definition or explication of the term in pencil in the margin of the text. This eliminates the need to look it up each time you read.) Don’t worry if you don’t understand all of the text at this initial stage.

2. Reading

  1. Your chief aim in reading philosophy is to expose the structure that is hidden in the text. You might think of your task as that of providing a reverse outline of the material. Here are two methods you might use for exposing the structure of a passage:

    • Flagging:

      • Flagging is a more active correlate of underlining. Flagging should be done in pencil so any flagging which indicates a misunderstanding of the text can be corrected in re-reading. You are encouraged to develop your own system of flags (some people use a combination of question marks, exclamation marks, asterisks and little faces).

      • Here are some flagging suggestions:

Symbol Meaning
dfn This is a definition of a term
?? What? I don’t get it
=x? This means what exactly? (it can indicate ambiguity)
why? Why is this so? (it can indicate hidden assumptions)
| This is important
|| This is very important
{ This is a development and explication
sum This is a summary of the above
arg A) B) This is an argument for a position
1) 2) These are the steps of the argument
concl Here’s a conclusion
e.g. Here’s an example
counter Here’s a counterargument or counterexample
      • Brief questions and comments can be jotted down in the margin and you might want to write a few words describing the piece at the beginning of the reading, in effect, a very brief abstract.

      • One of the things you’ll notice while flagging and re-reading texts that you’ve flagged is the number of different ways in which arguments are put together. Seeing how different argument structures operate with examples, counterarguments, etc. will help you to decide how to structure your own papers, how to support and defend your own positions.

      • Finally, flag thoroughly, but sparingly. If you know what you’re supposed to get out of the reading, read for that and related issues. Indiscriminate flagging suggests as little understanding of the text as no flagging at all.

    • Note-taking:

      • Many people find that they understand more of what they read if they include writing as part of the process of reading. Simply jotting down something–a question, a summary, what you take to be an important quote–is often an aid to active and intelligent reading. You might try this: at the top of the page write down the full bibliographical information for the text, then in the margin, keep track of the page numbers in the text and on the page keep brief notes. You might use different colours or divide the page into two sections to differentiate between paraphrasing the text and your reactions to and questions about the text. Use abbreviations, incomplete sentences, drawings, arrows, or whatever. Think of these notes as jogs to your memory rather than as the mere repetition of the text.

  1. As you read, make sure that you know whether the author is stating his or her own view, a possible objection, a contrasting view, an objection to a contrasting view, etc. Try to determine the voice of each passage. Read for what is philosophically interesting, don’t get distracted by side issues.

  2. Try not to slide over parts of the text you don’t understand.

    • If you feel that you’ve understood the text, sentence by sentence, and yet you realize that you’re foggy about the general idea, purpose, method or conclusion, go back over the text paying more attention to structural cues. Remember, arguments are comprised of premises and conclusions and you’re task is to discover how the one leads to the other.

    • The following lists are of words and phrases that tend to indicate parts of arguments.

Conclusions often follow words and phrases like these:

in summary hence as a result
thus accordingly we may infer
therefore I conclude that which shows that
so consequently which entails that
it follows that proves that which means that
points to the conclusion that which allows us to infer which implies that

Premises often follow words and phrases like these:

because given that as indicated by
since granted that the reason that
for as shown by may be inferred from
whereas inasmuch as may be derived from
first otherwise in lieu of the fact that
in the first place follows from
secondly in the eighteenth place
    • If you understand the general idea, but you don’t have a firm grasp on a particular crucial passage, try to solve for the missing pieces. If you know that something is supposed to follow from premises that you do understand, see whether this looks like that conclusion with which you’re having difficulty. Or if you are clear on the conclusion, but don’t understand the premises, ask yourself what would lead to the conclusion, and see how this is related to the premises that you don’t understand.

3. Re-reading

When you re-read you know enough about the text to read quickly over the parts you think are easy and to slow down for the interesting or difficult parts. You will have specific questions to bring to the text and you will be in an excellent position both to articulate criticisms and to clear up your misunderstandings.

You should know that when you adopt this three-step approach to reading philosophy, you’ll probably find that you are reading much more slowly than you have in the past. But, you’ll also be reading much more critically and effectively. Remember that in reading philosophy you are not simply trying to understand what the author means but you are also trying to put yourself in a position to engage with and assess the text.

NOTE: This Appendix is a modified version of Karen Pilkington’s, “Suggestions as to how to read philosophy”.


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Applied Ethics Primer by Letitia Meynell and Clarisse Paron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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