How to Read Philosophy 

Reading is often treated as a binary skill. You learn to read as a kid, and then you just know how to read. This is, however, an oversimplification. Reading different texts, for different purposes, requires different skills. Reading philosophy is a prime example of this. Texts are often dense, technical, and nuanced, and steeped in a literature that you may not have read. What’s more, when you read them for class, you may not know what you are reading them for - do you need to only get the big idea? Do you need to know all the details? Here, I’ll discuss tips for reading philosophy in a few categories - how to prepare to read philosophical texts, how to read like a philosopher, and how to take notes on philosophy.

PREPARING TO READ

My first step is always a mug of tea (but that is optional.) More importantly, the first thing you need to do is decide what you are trying to get out of the reading. Some possibilities:

  • Reading for the gist - what is the author’s thesis, and what is the main idea for how s/he argues for it?

  • Reading for the dialectic - what is the author’s thesis, and how does it relate to the other positions in the debate?

  • Reading for the argumentative details - what is the author’s thesis, and how exactly does the argument for the conclusion work?

  • Reading for a particular topic - does the author address any ideas relevant to my current research?

Your reasons for reading will differ, and there is no one answer to this question. If you taking a philosophy class, you are probably being asked to read for the dialectic and for the argumentative details. This is helpful, because it helps you decide which information you’ll need to pay close attention to, and which information is less important.