9. Preparing to read

Philosophy is notoriously difficult to read. The reasons are various: the subject matter rarely lends itself to an entertaining style; it commonly treats of abstract rather than concrete objects which can be difficult to conceptualise; authors’ writing styles vary widely; texts are often littered with formal expressions and technical vocabulary, not to mention smatterings of Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian. Sometimes, texts are difficult to read because they were written or translated a long time ago using different grammar patterns from modern English; other times, texts are hard to read just because the author is not a good writer.

We will practice techniques that can be applied to ameliorate all these problems throughout the posts in Part II, but the first and most effective thing any prospective philosophy student must do is improve their vocabulary.

Even ordinary ideas are often expressed in what English teachers call ‘low-frequency’ vocabulary; that is, words that are rarely used or met. A good example of a low frequency word is the term ‘ameliorate’ used in the previous paragraph, which means ‘to make better’ or ‘to lessen the effect of something.’

Meaning is context-dependent. That means although you can look words up in a dictionary, you need to make sure that you hit on the right meaning for the context in which they appear in any particular instance. Take the word ‘lateral’. A dictionary may tell you that it means ‘side’ or ‘crossways’, but when conjoined with ‘thinking’ it forms a phrase that means being able to re-evaluate a situation by changing the assumptions you have about it.

Because context is so crucial to meaning, it often happens that we can understand unfamiliar words without looking them up in a dictionary, just because we understand all the words around them. We normally ignore novel words on a first reading so long as we feel we have a sense of the overall meaning or ‘gist’ of what it said.

This is a common and useful reading habit: it is ordinarily too inconvenient to look up every new word when we are trying to just get a general sense of a passage. However, when you are reading philosophy for academic purposes, this habit can be fatal to your chances of successfully understanding and responding to a text. When you are reading philosophy, you are never just trying to get a general sense of the text: you are always trying to understand it intimately, down to its very nuts and bolts.

Analysing a philosophical text means looking for intentional and unintentional meanings, as well as subtle and implied consequences and relationships. Herein lies one of the chief reasons students find reading philosophy challenging and, to be frank, often boring: there are many low-frequency words that make reading slow and laborious.

Fortunately for the serious student, this is a problem most easily solved. Every philosophy student needs to have two things on his or her desk (or desktop!) alongside the text they are reading: a good standard English dictionary, and a comprehensive philosophical dictionary. The technique for reading a philosophy text is quite different from that used in reading, say, a Harry Potter novel, and it is failure to appreciate this that holds many students back.

Reading Technique:

1. Prepare: you need the text, a standard dictionary, a dictionary of philosophical terms, scratch pad, pen/pencil and / or highlighters. If you are reading online and/or taking notes on screen, you need some kind of text editor. Although any will do, some are better adapted for note-taking and for drafting than others. My favourite is Scrivener, but there are a number of other alternatives.

2. Interpret: Read the text through once without pausing to look up new words. Highlight or jot down every word whose meaning you are unsure of.

3. Analyse: Read the text again, paragraph by paragraph. At the end of each paragraph, consider carefully what the author’s central idea in that paragraph is. Look up any vocabulary you need to in order to do this. Then, jot down the main idea of each paragraph.

4. Synthesize: After you have read the whole text, and using the notes you made in 3, write a 50-75 word summary of the text’s main ideas. Omit all details and examples; focus only on the main ideas.

5. Revise: Read the text a third time, making sure you cover all the unknown vocabulary. In particular, make sure you now understand all the explanations, illustrations and examples, for most often it will be in these details that you find the angle for your criticisms and essays. Adjust or supplement your notes as you do this.

6. Organise: Finally, never throw away or delete your notes, but keep them organised and retrievable. They will save you a lot of re-work, re-reading and re-thinking in the future. Think of the time you spend reading your philosophical texts as an investment – and protect it, like you would any other.

Wow! That’s a lot of work you say! Yes it is, and its worth being upfront with yourself about it from the start. There is no shortcut to deep understanding. While youtube videos and other media can be useful for a general introduction to material related to your courses, only reading, analysing and thinking for yourself will produce the kind of deep understanding you need to master philosophy. And despite the work, the method outlined above is a tried-and-tested efficient way to read your philosophy texts, to understand them, and to record what you learned for future use (such as your term papers 🙂 ).

It is precisely this reading technique that we will be using on the first of our philosophical texts, an excerpt from Descartes’ ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’.

• Recognise that you will need to build your vocabulary by looking up unfamiliar words and some ordinary words that are used in a technical way in philosophy.

• Use both standard and specialised philosophy dictionaries

• Read methodically and take notes. Summarize main points and spend time keeping your notes well organized and logical.

Continue reading

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