Reading & Doing Philosophy

The following advice on reading and doing philosophy, which I think is excellent, comes from Richard Price ...

Broadly there are two aspects to writing a philosophy essay: exposition, which is describing what authors have to say on a topic, and your own original thoughts, either on the topic itself, or on the authors’ arguments. Tips 1 to 4 deal with exposition, and, in particular, how to do it in a way that makes it easier to come up with your own original thoughts on the topic, and tips 5 to 8 deal more directly with developing your own original thoughts.

    • When reading a paper, try to find and state clearly, with no wasted words, what the author is trying to argue for. This is often quite difficult, since often authors argue for many different claims, and often they don’t flag up as clearly as they might do what they are arguing for. If you think the author is arguing for many different claims, try to find out and state exactly what these different claims are.

    • Whenever you identify a claim that the author is arguing for, try to construct, from the author’s paper, a valid argument for this claim. It is important that this is not just a list of claims that the author makes, but rather an argument in which the conclusion that the author wants to prove follows from the premises. Most arguments have the form: p, if p then q, so q. Having located the ‘p’, try to locate the ‘if p then q’, and see whether the author defends that claim. Again this is not easy. Many authors do not flag up the various stages of their arguments, and often you are left wondering halfway through a paper: now has the author stated his main argument or not yet? Was the argument contained in that very dense paragraph back there?

    • If you cannot construct a valid argument, why not? What premise is missing? Has the author forgotten about this step? Might she be thinking that the missing step is obviously true, and is it obviously true? The discipline of having to find a valid argument in the paper can make it easier to spot gaps; you realize ‘well I’ve worked out what conclusion the author is arguing for, and I’ve found one of the premises, but to get from that premise to the conclusion requires an extra premise, and there does not seem to be an argument for that’.

    • Reading difficult philosophy can take a long time; it can take hours, or even a couple of days, to read an article. When reading particularly difficult philosophy papers, it is often helpful to write lots of notes; writing things down helps you understand them. Writing down verbatim a particularly difficult paragraph in the paper can also be helpful. The writing process helps you spot key words that are doing some work in the argument, which can be missed when your eyes skim over the page.

    • Sometimes it is not clear whether one’s failure to understand a point in a paper is one’s own fault, or the author’s. When writing an essay, I would not worry too much about which is the case: simply try to say as precisely as possible what is confusing in the paper.

    • If you feel you don’t understand something, stop and magnify, or focus on, what you do not understand. Often rational transitions are made at high speed, and even if we experience a glitch, or sense of unease, about a particular transition, we can be so accustomed to making that transition that we just carry on without stopping.

    • Developing a sensitivity for these glitches, or moments of unease, can help with formulating one’s own original point of view on the issue. When they occur, stop and focus on what might be the source of them. It might be that a feeling that one claim doesn’t follow from another, though you can’t yet put your finger on the reason. Just stop and try to describe why you are hesitating to make that inference. You may come to see that in fact the inference is not valid, in which case you have an objection to the argument; or you may come to understand why it is valid, in which case you end up with a better understanding of the argument.

    • Always try to scuttle, or refute, your own arguments. That doesn’t mean coming up with bad arguments that are easy to scuttle! Try to come up with the best arguments possible, and then try to refute them.

    • When working out what the author’s argument is, or when working out your own arguments, imagine trying to convince a very intelligent acquaintance of yours of the author’s argument, or of your own argument. There may be various claims you make that your acquaintance is failed to be convinced by, and various holes they spot in your arguments. Take note of these, and see if you can address them. Some philosophers have internal dialogues in which they imagine trying to convince other philosophers of their views.

    • Prioritize the formulation of your own thoughts on the issue, whether they are about the author’s arguments, or your objections to the author’s arguments. For your own philosophical development, what is most important is that you are thinking a lot of your own accord about the issues. Suppose you have read a few papers, and there is one last paper that you are considering reading before you start writing your essay. You think that reading it will get you closer to the truth. Should you read it? Often, it’s better to devote the time that you would spend reading the extra paper to developing your own point of view, basing it on the papers you have read. The result may be that you are further away from the truth than you would have been had you read the extra paper, but you will have done more of your own thinking, and the more you do of that, the better.