How to Read Philosophy?

What follows is an extract from a forthcoming book called AQA AS Philosophy by Gerald Jones, Dan Cardinal & Jeremy Hayward – an engaging, student-friendly textbook designed to help UK high school students embrace and enjoy philosophy at AS level. It seemed such a useful guide that we decided to print it here as well.

Introductory textbooks like this try to summarise and clarify some incredibly complex and significant ideas. But we cannot capture the depth and richness of the original texts and reading these gives you a chance to get your intellectual teeth into the ideas of Western philosophers in their own words.

As if you needed to be told, philosophy is hard. […] It is hard because philosophical ideas and arguments themselves are so complex, so subtle and nuanced, and they rely on a web of understanding that reaches back more than two thousand years, past Hume and past Descartes, past Aquinas and Anselm all the way to Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. It is also hard because philosophers are not always the clearest of writers:

Lord Macaulay once recorded in his diary a memorable attempt – his first and apparently his last – to read Kant’s Critique: “I received today a translation of Kant… I tried to read it, just as if it had been written in Sanskrit”.

We can excuse the fact that many of the classics of philosophy were written before the Twentieth Century, when the fashion was for longer sentences, which can be hard to follow. Even if we set aside their long-winded style, such works aren’t always clear in their explanations, they often don’t refer to their source-material and sometimes introduce technical jargon to try to express their new ideas.

But there things you can do to help overcome some of the difficulties of reading them. First, don’t try to work it all out by yourself. Philosophy is a discursive subject; in other words it is about engaging with the thoughts and opinions and arguments of others, about debating arguments and clarifying concepts with others, and experimenting with these ideas to see where this takes you. So we recommend, when you read and analyse these texts that you compare your analysis with other people in your class and your teacher, as well as with the summary that we ourselves have made of the texts. Secondly, we have also developed an interpretative framework, some philosophical ‘lenses’, which can help clarify what’s being said, and which you can use to see beneath the surface of the text and start to understand what these philosophers are trying to say.

Philosophical Lenses

Below are five lenses which will help you make sense of the original philosophical texts. Take each lens in turn, and apply it to the text, then move onto the next one. If you use all five lenses, and end up with a short, structured summary of what you think the main ideas are then you are well on your way to understanding the extract.

Context: When was this extract written, who wrote it, and why did they write it?

• Talk to your teacher to find out more about the book that this extract is from.

• Go online to get a sense of the biography and stories behind the person who wrote it.

• Go online and search for the book at the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (IEP) to get a summary of its overall argument.

• Find out what is happening in the book immediately before and after the extract.

Vocabulary: What words appear to be used in a technical way?

• Underline and make a note of those words that seem difficult to understand.

• Check in the glossary or index of this book to see if they’re explained in this book.

• Talk to your teacher or classmates about the meaning of these words.

• Look up these words in a dictionary of philosophy (remember ordinary dictionaries may only record the ordinary meanings of these words, not the philosophical meanings).

Concepts: What are the recurring ideas in this extract?

• Once you’ve sorted out the vocabulary, what ideas are being examined in this extract?

• Check to see if you’ve encountered these ideas before (again look in the glossary or index).

• Write down a sentence summarising each idea in your own words.

• Talk to your classmates about how the ideas connect with one another in the extract.

Argument: What indicators are there that this extract contains an argument?

• Find signposts that a conclusion is being drawn (therefore, thus, and so, it follows, hence)

• Look for key words indicating whether reasons are being given (because, following, from what’s been said)

• Identify the premises, evidence and assumptions on which the argument is being built

• Check for other signs of argument (however, but, if… then)

• Refer back to the bullet points at the end of the ‘Arguments for the Existence of God’ section for further questions you could ask, to help tease out the argument.

• If the extract is not an argument, then what is it: an explanation, or a criticism, or a conceptual analysis, or something else?

Structure: How could you break the extract down into separate, numbered, ‘chunks’?

• Try numbering in the margins the main points that are being made.

• Use the signposts that you’ve identified to break down the extract into chunks

• Try drawing the ideas on a page, possibly as a ‘mind-map’.

• Write these chunks in your own words.

• Now try rewriting the paragraph as if you were a philosopher (which you are!) by writing down the chunks, in your own words, which flow in order 1, 2, 3, etc.

Paperback Aug 2014 9781471835353 £24.99. Visit hoddereducation.co.uk/Philosophy to find out more and enter the code WK0002844 at the checkout to claim an exclusive 20% discount for Philosophy Now readers.

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