Reading a philosophy text can feel like pretty much exactly like this:  


The key problem that students encounter with philosophy texts is that they look a bit like novels.  With exceptions, they’re generally filled with words written in continuous prose.  You could, perhaps, be forgiven for thinking you should read them like a novel.  This is a good way to end up falling on your butt.

Philosophy texts should be treated a lot more like maths textbooks than stories.  You would never (I hope!) think you could learn calculus just by reading the textbook.  You learn calculus, of course, by doing the problem exercises. But, you protest, your copy of Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding has no problem exercises!  That's perfectly true - but you're just going to have to set your own.

Let’s look at an extract from the text mentioned above:

It seems a proposition, which will not admit of much dispute, that all our ideas are nothing but copies of our impressions, or, in other words, that it is impossible for us to think of anything, which we have not antecedently felt, either by our external or internal senses. I have endeavoured[1] to explain and prove this proposition, and have expressed my hopes, that, by a proper application of it, men may reach a greater clearness and precision in philosophical reasonings, than what they have hitherto been able to attain. Complex ideas, may, perhaps, be well known by definition, which is nothing but an enumeration of those parts or simple ideas, that compose them. But when we have pushed up definitions to the most simple ideas, and find still more ambiguity and obscurity; what resource are we then possessed of? By what invention can we throw light upon these ideas, and render them altogether precise and determinate to our intellectual view? Produce the impressions or original sentiments, from which the ideas are copied. These impressions are all strong and sensible. They admit not of ambiguity. They are not only placed in a full light themselves, but may throw light on their correspondent ideas, which lie in obscurity. And by this means, we may, perhaps, attain a new microscope or species of optics, by which, in the moral sciences, the most minute, and most simple ideas may be so enlarged as to fall readily under our apprehension, and be equally known with the grossest and most sensible ideas, that can be the object of our enquiry.” (Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, §VII)

This is a single paragraph, but it contains several ideas that need to be unpicked.  The mistake readers make is to think they can read this, perhaps puzzle it out a bit, and then move on.   Unfortunately it means by the end of their reading session they'll have read a lot and absorbed next to nothing.

The way to get to grips with a philosophy text is to write.

Reading alone will not get you very far.  I suggest following this checklist:

  1.  Are there any words you don’t understand? Look them up and write their synonyms in the margin.
  2. Does any part of the text stand out as interesting?  If so, why do you find it interesting? Does it remind you of any other arguments you’ve read, or connect with any other ideas?
  3. Summarise what has been said as succinctly as possible.
  4. Is an argument made?  If possible, write it in Premise 1, Premise 2, Conclusion format.
  5. Do you agree with the argument? Do you feel it is valid and/or sound? Why?

This might look like you’ll be writing an essay for each paragraph you read, but you don’t need to complete every point on the checklist.  In practice, I end up writing perhaps a line or two for every paragraph of text.  Some paragraphs might require no writing, some might require a little more.

For this extract, here are some sample notes:

All thoughts rely on sense impressions – we can’t think it without having felt/seen/heard it.  You get to combine these into complex ideas though.  To understand any idea you can break it into simple ideas and then look to see what sense impressions they’re based on.

So far this is simply a summary.  Hume is just in the process of laying the groundwork for his argument here, so it’s not really necessary to start breaking it down and critiquing it.  You’ll probably want to know where he’s going with it before you do so.  However, if a point jumps out at you as particularly objectionable, you might want to make a note of it.  For example:

Can we really track simple ideas down to their original sense impressions?  The idea of ‘fear’ is pretty simple, but does a sense impression lie at its origin?  The feeling of your gut clenching comes with fear, but I wouldn’t say fear = the combinations of sensations which accompany fear.

You'll notice that I'm challenging one of Hume's premises by introducing my own counter-example.  My notes may not be that transparent to you - that's working as intended - see my post on note-taking to see why.

Why should you do this?

Clearly my approach here is going to be at least slightly more time consuming than simply reading the text.  So why bother?

  1. You will actually remember what you’ve read.  This is known as the ‘levels of processing’ effect.  The more you’ve thought about something, the likelier you are to remember it.  Summarising and/or criticising a text is definitely a lot more processing than simply reading it.
  2. Presumably you are reading the text for the goal of writing about it later – whether as a piece of coursework or for an exam.  The quickly jotted notes you make now will be invaluable as starting points for an extended writing task later.
  3. Reading a small amount of text properly is infinitely more valuable than reading a lot of text badly.  

The final point cannot be stressed enough.  Frequently you'll be set more reading than you can physically do (or simply more reading than you're willing to do).  In this case, read less of it, and read it better.