How to read Philosophy (a step-by-step guide for confused students!)


What reading Philosophy can feel like sometimes!


Reading Philosophy is a difficult task, especially coming to uni with little or no background in the subject. Reading lists can look long and daunting, vocabulary can be confusing and it seems to take ages to understand even the smallest part of a chapter. Even as a third year, I still find myself taking a long time to get through a reading and feel comfortable with the material.

Like anything, it does get easier over time, but to help get you started I’ve put together a list of tips that I find useful when reading. Obviously these techniques won’t work for everyone, but they might help steer you in the right direction to make your reading, dare I say it, a bit less stressful. (Maybe even enjoyable? Maybe?)


Reading takes time

This sounds pretty obvious, but reading Philosophy requires a lot of your time and focus. It is totally different to reading for fun or reading to get facts from things; theoretical reading requires an appreciation of precision and logic and a willingness to be open-minded to new ways of thinking.

Philosophical texts offer up arguments, which require you to interpret, analyse and evaluate what the author has written. This can sometimes mean you’ll need to read, re-read, and maybe re-read again before you feel confident in your understanding of the key issues they present. But don’t worry – this is normal! In fact, you’re almost never going to have a sound understanding of a text if you only read it once.


Before you start reading

So, in lieu of what I’ve said above, make sure you give yourself enough time for each text you need to read. Don’t try and cram them all in the night before, and don’t try and do it all in one day. Stay organised, and make sure you’ve scheduled in time to read where you can. Reading in a rush is often going to leave you more confused than you were before you started.

Before you begin, make sure you have a pen/pencil handy. Or, if you dont like writing in your books, have some paper handy too. Once you’ve developed a note-taking system that suits you, you’ll find writing in the text as you go will save you time and stop confusion when keeping track of your thoughts.

It is also useful to have some previous awareness about what it is you are reading. Find out when the text was written, what area of Philosophy it addresses and other philosophers that it could be responding to. Having even a rough idea of the context of the text often helps to place the ideas in relation to the bigger picture.


Questions to ask yourself


  • What is the focus of the text?
  • What is their fundamental argument?
  • What point are they trying to prove?


  • Why have they written this?
  • What/who is it in response to?
  • What was it written for?


  • How have they proved their point?
  • How does the argument take shape?


Keep these questions in mind as you read, as they will form the basis of your examination of the text. Come back to them every so often, and try to make sure you’ve answered them all by the time you’ve finished. This will keep your reading focused, and will clarify your understanding. Without being able to answer these fundamental questions, it will be difficult for you to provide an analysis of the material.


Actually reading

Philosophical writing is quite unique in that it usually offers an internal dialogue. Not dissimilar to the back-and-forth of philosophical debate, the text will often have the author refuting and defending his own theory all in the same work. This is to be expected – philosophical thinking isn’t straightforward! So, when you’re reading, don’t be disheartened if you don’t understand something on the first go. Often, rather than dwelling on that same paragraph over and over again, it is better to carry on reading and come back to it later. Sometimes finishing the text and having an overall picture may clarify any issues you were having earlier on.

The first read

  • Read as you would normally
  • Don’t expect to understand everything!
  • Don’t stop at bits you find confusing (there will be time for this later)
  • Try and get an overall sense of the argument the author is presenting
  • What examples do they use?
  • What are the obvious strengths and weaknesses?
  • How do they defend their thesis?

At this stage, you should be able to roughly answer some of the initial questions, and begin to piece together an overall understanding of the issues presented.

The second read

  • This one is about the details
  • Try and read this a bit more slowly (I know this can be painful!)
  • How does each part of the text help to answer the key questions?
  • This is where you should start your note-taking


Try and put together a system that works for you. I like to annotate my work with a series of marks that mean different things, as this helps track my thought process and means my text isn’t just me trying to re-write bits around the edges! I don’t find highlighting particularly useful, as it doesn’t really tell me why something is important, just that it is. Things that you should be making a note of are:

  • The argument 
    • First find the premises and conclusion/s
      • e.g. P1, P2, C
    • Then find objections to the theory
      • e.g. OB1, OB2, OB3 ….
    • The author may also offer up solutions/reasons to avoid these objections
      • e.g. S1, R2 … 
  • Important sections
    • Make sure you don’t just underline these, but make a brief note as to why they are key points
  • Context
    • Make note of any connections to other literature/ideas/theories
      • e.g. Cf (Kant/Plato etc.)
  • Definitions 
    • These are so important to mark up, as vocabulary can vary hugely from author to author
    • Philosophers are notorious for coining their own terms, so make sure you know what they mean!
      • e.g. D …. 
  • Examples
    • Philosophers often use examples to make clear a point they are making, so it is useful to note these as points of reference for discussion
      • e.g. Ex. …
  • Questions
    • Highlight any important questions that the author raises, as this will help you keep track of where the argument is headed and the form it is taking
      • e.g. Q … 
  • Confusion!
    • It is okay to be confused, and mark up bits that you really just don’t understand – just remember to make sure you also note why you’re confused about this section
      • eg. ????? (My texts are prone to a few of these!)

The end (nearly!)

A very important step in reading a philosophical work is to summarise what you’ve just read. This shouldn’t be too difficult if you’ve made good notes and actually managed to answer the key questions. There are many different ways to do this, but I often present the argument in premise/conclusion form, write up a list of strengths and weaknesses and note any questions that I have. This makes it easier for you when coming to class, as you won’t need to be thumbing through the text trying to find what you’re looking for.

A good summary will help to check that you’ve stayed focused, consolidate your knowledge and provide you with a point of reference for essays, class, or if you ever come back to the text again.

Also I would highly recommend getting your hands on a dictionary of Philosophy. It has been my Bible and an absolute lifesaver. Click here for a link to the one I use!

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