Reading Philosophy Texts
Reading and Understanding Material in Philosophy
I think that reading texts in philosophy is fun and engaging, highly demanding and emancipating beyond what I thought was possible. I believe it changed me for the better. It is also difficult, tedious, and takes a very long time. One is often thrown into a highly specialized debate on abstract issues. And the way in which philosophers ask and solve their problems appears esoteric, inaccessible and – more often than not – boring. But here are some things philosophers can do with their work: Figure out whether or not we have some way of forcing people to accept the existence of God by means of reason alone. Figure out whether perceptual illusions tell us something about the nature of our minds. Figure out whether there is something common to our thought about the world and the way it is. Can philosophers answer these questions? No. Or more aptly: Not yet and not completely. Any serious attempt to do so is an exciting event in philosophy. Philosophy texts more often give you a way to navigate questions like these in a more or less structured manner. And there are some questions that philosophy has successfully answered. Those often became the foundations for the current scientific disciplines.
But in order to get there, we need to first get through a text.
Let me give you an example of such an exciting but difficult text passage from Donald Davidson, one of the most eminent philosophers of the 20th century:
“Philosophers of many persuasions are prone to talk of conceptual schemes. Conceptual schemes, we are told, are organizing experience; they are systems of categories that give form to the data of sensation; they are points of view of individuals, cultures, or periods survey the passing scene. There may be no translating from one scheme to another, in which case the beliefs, desires, hopes and bits of knowledge that characterize one person have no true counterparts for the subscriber to another scheme. Reality itself is relative to a scheme: what counts as real in one system may not in another.” (Davidson, D. On the Very Idea of A Conceptual Scheme, p. 5)
In order to start making progress in even accessing the text, it is important to understand that contemporary philosophers are mostly making a claim, supporting the claim with arguments, providing evidence for their arguments and taking part in a debate which is the context in which the claim acquires a specific meaning. (Please try to superficially familiarize yourself with the technical sense in which the terms “claim” and “argument” are used in philosophy.)
When I read a text in philosophy I engage with a problem within a discipline that has very concrete ideas about how to solve these problems. Truth is not something that is ultimately dependent on the individual, truth has a technical meaning. If we say that sentence such as “the periodic table has 118 elements” is true, then we are saying that there is a state of affairs in the world that makes it such that the sentence is either true or false. Even though this is just one tiny aspect of what makes philosophy philosophy, we can already see better what Davidson is doing:
Davidson clarifies in the passage, (1) what conceptual schemes are, (2) how they are used in explaining phenomena and (3) what some important implications and 4) consequences of their use are.
“Conceptual schemes, we are told, (1/2) are organizing experience; they are systems of categories that give form to the data of sensation; they are points of view of individuals, cultures, or periods survey the passing scene. (3) There may be no translating from one scheme to another, in which case the (4) beliefs, desires, hopes and bits of knowledge that characterize one person have no true counterparts for the subscriber to another scheme. Reality itself is relative to a scheme: what counts as real in one system may not in another.”
We might say that Davidson clarifies in what sense he uses a concept. When the time comes to tell whether a sentence containing the concept “conceptual scheme” is true or false, we are in a better position to assess it, because we know what a conceptual scheme is. But, importantly, the definition of a conceptual scheme also indicates why we are talking about conceptual schemes to begin with. Conceptual schemes are probably some phenomenon that needs to be explained, or they are explaining something. Philosophers find it worthy of explanation how experience is organized, and this is likely the context in which conceptual schemes are debated. We can see that the context of Davidson’s article is the age-old question: How does chaotic sense data - the stuff we see, hear and feel - become knowledge?
And in the passage quoted, Davidson is setting the stage for a claim and some arguments within the context of this debate. Remember that Davidson mentioned that one consequence of conceptual schemes is that reality itself depends on the individual.
And from the wording of the passage itself, we can expect Davidson to either claim that there is no shared reality among individuals (exciting! but unlikely), argue against the very concept of a conceptual scheme or argue against this particular definition of it.
For you to get a good understanding of a passage of philosophical writing your reading should try to identify
the problem at hand
the context of the debate
the way in which the problem is solved within the debate
the author’s proposed solution (their claim)
and the strategy the author uses to make her solution persuasive or true (the arguments and evidence given).
Like in the case of the Davidson passage, you will of course have to read the entirety of the text to understand all of these aspects. And without years of familiarizing yourself with the debate, this will not be easy or particularly straightforward, but a dictionary and a restrictive use of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy will help you out.
Please don’t try to understand the entirety of the debate. All you need is a
rough understanding of the problem
an understanding of the technical vocabulary used
a rough understanding of the claims and arguments.
A good way for me to start is to read the text and underline the main structure. After an initial superficial reading, I start by finding the main claim and I underline it. Then, I restate the claim as clearly as possible and write it into the margins of my text. Then, I find and underline arguments for the claim and the evidence that is meant to support the argument. And finally, I underline all arguments against the opposing side and the counterevidence given.
Your marginal notes and the underlined passages should enable you to answer the following questions:
What is the claim? Is that even clear? Do the arguments support the claim? And not least important of all: does this make sense to you?
Discussion sections should now come easier to you: Finding partners in conversation will become rewarding and you will start developing a more complex view on the topic. Finally, writing your paper will be much easier.
You will be able to quickly and simply articulate the main point of an author’s position and her strategy and this should be a core part of any discussion of the position in question. And because you now have identified what the author is saying and why, you can agree and disagree and give a justified response and critique. And this is the first step to writing your own philosophy.
Davidson, D. On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme. In: Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 47 (1973 - 1974), pp. 5-20.
Need a pdf of this? Here.