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One Good Way to Read Philosophy

by Matt Silliman

Most philosophical documents need multiple readings to make much sense. Many of my students have found the following procedure an efficient and productive way to read. Done correctly, this procedure actually takes less time overall than reading the text once slowly, and will leave you in much better command of the text and its contents.

  • First reading: The first time through is just an overview, so don't let it take very much time. First, scan the table of contents, index, or glossary (if any) to get a general sense of the project, then read the assignment briskly. As in speed-reading, keep your eyes moving and the pages turning. Use a pencil (rather than a pen or highlighter) to indicate what at first blush seem to be key terms, concepts, or arguments, and to note unfamiliar words, but just mark them for now, rather than stopping to look them up or ponder them. With allowances for different styles and formats, one-half minute to one minute per page should be the most time you spend on first reading.
  • Second reading: Keep up the pace up on this reading as well, but this time stop to look up the unfamiliar words (if their meanings are not yet clear from context), and to focus on key terms, examples, and arguments. By now some of the text will seem pretty clear, and the parts that are more difficult will stand out. With your pencil, put a small checkmark on the corner of each page (or, if you prefer, at the end of each paragraph) if you think you have a pretty good grasp of what it says, and a question mark if you're not sure. Don't stop to ponder much yet; just decide one way or the other and keep moving.
  • Third reading: This time go straight to those areas that you indicated on the second reading as still puzzling or problematic, and read them attentively. If they now seem to fall into place, change the question mark to a checkmark. If not, put a second question mark (or indicate the page in your notes) to remind you to ask questions about that passage in class.
  • Fourth reading: Just before class, survey the reading very quickly once again to remind yourself of:
    • its main focus, claims, and line of argument;
    • what specifically you still find either confusing or questionable.