Professor Alexandra Ghostafson’s Tips for reading philosophy:

University of Toronto professor Alexandra Ghostafson shares her tips for reading philosophy. They’re superb tips for reading anything really.

Download the pdf here.

Starting out, read twice. Read once quickly to get the gist of the paper, and once more slowly to get the details. This can be time consuming, but it still takes less time than trying to both orient yourself and get all the details in the first pass!

Take reading notes. During the first pass, make notes for yourself in the margin of the paper. Point out places you want to pay closer attention to on the second go, and highlight sections that seem especially important. After this first pass, you might want to write down initial impression or questions for yourself to answer after your second read–these might be about what the author is doing in a certain section, what a certain term means, etc.

Find the argument. On the second pass, you might start with finding the author’s conclusion, or what it is they are arguing for. Once you’ve found what they are arguing for, read the paper from start to finish looking for premises—these are reasons that the author gives for accepting their conclusion. Make note of where they are in the paper, writing down page numbers. The premises together with the conclusion make up the author’s argument.

Rewrite the argument. Once you’ve reread the paper and have found the author’s argument, try to paraphrase it. Writing it down in your own words will help you think about what the author is saying and whether it seems plausible to you.

Write down your thoughts. If you are able to answer any of the questions you wrote for yourself after your first reading, do so. Do you have any new questions? Write them down! These questions might have more depth to them than before-for instance, are there any premises that seem especially convincing or unconvincing? Why? Are there any background presuppositions that the author seems to be committed to? What are they and why does the author hold them? Your questions also might not be philosophical, but methodological: why does the author do what she does in section X? Not all your questions have to be ‘deep’, however-it’s perfectly fine to ask what an author’s conclusion is if you can’t find it, or what the purpose of reading this paper is! Whatever your questions or impressions, write them down.

Bring the material and your notes to class. Bring the paper and what you wrote down about it with you to class! Asking a question that you wrote down when you read the material helps take off some of the pressure of coming up with a question on the spot. Plus, if someone else has your same question, class discussion may help you answer it! And again, bring the paper with you, too-having the paper to refer to will help facilitate class discussion and your own understanding.

Revisit the paper. After class, you might want to revisit the paper or the question you wrote down about it. Has your impression remained the same? Have you answered all your questions? Do you have new ones? Keep going!

Rewriting the argument in your own words is a powerful practice. In his book, How to Take Smart Notes, Sönke Ahren’s also highlights the value of “translating” a text into your own words:

We tend to think we understand what we read – until we try to rewrite it in our own words. By doing this, we not only get a better sense of our ability to understand, but also increase our ability to clearly and concisely express our understanding – which in return helps to grasp ideas more quickly.

Ahren, Sönke. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. Sönke Ahren, 2017. (see page 54)

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