How to Read a Philosophy Paper (including this one)

By
Jeff McLaughlin Ph.D.

University College of the Cariboo

Part One of a Three Part Series
Part One: Reading | Part Two: Planning | Part Three: Writing | Back to Essays Page




As a student who may be new to philosophy, the task of writing a philosophy paper is usually the first thing that youíll focus on - and dread: "Gee, I have to write a 2000 word essay on Utilitarianism". However, what will become a more immediate concern to you is getting through your philosophy text without getting utterly disheartened and overwhelmed. It is often difficult for newcomers to philosophy to make sense out of some of the articles that you are asked to read. The difficulties that you may discover are often simply due your being unfamiliar with the writing styles of academic philosophers. In this brief discussion, Iíll offer some suggestions on how to work your way through a philosophy article or chapter. Two bits of warning though. First: donít read while lying down on a couch or in bed...youíll probably want to drift off to sleep. Second, you will have to read each article more than once. Sorry, but as an old film professor told me once: "If a film isnít worth watching twice, it isnít worth watching once".

Part of your difficulty getting Ďused toí reading philosophy is that the styles that you will encounter can be quite different than what you are familiar with. Styles can differ depending on the author's intended audience (Is it for laypersons, other philosophers, other professions etc.?) and whether the article is a translated work (Are you reading an English translation of a Greek text?). Even the century that the work is drawn from will affect your reading comfort level. As well, the particular school of thought that the author comes from can have significant impact on how the piece is presented (Is the philosopher from the Analytic or Continental tradition?). Finally, the authorís own personality and style will often come through his/her writing. So, even though all philosophy papers have the intent to convince the reader of some point or other, how the author conveys his/her views can vary considerably.

The use of complicated phrases or sentences, the development of complex arguments, combined with your limited experience, requires that you develop an active reading skill. So, without further ado here are a few tips on how to better understand philosophy papers.

I. UNDERSTANDING

First, skim over the article in order to get a general idea of what the author is trying to say. Pay attention to the title and subtitles as they will often inform you of the area of inquiry (for example, the title of this piece gives you a pretty good idea what itís about.) Pay attention to the opening paragraphs since authors will sometimes offer summaries or overviews of their paper (e.g., "In this paper it will be argued that...") or they will set the context of their paper (e.g., what area of concern their paper in, what issue it will deal with, or even who it is in response to.)

Working your way to the conclusion, you want to make a note of it: this is what the author wants to convince you of. Underline it or highlight it (assuming itís your own copy and not the libraryís). Try and write the conclusion down on a piece of paper in your own words. Now, go back to the beginning of the paper and with the conclusion in mind, try and see how the author tries to take you there . . . In other words, think of the challenge as being akin to rereading a murder mystery novel: it was fun to try and figure out who the murderer was, you saw clues here and there, and perhaps you were able to figure out some but others alluded you. Now that you know who the culprit is, it can be fun to see how all the clues that you missed fit together (This approach is one reason why I don't like Agate Christie novels: it seemed to me that she never provided enough clues and the murderer only shows up in the last 5 pages - so most of the novel is irrelevant to its ending! Of course Iím overstating my perception of her work but you get the idea: Itís no fun reading something or watching a movie when the writer brings in a character right at the end with no previous connection to the story. Keep this in mind when you are planning your own essay!)

While you are reading each paragraph, the first and last sentences will often provide you with key elements of the author's thought process; here you may find a conclusion or premise of an argument or sub argument. I should explain a few of these terms. An argument is made up of at least one premise and at least one conclusion. This argument may itself be used to defend a further claim. The conclusion is what the writer is trying to convince you to accept. The premise(s) is the reason that he/she offers to try and get you to accept his/her conclusion. Consider the following claim: "Kamloops, British Columbia is a great place to live." Why? "Because itís a safe place to live." Why? "Because you can walk outside late at night and leave your house unlocked." The first statement is the conclusion that Iím trying to convince you of (although I could have just as easily put it at the end of my argument.) After each ĎWhy?í question, is a premise or reason or claim that I use to defend or justify my conclusion. I can then use this argument to try and convince you to move to Kamloops. In doing so, the argument about Kamloops being a great place to live becomes a sub-argument for the conclusion that you should move here.

What is important is that the writer does in fact offer you a reason for the conclusion otherwise they are just stating an opinion. If I said: "Universal health care is a good thing", all you can do is either just smile or say something like: "Thatís nice." I have not given you anything more than a simple statement on what I believe. I've just given you an unsupported claim. Accordingly, you may agree or disagree with me but because I havenít stated any reasons for my opinion, you donít know what to make of it. I must offer a defense of my position before you can determine if you should rationally accept or reject my position. Even if you agree with the opinion, you donít want to jump the gun and agree with me since you may not agree with my reasoning and that is just as important as agreeing with my viewpoint. Hereís an example. I say: "I think capital punishment is wrong." You say: "I agree!" Then I say, "I think it's wrong because those murdering so and so's should be tortured slowly instead!" Now, because you didnít wait to hear my reason you have, or you have at least given me the appearance that you have bought into my rather shocking belief - but more than likely you would want to disagree with me. People can agree on the same points but for different reasons and some of the reasons may be good and others may be bad. Another quick example: You and I both agree that the sum of 2 + 2 is not 5. You (rightfully) believe that 2+2 does not equal 5 because it actually equals 4 while I (wrongfully) believe that 2+2 does not equal 5 because it equals 17. Accordingly, you must consider both the premises and conclusion before making a final judgement. Think of paragraphs as an opportunity for the writer to offer a somewhat self-contained argument. Each self-contained argument then may be intended to substantiate some larger position of the author.

Premise and conclusion indicator words will often (but not always) help you distinguish the different parts of the arguments as well as distinguish arguments from non-arguments. These words that indicate or signal that there is a reason (or premise or evidence, justification etc.) being offered in support of a viewpoint (or conclusion) include 'Because, Since, Due to, It follows from...' etc. Conclusion indicators include: "Therefore, Accordingly, So, Hence, Thus...' etc. If there are no indicator words and you suspect that you are dealing with some part of an argument, try inserting an indicator word of your choice to see if makes sense.

Making notes in the margin is useful. For example, you might put a couple of words beside each paragraph that highlight the topic of the paragraph. Don't simply underline every word since not every thing the author will say will be significant and/or relevant to the main thesis. He/she might provide you with background factual information, introductory comments, personal asides, etc. Look for stipulative definitions where the author defines what he/she means when he/she uses a certain term (e.g., "Universal health care means that everyone receives health care regardless of their ability to pay, regardless of where they live, are regardless of the amount of responsibility or Ďblame-worthinessí that they have for causing their own injury or illness"). See if he/she offers distinctions between his/her views and those of other writers (e.g., "It is a mistake to believe that a persistent vegetative state is the same as a permanent vegetative state.") As well, look for the use of other writers' ideas either as supporting evidence or as positions that the author wants to refute (e.g., "In 1993, Balderson argued (rightly/wrongly) that...").

Next, try to put the main arguments (the premises and the conclusions) of the paper in your own words. The challenge, later on, is to see if what you believe the author is arguing for is, in fact, what the author intended.

Notice what has happened. 1) Youíve skimmed over the article to get a general sense of what it is about. 2) Youíve put the conclusion (or what you think is the conclusion) in your own words. 3) Youíve gone back to carefully re-read the article to draw out the various arguments that the author raises or rejects in his/her paper (Remember, not everything that the author says is going to be a positive thesis. They will often argue against other people at the same time, attempting to show why their opponentís view is unsatisfactory, and, subsequently why their own views are right.) 4) Youíve taken these points (many of which youíve jotted down in the margins) and listed them on a piece of paper. 5) Now take a moment to look at what youíve got. Do you follow the flow of the paper? Perhaps you can draw arrows and diagrams connecting the various points. Do you understand what the writer has said and why he/she has said it? If not, guess what you need to do. Yes, you can read it again, and if that fails, ask well-formed questions of you instructor or peers. For example, try phrasing the question as: "On page 34, the author states X, but I don't see how this fits with the conclusion Z. Is the author saying that X leads to Y and Y leads to Z?"

Once you understand the article only then can you go back and evaluate it.

II. EVALUATION

So, for sake of argument, letís assume that you have a reasonable grasp on what the writer is trying to ultimately convince you of. Now the question is, is the writer successful? No one is saying you must accept or reject every single point made. Some arguments can still survive even if you've cast doubt on some of the premises. Perhaps youíll like the argument in general but find a few weak areas. Perhaps youíll think the argument is terrible and seriously flawed from the get-go. Whatever you believe, youíll ultimately have to convince others of the same. In order to do that, youíll need to know how to write a philosophy paper. However, letís not get ahead of ourselves yet.

Here is one approach that you can use to evaluate the author's position. First, you will want to isolate the reasons that the author offers to defend his or her conclusions (i.e., the premises of the arguments) and you will want to consider whether or not they are rationally acceptable. This means, amongst other things, that you will want to determine if the reason or premise is defended in a deductively sound or inductively strong sub-argument. For example is the premise successfully defended elsewhere by the writer in a sub-argument, or even in another article, or by another person? Is it a matter of common knowledge or is it supported by a proper appeal to authority?

If for some reason you don't know if the premise is acceptable, and you don't have evidence to suggest that it is unacceptable then you may wish to provisionally accept it and move on to look at the author's other reasons (This is one reason why we hear people say: "For argumentís sake, letís assume that such and such is true".) However, if you donít understand the argument please donít use provisional acceptance as a way to justify your laziness. Sometimes reading a particular paper on a philosophical topic will require to you go and do a bit of background reading. The author keeps talking about another person's argument - do you need to go read the original article? What is the context of the piece, do you need to familiarize yourself with details on the surrounding issues? Just as it is inappropriate to walk in on another personís conversation and start arguing with them, it is intellectually inappropriate to start arguing against an author before you get the full story. Do some research. Research doesn't have to be confined to the task of tracking down other lengthy books; you can try a philosophy encyclopedia for good overviews. You can try a philosophy dictionary for help on terminology. You can talk to your peers, you can ask for directed assistance from your instructor and so forth. Research in this sense is simply taking action in finding out what you need to know in order to make a reasoned decision about the piece that you are evaluating.

The next stage of your evaluation will involve determining if the premises are positively relevant to the conclusion(s). To be 'positively relevant' the truth of the premise will count towards the truth of the conclusion. For example, the premise: "It is sunny and warm today." is positively relevant to the conclusion: "I should wear shorts and a T-shirt if I want to avoid being uncomfortable today." Whereas the premise: "All ravens are black." is not relevant to the same conclusion: "I should wear shorts an a T-shirt if I want to avoid being uncomfortable today." In other words, premises are relevant to the conclusion when they offer some evidence (any evidence!) to support the conclusion. Only after identifying the argument and its parts, and after determining if the reasons are relevant to the conclusion may you then consider whether or not the author has provided sufficient evidence for you to rationally accept the conclusion. In order to do that, youíll have to engage in Ďcritical thinkingí. Unfortunately, critical thinking is not something you can learn about by just reading about it especially in such a short essay as this. You can't just read about how to develop critically thinking skills because in order to learn philosophy you have to do philosophy.

Iíve come to the end of my very brief paper. What I've suggested is just the first step in your journey. Perhaps the best way to start you on your way is to get you to perform the above suggestions on this work. And so, "In your own words, tell me, how do you read a philosophy paper?"

End of Part One of a Three Part Series
Part One: Reading | Part Two: Planning | Part Three: Writing | Back to Essays Page