One of the most common (at least in theory) ways to read philosophy is to look through a passage of text, isolate the argument into a set of premises and conclusions, and then evaluate the truth of each premise and the validity of the logical flow. You excise the argument of all color and flourish, abstract the point from any thought experiment or example, disregard poetic devices, and banish from your mind all autobiographical psychological context. Then you assess whether the overall message is worthwhile or not, and then move on to the next passage, and then put all the passages together and assess the big picture in the same way.
But I think that – in spite of their very best efforts – very few people actually do read this way successfully. And when they do, I think they’re doing both themselves and the texts a disservice. Nearly any philosophical text that has significant historical and/or cultural clout (and a great many that do not) is rich with nuance and insight into the way we think and the way we live beyond the bare essentials of its argument. Even if the text is kind of (or very) boring. Even if it is fictional. Even if it is horribly written. Even if it is very old. Even if it has been proven to be completely wrong. Some are worth more than others, and some will speak to us more than others, but I tend to think how we read philosophy plays a big role in how we decide which texts we enjoy and which should be banished from the canon.
To put it more succinctly, there’s a lot more to saying something true than simply being right. In still another formulation, how an author says something conveys as much information as what an author says. To wit, I’ve divided up my reading methods into three different levels. The levels imply no specific chronology, order, or importance, but rather represent proximately to the text, with level 1 focusing on the closest reading (the trees), level 2 skirting back and forth between the text itself and the larger context (how the trees fit into the forest and relate to each other) and level 3 expanding out to the big picture (the forest). Sometimes I skip levels entirely, or pair them up, or do all three at once without realizing it.
Level 1: Reading for Understanding
The method I described above – abstracting the steps of an argument from their context for logical evaluation – is a very difficult thing to do, but it’s an important step to get right. For some philosophers, getting any semblance of a literal reading out of the prose is a feat in itself, so I certainly don’t mean to diminish this task. I just think it seldom gets to the heart of what’s really going on in a given text the way it aims to, because whenever you craft a vision of what you think the author is “trying” to say, you necessarily indulge your imagination a bit, and cast upon it shadows of your own worldview. More often than not, if you come away from a philosophical text thinking you understand it, you’re probably either just rejecting a straw man version of it you’ve created in your reading, or you’re pledging your allegiance to your own ideas, regardless of what’s really there on the page.
To combat this, I like to try and reconstruct everything I read twice. The first time, I take up the text as a sacred doctrine, assuming it must be right and that wherever it seems like it fails, that’s really just my confusion. I try to make it work as much as I possibly can, come up with justifications, look for implied premises, and create metaphors that smooth out the difficulties and nuances. I do this until I hit the wall, and then (even if I generally agree with what I’ve read), I turn on it, and go back to find every weak link and every questionable premise. I look for transitions where I had to do far too much to make the argument work, definitions which could be ambiguous, logical moves which rest too heavily on syntax and too lightly on substance.
At some point, I level out enough to form an authentic assessment of what – if anything – a text has to offer. I look at my defense and my critique, and try to take both forward with me as I advance to the next phase of reading.
Level 2: Reading for Insight
This level is easy to achieve when you enjoy what you’re reading. Interesting tid bits jump out at you, raising questions, reminding you of other things you’ve read, answering questions floating around in your mind, or simply inspiring you in some way. But not every text will grip you immediately. Sometimes the literal meaning gets in the way, sometimes our expectations get in the way, and sometimes the writing style itself gets in the way.
I think the best way to approach philosophy that isn’t automatically gripping you is to choose a central focus and let yourself be guided by a couple of questions. Typically, I’ll head into a text already armed with a question, either stemming from other books I’ve read or a talk I’ve attended, from the central focus of a current project, or from a syllabus I’m crafting, but occasionally, I’ll approach a new work of philosophy cold. When that happens, I’ll typically go back to my notes and look to my attempts to recreate and critique the argument being presented, and look for inroads there. Whatever question you ask will define what you find in the text, pulling out a specific narrative. If you change the question, you’ll likely see something different. This is why you can read the same book in two or three different courses on vastly different topics and come away with vastly different interpretations. It isn’t because your professors are confused or in combat over the meaning of the text, but because they come to it with different starting questions.
In many ways, this is a necessarily literary form of reading, because you’re trying to take the threads of an argument and weave them into a story – but not so that you can enjoy that story; rather, it’s so you can see the bigger picture beyond that story. I generally view this level as asking the following general questions:
- How the does the author make his/her claims?
- What does the author’s method tell us?
- Is it the same or different from the literal content?
- Is this confluence or discord purposeful?
- What could this possibly mean?
- Does this author’s contradiction of another philosopher reveal any new questions?
While the answers to these questions may not have any bearing on whether or not we think the author is correct, they nevertheless produce rich new lines of inquiry and speculation.
Essentially, looking at philosophy as a historical conversation can tell us why – and how – we think the way we do. Even if the assertions in the text are poorly constructed, disagree with other thinkers of similar stature, or even if they’re founded on shaky grounds, reading into the reasoning can still show us something true – even if its a truth constructed by the institutional reinscription of speculative notions, or a truth about ourselves and our own reactions to what we read.
This is probably where I spend most of my reading time. There’s almost always something interesting to be found in any work with cultural clout. It’s actually hard for me to turn this level down when I’m attempting to read for fun or relaxation, so I also tend to see philosophy in a lot of strange and unlikely places.
Level 3: Reading for Answers
Not every text will make it this far. Sometimes, it’ll take years for me to get here with a particular piece of writing, bouncing back and forth between levels 1 and 2 until I make a connection that reveals something wonderful. Sometimes I have I have to teach it three or four times first, or write a paper on it. Sometimes I’ll be working on something that seems completely irrelevant and a quote will mysteriously pop into my mind, and I’ll see the whole work in a new light. Then I have to go back and read the entire work over again – not just as an interesting or inspiring text – but as a source. And of course, sometimes this happens right away, on my very first read through. Feynman. Chesterton. Arendt. Desmond. Russell.
This almost never means that I think everything the author says is absolutely correct. Occasionally I’ll turn to a text in an almost biblical fashion, but for the most part I tend to gravitate towards nuggets of truth, a particularly brilliant problem the author identifies (and not always their resolution), or some kind of systemic approach or assumption. Sometimes I’ll hate that a text is right, and seek out every possible means of convincing myself that it’s wrong. Sometimes I’ll succeed.
But it’s a different way of reading. I’m sure a lot of people start here when they look at philosophy, deciding if the text can give them answers right away, and rejecting it if it doesn’t, skipping from level 1 to level 3. But I don’t think is the only way to determine the worth of a text. If it was, I’d probably hate philosophy.
Overall, I think that the best way to read philosophy is to read in a variety of ways. The only real way to make a mistake is to read too narrowly, too determinately. To automatically exclude psychological or literary factors and focus solely on the intended argument of a philosophical work is to ignore the bigger project of philosophy outright, and instead to accept or reject a work dogmatically. Essentially, to read philosophy, you have to read philosophically – that is, with an eye to seeing things differently than you might expect.