Reading Philosophy

"Yeah yeah yeah," you say, "but philosophy is just so BORING!! How can anybody read this stuff!"

OK, so I admit it: a lot of what we read just isn't all that sexy. If you don't like the material then there's little consolation I can offer you, but I do understand. Philosophy just isn't for everyone. Just the same, even if you don't like this material there is still something to be gained from reading it. Consider that when you read (that is, when you read anything, but especially philosophy) what you are doing is practicing a skill. Yes, reading is a skill. It's not an innate capacity we are born with nor is it something we do only if we feel like it. Reading is an essential skill (reading is fundamental, as they used to say in my day). No matter what you do or where you go in life you will be required to read AND understand what you read. Because of the kind of society we live in, we are expected to read and understand a lot more than any other group of Americans before us. You can't even buy a computer video game these days without reading (and agreeing to) the legalese that pops up on the screen before you play. Don't you think it might be a good idea to understand what kind of rights you give the video game company when you register, or what kind of rights the small print on your car loan gives your bank if you miss a payment? You don't need a lawyer to know, necessarily, you just need to be able to read.

Philosophy is difficult to read, but so are credit card agreements, insurance contracts, and just about every other important document that you have to have in order to live life and conduct business in contemporary society. If you can learn to read and understand philosophy, then you will have gained your black belt in a very useful skill indeed.

The first thing you have to remember about reading philosophy is that if you don't get it the first time around you're probably on the right track. This is complicated material, and if you're not used to reading this kind of stuff then it should be kind of difficult. Whatever you do, don't get frustrated and pitch your book into an incinerator. That just won't help. Believe me. Be patient with yourself and with the material.

Part of being patient with the material means reading slowly. Read for understanding, not merely to reach a certain page. As an instructor, I'd rather that you really have read and understood only two pages of your assignment than have skimmed it all and gotten only a vague clue as to what the assignment was about. Remember, every comma counts and every word is on the page for a reason. Philosophy is some of the most precise (and therefore the most difficult) writing that you'll ever come across and for this reason it cannot be skimmed or breezed through like most other kinds of writing. You will need to read with a dictionary at your side. This is college. It's time to lose the fear of those big words. Above all, accept the fact that you will have to spend some time reading the material if you want to understand it and do well in the class, and plan your time accordingly.

In addition to being patient with the material and to being a careful reader, you need to become an active reader. Reading, after all, means more than just looking at every word on the page. It isn't like watching TV. You can't just sit back and absorb the images and expect them all to come to you without any effort on your part. The final thought isn't coming, you can't use a lifeline, and no one is getting voted off the show. It's up to you to read, and it's up to you to forge an understanding of the material. (The instructor can and will gladly help you if you are really trying.)

In order to understand why active reading is important, it's good to remember three things:

1) Some things are worth reading even though they're not amusing or enjoyable to read in any way. Some things are worth reading even if you don't like to read. Remember eating your peas as a child? It's like that, only for your head. Whoever told you that everything had to be entertaining to you to be worthwhile, anyway? The intellectual value of a reading (i.e. what it tells you about the world, or the mental acuity it helps you build) is it's real payoff.

2) Reading this material yourself is part of what it means to be a free thinker. A large part of being a free thinker entails that one must have read, understood, and come to one's own conclusions on the great and influential ideas which have informed and shaped (or perhaps should have informed and shaped) the social, cultural, historical, literary, and political context in which we live. The liberal arts education should be about enabling you to do just that. Contrary to what many believe, university is not a "knowledge store" where one goes to buy great ideas in bite-sized pieces as supplied by a designated "great idea inventory clerk" (sometimes called an instructor). If you really want to be educated, if you really want to be a free thinker, do not rely on textbook authors, friends, tutors or even instructors to provide you with a prefabricated understanding of important issues, thoughts, concepts, or movements. Instructors (be they graduate students, full professors, adjuncts, etc.) are guides, not wisdom-dispensers or keepers of the one true story. They will help you— they may even tell you what they think— but their purpose is not to tell you what to think. That's your job, and it begins with reading the great and influential works and grappling with the ideas therein under your own power. Until you can unscrew your head, don't ask anyone to put knowledge inside it.

3) Reading is nothing other than a form of conversation with the writer. Thus through reading source texts you have the opportunity to put yourself in touch with some really first rate minds. Just as you cannot have a good spoken conversation if you do not understand your partner, you cannot have a good literary conversation if you do not understand your author.

"But how do I have a 'literary conversation'?" you'll ask. The answer is simple. Be an active reader. Here's how: When you read, don't just move your eyes over some of the words on the page; write about it. That's your end of the conversation. Take notes as you read, highlight important passages, and/or scribble comments in the margins (that's what they're there for— you didn't think that was just wasted paper did you?), or if you're really serious keep a journal. Personally, I like to keep a notebook when I'm reading. I draw a line across the page so that the space is divided in half. On one side I keep track of the author's argument by outlining and noting page numbers on which the key points occur. On the other side I write my notes, reactions, or questions about what I'm reading. That way I have a record of what the author said, and my thoughts about what he or she said. When it comes time to give my side of the literary discussion in a paper, or when it comes time to discuss the reading in class, I'm good to go. No more vacant looks on my face when I'm called on in class, and come test time no anxiety either— because I read and I have it down. That's active reading. It makes all the difference— even, no, especially in classes which you do not enjoy.

Remember that reading is just like exercising. The more you do it, the better you will be at it.

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