Burgess Laughlin

Reading philosophical texts

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What methods do you use to study a philosophical text -- whether it is Ayn Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, the Christian Bible, or other texts?

EXAMPLE

Following is what I do when the book I am studying is both very important and very difficult. Any work that is less important or less difficult would require only a subset of these techniques.

First, I slowly read the text from beginning (the preface) to end, and that includes scanning the bibliography and the index. I follow a schedule, perhaps one short chapter or section of a chapter per day. If the text is extraordinarily difficult or important, I read only a few pages daily. For example, I have spent as much as several hours per page on some sections of Kant's CPR.

(I usually read three or more books in parallel, one segment per book per day. That way, I don't get burned out on any one text. For example, today I am reading about 10-20 pages of the Journals of Ayn Rand, one short section of Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, a short section of Glenn Feole's The Complete Patricia Cornwell Companion (for leisure), and a short chapter or two of a pop-fiction novel (for leisure).

As I read a philosophical text the first time, I make several kinds of notes (in black ink) in the book:

(1) A few words -- in the margin, header, or footer -- summarizing or essentializing key paragraphs or sections.

(2) A few words (such as "Doubtful" or "Not clear") in the margin evaluating the text.

(3) Graphics -- for example, underlining (with a straight-edge) key phrases or sentences; circling words defined by the author; boxing a word or phrase that is the topic under discussion, and -- most importantly -- noting questions about the text, with a circled question mark and perhaps a few words. Occasionally, I draw charts, tables, or flow diagrams on the blank pages in the book with a note to and from the original page number.

(4) "Road-signs" that show structure. For example, if the author says he will now present three arguments in favor of a certain position, I underline the words "first," "second," and "third," if he uses them, and, if he doesn't, I put a numeral 1, 2, and 3 in the margins to identify the beginning of each point. As another example of a road-sign note, if the author tells me he intends to do something later, I write the word "plan" in the margin. Likewise, I note a "summary" or "conclusion."

After the first reading, I set the book aside for a few days or weeks. When I return to it, I type notes as a summary of each section, as a commentary, or as a way of recording key points and my reactions to and questions about them. The purpose of this exercise is to express complete thoughts (sentences), which results in (1) better memory, and (2) discoveries that appear while I am thinking about what to write. In summary, this is an exercise in integration.

After letting more time pass, I return for a second reading, which is usually much easier because I have done all the preliminary "survey" work in the first reading. I might make a few additional notes in the book, add to the notes I have typed, or write a questionnaire for myself and then answer the questions. This last technique helps me collect information in a sequence useful to me rather than in the sequence that the author followed for his own purposes.

For some philosophical writings, I also consult one or more secondary sources. If so, then I would usually do that after the first reading. Example sources are: (1) signed, documented philosophical-encyclopedia articles about the philosopher; (2) specialized philosophical dictionaries explaining key terms the author uses; and (3) a full-length commentary explaining clearly what the philosopher has presented obscurely. Examples for Kant's CPR are: the "Kant" article in the 10-volume Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Howard Caygill's A Kant Dictionary; and Norm Kemp Smith's Commentary to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.

ALTERNATIVES

I know one very intelligent and serious, but part-time, nonacademic student of philosophy who never makes notes in his books. He writes only essentializing or summarizing notes, typed on his computer, plus notes to himself about problems he has encountered in the text. This young man, using this technique, worked his way through the whole five volumes of History of Western Philosophy, by Jones. To capture and test his understanding, he also wrote a brief essay on each philosopher and sent it to other serious students of philosophy via email, for their critical review.

An additional technique, to be used after studying on one's own, is to participate in a study group in which each member contributes an outline, summary, or discussion of each week's reading, and then awaits questions or challenges from other study group members. The last study group of this type that I organized was one for Aristotle's De anima, a difficult text.

A further, more advanced technique, to be used after studying on one's own, is to try teaching what one has learned. The preparation and presentation will reveal flaws in one's understanding and will raise additional questions for study. Hence, the saying arises: "The best way to learn is to teach." Unpacked, this means that an excellent way to learn more about a subject than self-study alone will bring is to prepare to teach the subject, actually teach the subject (inviting questions and noting where students are puzzled, and why they are puzzled), all while noting new connections and problems that arise.

SUMMARY

The key to reading philosophical texts is to be active: take notes, summarize, and discuss with others the work examined. Is this time-consuming? It certainly is, which is why it is so important to have a clearly defined hierarchy of purposes and to carefully pick particular philosophical works for study.

RESOURCES

I recommend two works for further study:

Edwin Locke, Study Methods and Motivations, reviewed in the "Study Methods & Motivation, by Edwin Locke" thread in the Careers, Work, & School forum of THE FORUM. Available from The Ayn Rand Bookstore. The first half of this book is on study methods. Particularly valuable are Dr. Locke's suggestions for "abstract-integrative reading."

Robert Mayhew, editor, Ayn Rand's Marginalia: Ayn Rand's critical comments on the writings of over 20 authors, available from The Ayn Rand Bookstore. Reproduced text examples include Ayn Rand's marginal notes and her extensive underlining and other marks. Note especially that, first, Ayn Rand is an active reader (questioning, challenging, summarizing), and, second, that she is an evaluative reader (detecting the value or disvalue of what she is reading, and expressing her emotions accordingly).

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Following is what I do when the book I am studying is both very important and very difficult.

Thanks to Burgess for this wonderful outline of his systematic approach to studying difficult texts.

I would only add, or, perhaps, just highlight, one aspect that has become of great personal importance to me. I think it is crucial at every stage of the study to actively attempt to integrate what you are learning with what you already know. As many experts have suggested, I used to read first for understanding, but I have concluded that a real understanding, whether the text is right or wrong, is much better served by an active process of attempted integration. Not a final sort of integration, not as if you have completely accepted the validity of the ideas, but a testing sort of integration as an active process. I find I can better grasp what the writer of difficult material has to say, when I constantly test it against what I already know.

(Stephen at OCON)

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Thanks to Burgess for this wonderful outline of his systematic approach to studying difficult texts.

I would only add, or, perhaps, just highlight, one aspect that has become of great personal importance to me. I think it is crucial at every stage of the study to actively attempt to integrate what you are learning with what you already know. As many experts have suggested, I used to read first for understanding, but I have concluded that a real understanding, whether the text is right or wrong, is much better served by an active process of attempted integration. Not a final sort of integration, not as if you have completely accepted the validity of the ideas, but a testing sort of integration as an active process. I find I can better grasp what the writer of difficult material has to say, when I constantly test it against what I already know.

(Stephen at OCON)

Stephen, I am very curious about your reply.

My method of reading intellectual texts is to have one general reading to get the "whole picture", and then to read again in detail.

But it seems that you are offering a different method? I don't understand how your new method is different than mine (and possibly your old?)

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As I have increased the total amount of my knowledge, I find it a lot easier to integrate while I am reading. I think one must first have a foundation of knowledge before they can do this. So in response to JRoberts question, I think this comes as a secondary consequence of gaining knowledge. I almost never read books a second time at this point (except for Objectivist books), I usually just take notes, mentally or physically. I find reading, understanding and integrating a lot easier to do at this point. But this is after reading thousands of articles, studies, lecture courses and books. One must first have a base to integrate anything to it.

At this point in my gaining of knowledge, I set a psychological epistemological alert for anytime that I read something that seems to or does contradict that which I already know. By doing this I read consciously while allowing my sub-conscious to be alert to contradictions or new knowledge. If I read what I think is a contradiction or new knowledge, I almost always automatically stop and begin to question what the author is saying.

The steps mentioned above have allowed me to read more and then to logically integrate the knowledge, to enhance my life. Along with Burgess' and Stephen's post I hope this can be helpful.

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As I have increased the total amount of my knowledge, I find it a lot easier to integrate while I am reading.  I think one must first have a foundation of knowledge before they can do this.  So in response to JRoberts question, I think this comes as a secondary consequence of gaining knowledge.  I almost never read books a second time at this point (except for Objectivist books), I usually just take notes, mentally or physically.  I find reading, understanding and integrating a lot easier to do at this point.  But this is after reading thousands of articles, studies, lecture courses and books.  One must first have a base to integrate anything to it. 

At this point in my gaining of knowledge, I set a psychological epistemological alert for anytime that I read something that seems to or does contradict that which I already know.  By doing this I read consciously while allowing my sub-conscious to be alert to contradictions or new knowledge.  If I read what I think is a contradiction or new knowledge, I almost always automatically stop and begin to question what the author is saying.

The steps mentioned above have allowed me to read more and then to logically integrate the knowledge, to enhance my life.  Along with Burgess' and Stephen's  post I hope this can be helpful.

Your average book, I don't read twice. Here is what I meant (for clarification):

When I was reading Aristotle, I would read a large section at a time (ie. pages). Then, I would go back and look in detail. After I had gotten the general point he was trying to make, I backed up that generality with the specific examples, structure, etc.

This is what I meant. Though honestly, I see what you are saying and must admit that my knowledge is elementary at best.

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This is what I meant.  Though honestly, I see what you are saying and must admit that my knowledge is elementary at best.

JRoberts,

I have read many of your post, and I think your knowledge is a lot more than elementary. I have met many adults much older but not nearly as wise as you, keep it up, you are doing fine.

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I would also have to say that my method, for important books, is to read (or skim, really) once, just to get the general picture, and then read in detail either the entire book again, or if I basically got it from the first try then the parts that gave me trouble. For difficult philosophical books, what is most important to me to figure out is where the author is going with all of it, what's the broad picture he wants to impart upon me. As all words have a context, I find that the best way to understand something is to first understand its context, i.e. that "big picture" which I'm trying to put together after the initial scanning. After the initial scan provides a context, Then I can integrate the actual particulars of the text within that broad framework, and then I can reject or integrate that framework. Sometimes, I will reject the framework but salvage a piece of the picture, even though the author used it as a prop for his own ideas, because maybe I find it valuable regardless. In any case, integration is the object that I constantly and consciously pursue when reading a philosophical book.

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To add to the excellent suggestions so far, I like to study philosophy ideologically. That is, rather than focus on a particular book or author I like to study by idea. I use a wonderful tool, the Syntopicon of my Great Books of the Western World set. In this way, my studies coincide with my topical interests at the time and I have found that studying in this way greatly increases my understanding and recollective abilities.

So for example, I might be interested in the topic of primary and secondary qualities. Flipping to that topic in the Syntopicon gives me a plethora of suggested readings throughout history and across all types of writers. This puts the idea in its historical and philosophical context and all of this helps me to understand and use it again.

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My method of reading intellectual texts is to have one general reading to get the "whole picture", and then to read again in detail. 

But it seems that you are offering a different method?

I honestly do not know how valuable my approach may be to others, but, as I said, it has "become of great personal importance to me." I used to follow the conventional wisdom you mention, and that is partially contained in some of what Burgess wrote. However, what I have found is that the fastest and most thorough way to reach full understanding is by scrutinizing the work and testing it against what I already know, right from the beginning. And, by "testing" I mean an active and vigorous process of seeing how the ideas integrate with what I know, in detail and in broad perspective. For me, at least, this conventional "whole picture" was a myth that I never got on the first reading. And, what I did get stood in my way from really understanding on the next read.

It was as if the more general reading left fuzzy and hazy notions in my mind as to what the work was really about, and that fuzz and haze stood as a detriment to further understanding when reading in detail. Frankly, I have never shared this idea with anyone and I cannot say for sure if it is generally applicable, but I read an enormous amount of technical papers and books and I would estimate that I have doubled what I can consume, and have done so with better understanding, using the approach I now take rather than the conventional wisdom.

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Would I be correct then, in all who have commented, in making this assumption?:

There are three ways (thus far) to approach reading technical works.

1.) To read the work once in order to gain the 'big picture', and then read it a second time (maybe in smaller sections) in order to "fill in the holes" and grasp the details-paying much more attention to specific concepts.

2.) To read the work only once, integrating fully the first time by questioning all assumptions and testing them against everything the reader knows (mental process).

3.) To read the work very slowly, possibly a page a day, using extensive note-taking and analysis of each concept in the work; taking long periods of time to think about and digest each concept.

And RayVernagus, I haven't forgotten you! I would consider your system, however, more of a way of discovering what book to read, as opposed to how to read it. As you said, an excellent suggestion-but an addition to the above.

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There are three ways (thus far) to approach reading technical works.

My approach to learning is to do it purposely and selfishly. I am interested in learning in order to solve a problem, answer a question, satisfy my curiosity about a subject, etc. I always have a cognitive purpose that directs what I read and how I read it.

Sometimes I will devour a book from beginning to end and sometimes I will just check the index for what I am interested in and read a paragraph or two. For instance, I have read all or part of ItOE on dozens of occasions with different purposes in mind. When I first read it I wanted to know what Ayn Rand had to say about the subject. On other occasions I was looking for ideas I could use in dealing with my son's growing mind. Sometimes I was seeking a quote to bolster my arguments on a particular subject.

The advantages of reading motivated by my personal purpose is that I really pay attention, everything sticks, and is easy to recall when I need it.

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I just got done with a four-week accelerated course on the history of ancient philosophy. I had to read several of Plato’s dialogues, several selections from of Aristotle, selections from Epicurus and Epictetus, and a whole bunch of fragmented material from the Pre-Socratics.

I had no time to study this material using a slow, systematic method. Just to finish it all, I had to blast through it as fast as I could. I did re-read vital passages several times, which helped me retain the information in preparation for exams. I have some of Plato’s dialogues almost memorized now by using this method. Unfortunately, I did not have to opportunity to do this with most of the material.

What methods, other than blasting through the material, can anyone recommend in this sort of situation? I can think of no other approach. I would think that a proper study would require that I return to the material at a later date.

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What methods, other than blasting through the material, can anyone recommend in this sort of situation? I can think of no other approach. I would think that a proper study would require that I return to the material at a later date.

There is no method of learning that can replace time and effort invested in analyzing and integrating. Essentialize the material for the purpose at hand and write the course off for what it is; a brief introduction to a highly-layered subject. Having a truly active mind you will face this same problem throughout your life, hopefully coming back to learn in greater depth the most important subjects that eluded you earlier. Undergraduate life is hectic, but this is one aspect that will improve a bit in graduate school, so you have something else to look forward to. :)

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It really depends on the text - I have different approaches for different types of philosophy. I normally make a lot of notes - both summaries of what I've read, and some of the various directions my thoughts have taken me (even if these are only semi-relevant to the text itself). Normally I do a lot of both, but the ratio depends on my mood at the time of reading. If a text is canonical/'important' then I'll generally restrict my notes on it to things that are actually relevant, and confine my semi-related thoughts to my own journal (if I even bother writing them down, which I normally dont).

Another thing that matters is the type of work. Modern academic papers are generally short, highly structured and fairly easy reading (despite the ideas contained in them often being subtle and complex). Hence there isnt much need to make up a textual 'map', and notes can be restricted to comments on the ideas themselves. However when reading something torturous like German Philosophy, mapping becomes vitally important, as well as translating terrible writing into something that is vaguely coherent. This isnt something I have to do often, since I generally avoid continental philosophy.

When it comes to comparatively unstructured works (like Nietzsche or Wittgenstein), I find it pointless to try and impose my own structure on the text, so I'll restrict myself to summarising arguments and points that I find interesting, normally quoting directly aporhisms that are insightful/amusing. The majority of my writing on texts like these will be of the 'where my own ideas take me' variety though, since this is the kind of thing which the works themselves tend to induce.

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Concerning Burgess' method:

I have found great value in reading more than one book at a time, so that I do not "burn out" on one book. For example, right now I'm reading Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, and miscellaneous articles by Searle (along with the ever-great source that is Wikipedia!).

Initially I found that I couldn't take more than an hour or so of the unstructured craziness of Beyond Good and Evil, and I often tire of fiction (for some odd reason I find most fiction more boring than nonfiction), so I decided to complement the first two books with something I knew I'd enjoy reading and I could agree with for the most part: Searle.

Concerning Stephen's method:

I think I implement, at least in some informal sense, your method of rigorously evaluating a book/writing from the beginning, and comparing it to my own views and reality. To expand on my previous example, I began reading Beyond as an analytic philosopher probably would, that is to say, expecting things to make sense and be coherent. I was soon sorely disappointed: the book did not allow for continuous rigorous examination (basically, when I hit the part about "'true vs. false' being only a dogmatic dichotomy" I threw up my hands in disgust).

For books/writings that are coherent, however, analyzing them in detail is very helpful in removing any sense of "fogginess" concerning what the author wrote.

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I am surprised that no one has mentioned Adler's excellent book How to Read a Book.

One conclusion you will draw from this is that if you tried to follow all the good advice you wouldn't have time to read very many books. So one principle right at the beginning is to tailor the methods to the book and your purpose for reading it in comparison with what else you should be doing with your time. That also applies to serious works like philosophy books.

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I have found great value in reading more than one book at a time, so that I do not "burn out" on one book.
There is another good motive for this advice. I often read "subjects" rather than a book, collecting and reading portions from several books on some topic I am especially focused on. I started this in college where I would go out of my way to find text books in the library that were not part of the required course books, and found it very useful for gaining additional insights and information pertaining directly to what was being taught in the courses.

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... I have concluded that a real understanding, whether the text is right or wrong, is much better served by an active process of attempted integration. Not a final sort of integration, not as if you have completely accepted the validity of the ideas, but a testing sort of integration as an active process. I find I can better grasp what the writer of difficult material has to say, when I constantly test it against what I already know.

(This is open to anyone)

What type of questions do you ask yourself when integrating ideas from texts?

I was listening to the DIM lectures and Dr Peikoff mentioned that at the VanDamme Academy, students might be asked to integrate an idea from one work of literature to a (seemingly) different one. For example, the teacher might ask, "How would the character in Book X respond to the situation in Book Y?"

I read alot of philosophy, but not much good is accomplished just by reading it. I require some type of aproach to asking questions about the material that will force me to understand relationships between the ideas presented and my previous knowledge. Has anyone here formed an explicit set of questions to ask themself?

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What type of questions do you ask yourself when integrating ideas from texts?

Bryan, the first question I start with now is; where do I or do I see that in reality. If someone is making a philosophical claim within a text or otherwise it must be tied to reality and if not it is not worthy of trying to integrate nor will you be able to. To do this one must first know and agree with the law of non-contradiction.

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What type of questions do you ask yourself when integrating ideas from texts?

I read alot of philosophy, but not much good is accomplished just by reading it. I require some type of aproach to asking questions about the material that will force me to understand relationships between the ideas presented and my previous knowledge. Has anyone here formed an explicit set of questions to ask themself?

When I read a book it is usually takes the form of reading parts of several books on the same subject for some specific purpose. That purpose defines the questions and relations of interest in the context of previous knowledge and the material in the selected sources. If you read a book just for the sake of reading it, you should relate your reading to whatever purpose you have in mind for selecting that book. That will guide you in how you process what you read in accordance with specific questions and relations of interest to you. If you have a specific interest in what you are reading it is hard not to relate your reading to what you already know. If you are selecting books to read almost at random just because you generally think you should read them or know about them, that is the source of the "not much good is accomplished just by reading it". Go back and think about why you think you should know about it so you have some specific purpose as a base.

For reading philosophy in particular, be sure to listen to Leonard Peikoff's course on the history of western philosophy where he identifies the major themes and problems of philosophy recurring through history and shows how each philosoper (including Ayn Rand) relates to those issues. Once you have that background, it will be clear what basic issues you will want to relate your subsequent reading to, in addition to whatever specific purposes you have.

I was listening to the DIM lectures and Dr Peikoff mentioned that at the VanDamme Academy, students might be asked to integrate an idea from one work of literature to a (seemingly) different one. For example, the teacher might ask, "How would the character in Book X respond to the situation in Book Y?

You should listen to the Van Damme Academy recordings where some of this is discussed with examples.

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I am surprised that no one has mentioned Adler's excellent book How to Read a Book.

One conclusion you will draw from this is that if you tried to follow all the good advice you wouldn't have time to read very many books. So one principle right at the beginning is to tailor the methods to the book and your purpose for reading it in comparison with what else you should be doing with your time. That also applies to serious works like philosophy books.

I second the recommendation of Adler's book. I am still internalizing the principles he outlines in his book, and disagree with him on a few of the philosophical issues he touches on in his book, but he is a man who knows how to read. He has a systematic, principle-driven approach to reading that puts the primary stress, not on retention of isolated bits of information from a book(s), but on the integration of those bits with one another and into the whole of one's knowledge. It truly is an excellent practical guide to becoming an expert reader.

He begins by outlining the principles of effective reading, then illustrates how the principles are to be applied to reading different subjects and genres, and then finishes by giving a systematic method of reading from many sources at one time and integrating the material effectively.

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