Philosophy 32 - 2.5.2 Engaging with Philosophical Texts

The purpose of philosophical writing is to engage the reader in a sequence of thoughts that either present a problem to be considered, prompt reflection on previous ideas and works, or lead to some insight or enlightenment. Philosophy consists of ideas and arguments. Your goal is to engage with those ideas and arguments to arrive at your own understanding of the issues. You may critically engage with the author, or you may have your perspective changed by reading the author. In either case, your goal ought to be to reach a new understanding. This is somewhat different from writing in most other disciplines, in which the purpose may be to convey information, evoke emotions, tell a story, or produce aesthetic enjoyment. While engaging with philosophical ideas can be pleasurable and may involve understanding some basic information, the primary purpose of the writing is to engage thought and reflection. This means that you should read the work as fast or slow as you need to engage thoughtfully with it. The speed of reading will depend on how quickly you grasp the ideas and arguments presented or how familiar you are with the claims being made. It is not as important to read sequentially for plot or narrative; much more important is to follow the sequence of ideas and arguments. Consequently, it may make sense to cross-reference passages, jumping from one section to another to compare claims, and link ideas that appear in different places in the text.

Philosophical Methods at Work

Look for philosophical methods at work in your readings. Recall that philosophers use a variety of methods to arrive at truth, including conceptual analysis, logic, and the consideration of trade-offs. Philosophers may also draw on a variety of sources of evidence, including history, intuition, common sense, or empirical results from other disciplines or from experimental philosophy. In any case, most philosophical works will be attempting to develop a position through argumentation. Sources of evidence will be used to bolster premises for the purpose of reaching a desired conclusion. Additionally, the author may use a variety of methods to make an argument. If you can identify these methods, strategies, and sources of evidence, you will be able to better evaluate the text.

The Principle of Charity

The principle of charity is an interpretative principle that advises the reader to interpret the author’s statements in the most rational and best way possible. Sometimes a philosopher’s argument may be unclear or ambiguous. For example, philosophers from older historical periods may use terminology and expressions that are difficult for a modern reader to understand. In these cases, the reader should start from the assumption that the author is putting forward a rational, thoughtful view. The reader’s goal should be to understand that view in the best light possible. This does not mean that you should ignore difficulties or avoid criticizing the author. Rather, when you encounter difficulties, look for an interpretation that makes the most sense of what the author is saying. All the primary- and secondary-source authors you will read are smart, thoughtful people. Therefore, assume the author has a response to simple or obvious objections, and look for that response. Try to understand the work on its own terms, and then critically engage with the best version of that work.

Working with the Dialectic

The dialectical process that is common to many philosophical writings is initially confusing for many students. Dialectic, a method for discovering truth through dialogue, involves an exchange of ideas with the goal of arriving at a position that more accurately reflects the truth. In practical terms, philosophers will frequently move back and forth between the view they are advancing and competing views that they may or may not support. These alternative views may provide criticisms, or they may represent views that are common in philosophy. The author’s goal is to present alternative perspectives—in addition to their own—to demonstrate the range of perspectives on the problem. If one view emerges through this dialectical process, there is a greater chance that it has some share of the truth since it has survived the criticisms and contrary opinions of others.

When reading a philosophical work that uses a dialectical method, pay attention to tracking different strands of argument. Do not assume that every argument or claim in what you are reading is the considered opinion of the author. Rather, various claims may represent contrasting views that will eventually be rejected. Track the back-and-forth between views to grasp the thread of argument that the author endorses.

A person sits under the tree reading a book. An autumn leaf has fallen onto one page of the book.
Figure 2.10 Find a comfortable place to do your philosophy readings. (credit: "Woman sitting in the forest and reading a book, autumn rest" by Marco Verch/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax