How to Read Philosophy


Some people undoubtedly found reading Hume’s essay on suicide a little difficult to absorb on a first reading. Given the complexity of his argument and his slightly old-fashioned way of expressing himself, this should not come as much of a suprise. However, it is important to bear in mind that good philosophical writing aspires to be clear in expression and argument. Although some of the texts we’ll be reading on the course are rather opaque on first reading, they can certainly be understood with a bit of patience (and perhaps a dictionary). Here are some tips:

  • Read the text once through and note the general aims and conclusions. On this reading, you can highlight difficult or obscure words or passages. They may make more sense once you have a grip of the piece as a whole.
  • Raise problematic passages or phrases in the seminars or on this website. Sometimes you really can’t see the wood for the trees and you need someone else’s input.
  • Try to rephrase the argument in your own terms, or as a series of propositions with a conclusion. Try to see whether the conclusion can be said to logically flow from the premises.
  • Identify the ideas that you disagree with and the ones that you agree with. Could you put forward a stronger position?
  • Have a good philosophical dictionary close at hand!

You might find the following guides to reading philosophy useful: 

Needless to say, if you haven’t done the required reading you haven’t properly prepared for the class.  This means you will not get the most out of the seminars, and are likely to find it harder to understand the material . The reading you are expected to do for each class is detailed in the course outline.  It is a minimum requirement for each class, and is not optional.

You may be developing your own way of working at the moment.  Feel free to post any thoughts about the challenges of reading philosophy, and suggest ways that you have found helpful in overcoming the challenge of reading difficult texts.


One Response to “How to Read Philosophy”

  1. Enjoyed reading your post. I must confess that only later in life did I truly come to understand how to read a philosophical text myself! I learned by looking at Aristotle and seeing how he set different puzzles for students to think through so that Aristotle would not give the answer, but would rather allow the student to reach for some type of answer herself.

    You might be interested in this post of mine:

    Once again, great post!


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