Guidelines for Reading

Adapted from many sources, but especially David W. Concepción.

One of the skills you’ll practice in this course is reading. Now, I know you are all capable of interpreting written or typed symbols (or else this guide would be ironically useless). However, reading for proper understanding and for critical thinking are more advanced skills that require a lot of practice. Reading academic, technical, or professional writing is very different from reading for pleasure or reading the news, and it requires some different strategies. The texts might be dense or highly technical, or they might make frequent references to unfamiliar works or concepts. You may not understand everything, and it may not be obvious which bits are most important. Since you’re Honors students, I think it’s better to throw you in the deep end together where you can help each other stay afloat and eventually swim. You’ll learn how to approach unfamiliar topics effectively, and I will always be happy to talk you through things if you’re struggling. And if you make a consistent effort, I promise you will get better at it during the semester.

Most of you will have some difficulty with the reading at first. Admittedly, sometimes that will be partly because the writing is unclear. But in part it will be because reading well is hard. It is normal to become frustrated when first learning to read philosophy. That’s okay—it’s not because you’re bad at it; it’s because you’re learning a difficult and valuable skill. So to help you out, I am giving you some advice. You needn't follow it exactly; you should experiment to find which methods work best for you. But if you take it seriously it should help you in this course, and in other courses, and throughout your lives.

General advice: reading actively

First of all, take care of yourself while you read. Get comfortable (but not so comfortable you doze off). Take breaks if you’re reading for a long time; it is important to remain attentive (the tips below will help you find your place again). Most importantly, read actively. Do not simply pass your eyes over every word of the text! That will not help you to understand what the text says, and it will not prepare you for class. Reading passively is not a half-measure; it’s a waste of your time. So don’t do it. Instead, train yourself to stop reading, take a break, then return refreshed.

Another bit of advice I must emphasize: deface your texts (unless they’re library books; then find a work-around). Find a way to leave your mark on whatever you read, however you read it, and not with a highlighter. Write in your books. Write on articles you print out. Draw pictures and diagrams if that helps you. Make your own notes. If you read on a screen, don’t use Preview or your web browser; download PDFs and fill them with comments (You can do this in Adobe Reader, Adobe Acrobat, and Foxit Reader, even on a tablet). If you are watching a video or listening to something, take notes.

There are two (and a half) reasons to deface your texts. First, comprehension. By making notes you are testing your comprehension. If you hold yourself to the test by taking notes consistently, you will force yourself to figure out what’s most important, articulate it yourself, and paraphrase it in your own words. The second reason to deface your texts is recall. Marking up your texts makes them your own, transforming them into tools that you can review efficiently later on. If you make effective notes, you will be able to see the organization of the paper, recall its most important points, and see what you were thinking when you read it before, all at a glance. As you eventually settle on your own method for taking notes, make sure that it is a method that helps you comprehend and recall. Finally, making notes puts you on the page alongside the author. You are not a passive receptacle for the wisdom of others; you are an interlocutor who can understand, question, and criticize the greatest minds in history! So take your place on the page along with them.

Quirks of philosophical writing (things to watch out for)

Philosophical writing is different from many other kinds of writing (as other kinds of writing are different from each other). Below I describe some of its more salient quirks, before describing the best strategy for reading it.

Philosophical writing is argumentative. In other contexts you may read for information, or for plot, or for aesthetic experience. When reading philosophy, you should read for arguments. You should be able to identify the author’s conclusions, and the reasons she gives you to believe her conclusions.

Philosophical writing is dialogical. Almost any bit of argumentative writing is a contribution to a conversation already in progress, so you have to catch up on what’s already been said. Some texts help you with this by reviewing relevant bits of the conversation so far; some don’t. But you have to catch up anyway or you will be confused. In addition, philosophers tend to consider other points of view in the course of a text. Authors will describe objections to their own views, and alternative ways of thinking. Sometimes the objections others have already made aren’t as strong as they could be, so authors will try to improve on the objections so that they can test their own ideas against the strongest possible rivals. It’s as if the author is having a conversation by herself, playing both sides in a dialogue. Try not to confuse what the author writes in her own voice with what she writes in the voice of others, real or imagined. If you think an author has contradicted herself, go back and make sure you understood whether she was expressing her own view or those of others.

Philosophical writing is precise. Language is a precision instrument; each word, grammatical construction, and punctuation mark serves a function. Philosophers often push the limits of language, so this precision is especially important for them. Philosophers don’t write so that their words wash over you, leaving you with the general impression of their meaning (unlike, perhaps, some poets); they craft sentences to say precisely what they mean, even after dogged scrutiny and questioning. Sometimes, the correct linguistic tool is not available in ordinary language, so philosophers must invent their own terminology (or borrow special terminology from others). Many students feel that philosophy is excessively wordy and repetitive, or that philosophers use fancy words in order to sound smart and intimidating. These things happen sometimes, but more often philosophers have chosen their words with exceptional care. Philosophers occasionally make mistakes, of course, and express themselves incorrectly. But mistakes like that are rare; philosophers are professional writers who perform at a high level.

Reading philosophy: reading for arguments

Given that philosophical writing is dialogical, precise, and built around arguments, there is a three-stage process that you should follow when you read philosophy. You might not follow this procedure precisely—you will have to find out what works for you, especially with respect to note-taking—but in essentials this is the best method. It is recommended by experts on teaching philosophy, and it is followed by professional philosophers.

Pre-reading. If you dive straight in and simply read a philosophical text from beginning to end, you are liable to become confused or misled. Instead, first examine the text like a detective. What is the title? If there are section headings, what are they? What can you guess about the author’s conclusion and argument based on these features? If you’re knowledgeable about the topic, ask yourself what you know about the author, her views or perspective. Are you reading a book chapter? If so is the book a monograph,  a collection of essays by one author, or is it a collection of essays by multiple authors? Are you reading an article in an academic journal? Which journal? Is it for a specialist or general audience? Are there footnotes or endnotes? If so, are they just references or are they substantive? (If they are references you can mostly ignore them. If they are substantive, you might want to read them during the close reading or afterward—footnotes often reveal juicy insights into the author’s thinking!)

After your initial information-gathering, do a fast-read. This should only take a few minutes. Read the article very quickly from beginning to end, without worrying about understanding the details. Don’t stop or get bogged down. You can skim long examples or block quotations. Ideally, you should be able to identify the author’s main conclusion, the sequence of her discussion, the general structure of her argument, and some of the important terminology (technical or ordinary-language). Sometimes an author won’t state her main conclusion clearly anywhere in the article, and you will have to interpret it. As you fast-read you should make some light notations about the structure of the discussion (Is this a conclusion? Is this an assumption? Is this an example? Is this an argument?). You might also make note of unfamiliar words so you can look them up before your close reading. When you are done you will have a map of the text in your head. It’s not a very detailed map, and it has blank spaces in it (Here be monsters?), but it should be enough to help you navigate the text without getting lost or turned around.

Close reading. Now you’re ready to read the text carefully. It will be slow going. I’ve heard that philosophers read more slowly than academics in any other field. Not because we’re bad at reading, but because reading philosophy involves doing philosophy. As you read you should ask yourself: What is the main conclusion? What are the main arguments? What are the assumptions? Can I think of counterexamples to any of the author’s claims? When you’re finished, you should be able to answer these questions.

As you read, correct and add to the notations you made earlier. This time, also note passages you find confusing (e.g. by writing “???” in the margin), and note your questions and objections as they occur to you. Don’t wait until you’re done or you might forget them (Don’t just write “bullshit!!”—if you’re like me you’ll often forget why you wrote that). Keep them in mind to see if the author addresses your questions later.

It’s also a good idea to take marginal notes (I always do). Don’t just write down phrases that name the topic; try to write down sentences or sentence fragments that express the author’s views or arguments. Do this for every paragraph, or just the more important ones, or whatever works for you. You should be able to redescribe important passages (e.g. definitions, argumentation, objections, replies, counter-objections, counter-replies) in your own words. You don't have to write everything in your notes, but it is good practice and might be more important for especially challenging texts.

As you consider the author’s arguments, you should question them. Is the author convincing? If not, why not? If yes, are the author’s reasons really good enough? Does the author make inappropriate or false assumptions? Does the author acknowledge all of her assumptions or are some of them hidden? Are the hidden assumptions good ones? But also, be charitable. Philosophers are careful; the author probably hasn’t made a careless or stupid mistake, or defended a ludicrous claim without some compelling reasons. If you think the author’s arguments are obviously wrong, you may have misinterpreted her. Try to understand why the author found her own argument compelling.

It’s okay if you don’t have a lot of background knowledge about philosophy (even if you do, some of the philosophy readings will challenge you, and the non-philosophy readings will challenge you). You should make notes of words and expressions you don’t understand, and look them up or ask me in class. Oftentimes dictionaries won’t help you understand technical language, so always feel free to ask me in class.

Critical review. Now collect your thoughts. Do you still have questions about the text? If so, go back to confusing passages (you should have marked them) and reread them. One of my old teachers keeps a journal where he makes notes on every professional publication he reads, with a summary of the piece and his critical notes. You don’t have to do that. But it can be helpful—when I was in college I did that for some of my Honors courses, and I still find those notes helpful sometimes.

Philosophical writing is challenging, and simply looking over the words is not enough to understand it well. Even following the method above is not always enough to understand it well. So talk to your classmates (or to me) about what you read, how to interpret it, what its consequences would be if it were correct. By the time you come to class, you should be able to state the author’s conclusion and the gist of the author’s argument. You should be able to offer some tentative criticisms of the author’s discussion. And you should have a number of questions you can fruitfully discuss with others who have read the same text.

Reading philosophy: summary

Philosophical writing is dialogical, precise, and argumentative (do you know what I mean by these words?). The following method is recommended for reading it:


  • Inspect the text to gather information about it.
  • Fast-read from beginning to end. As you read, make notations to identify:
  • Conclusions.
  • Assumptions.
  • Important bits of the argumentation.
  • Examples.
  • Alternative viewpoints the author considers.
  • Objections the author considers.
  • The author’s replies to objections.
  • When you’re done you should have a shrewd notion of how to:
  • State the author’s conclusion with some confidence.
  • Describe the author’s argument in outline.
  • Recognize the sequence of main topics.
  • Identify key terms (technical or otherwise).

Close reading

  • Read the article slowly and carefully, correcting and adding to your notations. This time, also note:
  • Confusing passages.
  • Your questions.
  • Your objections.

Critical review

  • Now think carefully about the author’s discussion.
  • Do you understand the author’s arguments?
  • Are there any passages you still don’t understand?
  • Did you ask any questions the author didn’t answer?
  • Did you have any objections the author didn’t address?
  • If there are parts of the discussion you don’t understand, reread them. You might not be able to make sense of it without help (from me or your classmates), but give it a good effort on your own first.
  • When you are finished you should be able to:
  • State the author’s conclusion confidently.
  • Describe the author’s argument.
  • Articulate tentative criticisms of the author’s reasoning.
  • You should also be ready with a number of questions about:
  • How the author uses special terminology.
  • How the author’s claims apply to specific examples.

Key phrases

Sometimes authors use phrases that mark the structure of their argument or discussion (but not always). Some students appreciate having a list of kinds of phrases to watch for.

  • Focal statements
  • I will discuss…
  • My main concern is…
  • Thesis statements
  • In this paper I argue that…
  • I will show that…
  • I hope to conclude…
  • Premises, reasons, or assertions
  • Because, Since, For, Whereas
  • Given that…
  • As shown by…
  • Secondly, it follows that…
  • Conclusions
  • In summary, Thus, Therefore, So, Hence, Accordingly, Consequently
  • As a result…
  • We may infer that…, Which entails that…
  • Objections or criticisms
  • However…
  • It could be objected that…
  • Opponents of my view might claim…
  • Critics might say…
  • There is reason to doubt…
  • Replies or rejoinders
  • Nevertheless…
  • This criticism fails because…
  • My opponent does not notice that…
  • We should remember that…

Helpful notations

The following notations are suggestions on how to mark up your texts (I use only some of these, myself). Try them out until you learn what works for you.

  • Structure of discussion and argument
  • Focal:               General topic this text will discuss (then describe the topic)
  • Thesis              Main conclusion of the text (then rephrase clearly, if necessary)
  • Dfn                   Definition (of what?)
  • Dst                    Distinction (between what?)
  • e.g.                    Example
  • Asn                   Assertion of fact or an important claim for which the author will argue
  • Discuss            Discussion or explanation of a view, assertion, or problem
  • Rsn                   Reason supporting an assertion or conclusion
  • Arg                   An argument (combination of assertion and a reason)
  • Obj                   Objection to an argument or reason
  • Reply                Reply to an objection
  • Rejoin              Rejoinder or response to a reply
  • Con                  Conclusion of an argument
  • Sum                  Summary
  • Spost                Signposting; description in the text of the structure of the text
  • Self-monitoring
  • ???                     Not sure what the author is saying/doing here
  • =x?                    This means what, exactly?
  • Good                I like/agree with this
  • Reader evaluation
  • Why?               Why should someone agree with this?
  • [Underline]     This is important
  • ▶                      The note to follow is my own response, not what the author says

Reading scientific papers: reading for evidence

Scientific papers are unlike research papers in many non-science disciplines. We will not generally be focusing on the nitty-gritty details of science papers the way we will with other readings, but the following guidelines should help you to understand the basics with little wasted effort.

Secondary sources. Before reading, you should examine the paper for clues as you would in a “pre-read” (see above). If the paper is an original report on a scientific study, follow the guidelines below. If it is another kind of paper—a literature review, a meta-analysis, or any other kind of secondary source—then follow the guidelines for reading philosophy papers as well as you can, paying attention not only to the main conclusions but to the arguments for those conclusions. In secondary scientific sources, the evidence will usually be the results of many individual studies.

Primary research articles. Most reports of original research have an “IMRD” structure (Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion). If the paper reports several related experiments, then there may be “Methods,” “Results,” and sometimes “Discussion” sections for each experiment. The most fruitful way to read an original research study is not to read it from beginning to end. Rather, you should approach the paper strategically, working your way roughly from the outside-in. There are many ways to do this depending on your aims and level of background knowledge; the following are some of my suggestions for this course, based on my experience with psychology papers. Note that not all scientific papers use the same section headings; if you’re unsure how to find your way around a particular paper, ask a friend or write to me.

Guiding questions. You should approach a primary research article with a number of questions. When you can answer the questions, you may stop investigating. Reading every word is not necessary or sufficient for understanding the article. Some of these questions will not be answered directly in the article itself; you will have examine the article and determine yourself how best to answer the questions.

  • Motivation
  • What is the general topic addressed by the researchers?
  • Why do the researchers think the topic is interesting? (Do you think they’re right?)
  • What other research has already been done on this topic?
  • What questions are left unanswered by previous research?
  • Conclusions
  • What is the specific hypothesis or question addressed by the researchers?
  • What are the researchers’ main conclusions?
  • If more than one experiment is reported, what conclusion do the researchers draw from each experiment?
  • Evidence
  • What evidence comes from past studies, rather than original experiments?
  • What is the general design of each original experiment—what factors do the researchers manipulate, and what do they discover when they do?
  • How do the researchers measure their outcomes? Are their measures appropriate for their conclusions? What do the measures fail to capture?
  • How do the researchers interpret their results? Do you agree? Can you think of any other way to interpret the results?
  • Open questions
  • What questions remain unanswered by the research?
  • What questions do you have about the study?

A strategy for reading. Begin by skimming the title and abstract (they are always at the beginning), then reading them slowly and carefully. These should underline the main conclusions of the paper and what the researchers take to be the most important evidence they present. If you do not have a lot of background knowledge, you may not understand the title and abstract yet. That’s fine. Make notes of which words, expressions, and considerations you do not understand. Some words might be explained in the paper; some you may need to look up in a dictionary or online.

Next skim the introduction, then read it slowly and carefully, looking up words you don’t understand. The introduction may not be labeled, and may have several sections and subsections, but it will generally appear at the beginning of the paper after the abstract. The introduction should describe much of the relevant background information you’ll need to understand the paper, and by the end of your careful reading you should be able to answer the guiding questions about motivation (and perhaps some others, depending on the paper). As with philosophy papers, online dictionaries may not be helpful; if you remain confused about some things, write your questions down and bring them to class and so I can help you.

Next look at the conclusion or final discussion section near the end. This part of the paper should help you answer guiding questions about conclusions and open questions. Now is also a good time to examine the figures and tables in the paper, and pay attention to headings and labels. As you examine the paper now, pay attention to which results are described as “significant” and which comparisons, if any, are not significant. You cannot draw strong conclusions from differences that are not significant because they may be due to chance.

Now you may examine the guts of the paper: the sections on methods, results, and if any the discussion sections for individual experiments. It is likely that you won’t understand everything in these sections without background knowledge on experimental methods (particular research paradigms, statistical analysis, &c.). That’s fine for this course. You should, however, be able to answer the guiding questions on evidence, and you may add to your list of unanswered questions. If you had difficulty understanding the conclusion or final discussion section, look at it again now.

Finally, read the abstract again and revisit the figures and tables. If you found them confusing at first, you should be able to understand them well enough now. If you can answer the guiding questions, you’ve understood the paper enough to be well-prepared for class.

Other advice

I collect advice for reading here (along with other student resources). (Some of the advice I offered above I found there.) If these tips don’t work for you, or you prefer to read someone else’s take, check out the links on that page.