Guidelines for Reading

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

One of the skills you’ll practice in this course is reading. Of course you’re all literate, but there are many kinds of texts and many ways to read. Reading academic, technical, or professional writing is different from reading fiction or reading the news, and it requires some different strategies.

Students often find philosophical and scientific texts challenging, and it’s normal to feel frustrated at first. The texts might be dense or highly technical, or they might make frequent references to unfamiliar works or concepts, and it may not be obvious which bits are most important. Don’t confuse your frustration with failure. The truth is that reading well is hard; reading for rich understanding and for critical thinking are difficult but valuable skills and they require a lot of practice.

Since you’re Honors students, I expect you to help each other. Use the discussion boards on TCU Online to share summaries, vocabulary, and background knowledge. You’ll develop strategies for approaching unfamiliar topics, 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.

To start you off, I’m sharing some expert advice on reading. I won’t hound you to 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, in other courses, and throughout your lives. First I provide some general advice, then a method for reading philosophy and theory.General advice: reading actively

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 (if you’re taking good notes you’ll be able to 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 or question what it says, and it will not prepare you for class. Reading passively is not a half-measure; it’s a poor use of your limited time. So don’t tire yourself out reading carelessly. Instead, train yourself to stop reading, take a break, then return refreshed.

When you are reading actively, I urge you to deface your texts (unless they’re library books; then find a work-around). Leave your mark on whatever you read, however you read it, but not with a highlighter (see why below). By all means underline and circle passages, but also write in your books and your course packets. Write on articles you print out. Draw pictures and diagrams if that helps you. Make outlines in a notebook. 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, make notes for yourself.

There are two (and a half) reasons to deface your texts. The first is comprehension. Making notes tests your comprehension. If you take notes consistently, you will force yourself to figure out what’s most important, articulate it yourself, and paraphrase it in your own words (a highlighter doesn’t do that; a highlighter only says “this is important,” but not why). 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. This will be helpful later when you’re writing papers, or trying to find relevant sections. 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 container for the wisdom of others; you can understand, question, and criticize the experts! 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 three 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. Most 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 existing objections 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 someone else’s.

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). Students sometimes feel that philosophy is wordy and repetitive, or that philosophers use fancy words in order to sound smart and intimidating. These things happen sometimes, but mostly philosophers choose their words with great care. Similar sentences may be slightly different, wordy-seeming phrases may be more precise than plainer phrases. Philosophers occasionally make mistakes, of course, and express themselves incorrectly. But mistakes like that are rare.

Reading philosophy: reading for arguments

Given that philosophical writing is dialogical, precise, and argumentative, there is a three-stage process for reading philosophy effectively. You might not follow this procedure exactly—you will have to find out what works for you, especially with respect to note-taking—but this method is recommended by experts on teaching philosophy, and it is followed by most professional philosophers.

Pre-reading. If you simply dive straight in and read a philosophical text from beginning to end, you are likely to become confused or misled. Instead, first briefly inspect 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? What you know about the author, her views or her perspective? Are you reading a book chapter? If so the chapter part of a collection of essays by multiple authors, or part of a monograph (a collection of related essays by one author)? Are you reading a stand-alone 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 the juiciest insights into the author’s thinking!) Also, skim the first and last paragraph to see if you can easily identify a statement of the author’s main topic or her main conclusion.

While pre-reading, assess how you are doing by answering these questions:

  • What should I expect to find in the text in light of the title?

  • What should I expect to find in the text in light of the title?

  • What is the topic of the article? What is the author’s main conclusion?

  • Are these section headings? If so, what can I learn about the text from them?

  • Is there a references section? If so, what can I learn about the text from them?

  • Are there footnotes or endnotes? If so, are they just citations or should I read them as I read the text?

After your initial information-gathering, do a fast-read. This should only take a few minutes. Read the article quickly from beginning to end in order to get a basic understanding of the text. You should make notes in the margins or a notebook about the structure of the text, but don’t get bogged down. You can skim long examples or block quotations. By the time you’re done, your notes should reflect answers to the following questions:

  • Where does the author state her main conclusion? (This might not be until the end, and in some texts it might never be fully explicit. But after a fast-read you should have some good guesses.)

  • Are there unfamiliar words in this text? What are they? Look them up if necessary (try the Merriam-Webster Dictionary or the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). If looking up words helps, share the information on TCU Online. If not, ask about it on TCU Online, or in class. Often, dictionaries won’t be helpful for technical language.

  • What is the structure of the discussion? I.e., which parts of the text are assumptions, or conclusions, or arguments, or objections, or examples. See “Helpful notations” below.

When you are done you will have a map of the text. 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 may be slower than you’re used to. 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 or objections 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 “WTF!!” in the margin—if you’re like me you’ll forget later why you wrote that). Keep your questions in mind to see if the author addresses them later.

It’s also a good idea to take marginal notes (I always do). Don’t just write down phrases that name the topic of a passage; 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.

It is also good practice to summarize the main points of the reading in your own words when you’re done. One of my former teachers keeps a journal where he makes notes on every professional publication he reads, with a summary of the piece and his critical response. 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.

As you consider the author’s arguments, you should be critical. Is every argument 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.

Assess how you’re doing by answering the following questions:

  • Do I know exactly what the author is saying? Have I re-re-read passages that were confusing at first?

  • Can I explain in my own words why the author concludes what she concludes? (In the fast-read you get the general idea; in the close reading you should come to understand every step in detail.) It might be helpful to write this summary down for yourself, so that you can remind yourself of the author’s argument without re-reading the whole text.

  • Do I understand why every section was included in this text? If a long passage seems irrelevant or redundant, you might have misunderstood why the author included it.

This may seem like a lot to think about at once, but it will become more natural to you with practice.

Critical review. So you know what the author thinks; now it is time to determine what you think. Do you agree with the author? If so, do you think the author’s arguments were good enough or could they be improved? If you don’t agree, where do you think the author went wrong in her reasoning? Do you still have questions about the text? If so, go back to confusing passages (you should have marked them) and re-re-read them. As you think about the text, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is every conclusion in the text well-defended with argument?

  • If a conclusion is undefended, can I think of an argument for it? (This is part of reading charitably.)

  • Are you persuaded by the arguments? Why or why not?

  • Can I think of counterexamples to any assertion the author made?

  • If the author’s view bothers me, can I articulate why? Can I explain where and why I think the author made a mistake?

  • Can I think of a way the author might respond to my criticism?

  • What beliefs of mine can’t be true if the author is right?

  • If I think the author is right, how will I change my beliefs or behavior from now on?

  • If I don’t think the author is right, what did she get wrong so that I can go on believing/behaving as I have?

  • Am I uncertain about how to resolve a disagreement between myself and the author? If so, what would it take to make me more certain? How might I go about trying to resolve the disagreement in the future?

Reading this way is hard, and probably more demanding than much of the reading you’ve done before. But the skills you develop reading this way aren’t only useful for reading philosophy—they help you to understand texts well and to think critically about what you read. These skills help you to read texts in other disciplines, editorials and opinion pieces, and other challenging texts (for your work or your hobbies, and for the rest of your life). And it helps to talk about what you read with others. So talk to your classmates or to me outside of class, and come to class ready with your questions, objections, and reflections.

Reading philosophy: summary

Philosophical writing is dialogical, precise, and argumentative (do you remember 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?

    • How should you change your beliefs or behavior in light of your assessment of the arguments?

  • 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

Other advice

I collect advice for reading (and other student resources) here. 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.