Dr. Scarbrough 

Some notes on reading philosophy

  1. I always read the article first very quickly (5-10 min) to get “the plot’ — figure out where the author starts and where she ends.
  2. I then go back and read the article carefully, adding my own “signposts” in the margins. These signposts help me follow the overall argumentative structure of the article. Some of my signposts include:
    • P1: Premise One (if I think the author is asserting a premise)
    • Obj: Objection 
    • Conclusion
    • Def: Definition
  3. I then go back and read the article a third time – this time for critical reflection. Where do I agree? Where do I disagree?

What if I am totally lost?

  • If the article had section titles, read those as they will be clues to what the author is talking about. 
    • If the article had section titles, read those as they will be clues to what the author is talking about. You might want to even write these section headings out on a piece of paper. For example, I’m currently reading Noell Carroll’s “Defining the Moving Image.” His section headings are as follows: 
      1. Background: The Problem of Medium-Essentialism
      2. Revisiting Photographic Realism
      3. The Moving Image
      4. Performance Tokens
      5. Two-Dimensionality
      6. Concluding Remarks

If I was lost reading the article, it might help to see these headings and piece together a “plot” from here. First I need to make sure I understand the terms listed in the section titles (i.e., medium-essentialism, photographic realism, performance tokens). Can I find definitions for these terms in the article (this is where your signposts come in handy)? 

  • My article doesn’t have section titles – help! Well, try to create section titles for the article! 
    • One way to do this is to read each paragraph and assign it a term or phrase. What is this paragraph about? Then you can group paragraphs together (e.g., these three paragraphs are all about photographic realism – so I will make a section heading called “Photographic Realism”). 

  • Re-read the introduction to the article and the conclusion. This should give you some big picture ideas as to what the author is trying to argue.

  • I do not recommend going to youtube and/or looking for help on the internet as a solution to being lost. While I might show some youtube videos in class, I have enough background knowledge to be able to sort out the bad from the good. When you are first learning a subject, you do not have the requisite background to do just that. Further, part of the goal of this (and all) philosophy course is to engage with difficult reading. Going to the internet and seeking out someone else’s’ notes on the reading does not, in fact, service this goal. 

If you must go to internet sources, the only sources I will stand by are the SEP (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) and the IEP (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

  • Ask a classmate what they think! Talk it through – use your classmates as resources!

  • Finally, why not come in to office hours and ask me? We can puzzle it through together!