Reading Philosophical Essays

Though I am particularly interested in philosophical essays about moral issues, what I say is of more general application to other areas of philosophy and may even be applicable to fields outside of philosophy. Philosophical essays are of many different kinds. But in a philosophy class, or when reading philosophy on one’s own, we often read argumentative essays, that is, essays in which people take positions on controversial issues and give arguments for their positions and against other positions. Students often have trouble knowing what they are supposed to take away from these essays. Many say they read every word, but cannot say much about what they read. If this happens to you, you have wasted your time. If it happens to you over and over, it is time to rethink how you approach these essays.

Reading any philosophical essay involves 'figuring out' what an author has in mind. This is often a multi-stage process. You begin understanding an author at a very general level and then gain a more detailed understanding. I distinguish a basic understanding, which may be no more than a rough impression, from a fuller understanding. You should try to get your understanding to the point where you can actually explain a work in some detail to someone who has not read it. If you cannot explain the work to someone else reasonably well, you do not really understand it.

When you read argumentative essays, you are not only trying to figure out a particular author. You are also trying to figure out an entire controversy. Many authors will participate in this controversy. They will take different points of view and will often expressly criticize one another. One way to think about figuring out a controversy is in terms of lists. You should collect lists of various kinds. These lists are the background for your own thinking. I will mention below various kinds of lists you should be constructing.

After reading each essay dealing with a controversy, you should be able to answer each of the following questions and deal with each of the following issues. Taking notes helps you organize your thinking and helps you remember your answers. I recommend that you take notes. I will give advice on note taking in a future handout.

1. Figure out exactly which issue the author is talking about and whether the author is focusing in on some aspect of a larger issue. For example, if the author is talking about pornography, she might really be focused on part of the issue, say, something having to do with the first amendment.

2. What position does the author take on the issue? Be as specific as possible. Suppose the issue is human cloning. Generalities like “She is for cloning” are not as useful as “She is for cloning under such and such conditions.” Don’t paint finely nuanced positions with a broad a brush. Be careful to look for new positions, or new variations on old positions. You should be collecting lists of possible positions on your topic.

3. Figure out the author’s primary opponents. This may be a group of unnamed folk or a very specific person. One of the best ways to understand an author is in terms of who she disagrees with, and how much she disagrees with them. To add to the complexity, disagreements can be at a very fundamental level, or on relatively minor matters.

4. What arguments (reasons, justifications, etc.) does the author give for his position and against the positions of others? Be as detailed as possible. It is good if you get the basic idea behind an argument, but even better if you know all the details. One of the main reasons for reading is to collect large numbers of possible arguments for and against various positions to help you make up your own minds. After reading a number of authors you should have lists of possible arguments in your head.

5. Do the arguments a particular author gives embody any special methods or strategies of argument that might be of general applicability? If so, they might explicitly tell you what those methods are. Other times they are not explicit. For example, is this person arguing on religious grounds of some sort? Does she use intuitionistic methods or rule utilitarian methods or analogical methods? She might employ some new methods you have not yet seen. Can you figure out what it is? Again, one reason to read authors is to collect lists of possible methodologies.

6. Does the author rely on a general normative framework such as utilitarianism, Rawlsianism, Kantianism or libertarianism? Is it some new framework you have not heard of before? Does she use this framework well or poorly? Does she try to proceed without any general framework? Again, think in terms of constructing lists of possible general normative frameworks.

7. Even if there is not a completely general normative framework in the essay, the author might be using some particular moral principles, e.g., a principle of beneficence or some sort of liberty principle. There might even be principles you have not heard of before. What are they? Lists, lists, lists!

8. Does the author analyze a problem using any particular distinctions? If so, are they new ones or ones that you have already seen? For example, does her position turn on a distinction between killing and letting die, or between directly and indirectly killing, or between extraordinary and ordinary means to preserve life? Are the distinctions being used in new and different ways? Philosophers love to draw distinctions. Sometimes they are silly, but often they are meant to get at important things. (Need I mention lists again? Maybe I better since you might have spaced the matter out since the last paragraph: construct lists of possibly important distinctions.)

9. Does this author introduce any special terms. For example, you might find terms like 'prima facie duty', 'a priori truth', 'maximize', or 'minimax'. What do the terms mean, and are they useful in thinking about moral matters, or for that matter, anything else? (By now I am sure you remember the word 'list' so I won’t mention it again.)

10. View each author as being in dialogue with your other authors even if they do not actually mention each other by name. Can you set them up as a dialogue, with points, counterpoints and counter-counterpoints? Construct a chart, perhaps a kind of flow chart. Philosopher John believes believes X for reason Y. Philosopher Jane thinks X is false for reason Z. Philosopher John responds to Philosopher Jane in this fashion. And so on.

11. Finally, besides understanding our authors, you need to put yourself in dialogue with them. How plausible are their positions and arguments? Further, you should begin using authors, both ones you agree with and disagree with, to develop your own views.

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