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Rob van Gerwen

April 19, 2018

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How to read a philosophical text

Philosophy may appear sluggish to some. It may seem impossible to understand the second sentence before fathoming the first. There is truth in this assessment. A peculiar sluggishness may be part of philosophical methodology. Yet, a good philosophical text will provide the despairing reader with the means to speed up his understanding. It will explicitly convey the structure of its argument. You should find an explication of the issue addressed on its first pages, and of the conclusion it reaches on its last.

Fortunately, too, in a good philosophical text each and every section, and, even, each of its paragraphs, tends to be set up like this.
In short, notwithstanding its apparent sluggish methodology, a philosophical text can best be tackled from the outside in. Get to the details after you know what the argument is about.

Philosophical Reading (of any text).

You can read any truth-telling text in this philosophical manner: read the first and last paragraphs, and ask yourself which philosophical issue is at stake in the text, which thesis is defended about it, and which strategy is used.
[Leave the empirical data that are possibly presented in the text for a different, empirical reading (which addresses the question whether the data are sufficiently legitimated). Don't embark on this empirical reading unless you think it will prove fruitful for your philosophical reading.]

When is Philosophy?

The form of the question "When is Philosophy?" is intended. Every philosopher claiming to know what philosophy is will be confronted with others denying it. One thing they may all agree upon is that philosophy is a kind of thinking, but that might not seem very instructive. Beyond that, disagreement may start quickly. For instance, about the relevance of empirical experiments. Proponents of a naturalized philosophy put high premium on empirical evidence, whereas others may think the empirical inconclusive for any truly philosophical matter. For lack of knowing what philosophy truly is, it is safer to treat philosophy as a practice and method of thinking, which includes the asking of certain questions.
For an argument to be philosophical it must refer to (or employ) an open question. Closed questions allow for closed determinate answers, philosophical, open questions, by definition, do not. For instance, to the closed question, "How many works of art are there in this room", a closed answer specifying the number, say "four" may ensue.
A philosopher, however, might ask the further question, "How could I tell - first I want to know what is a work of art and what isn't?" This is an open question asking for the theory with which to decide which objects or events are works and why. Yet, this question too might prove closed, in the event the questioner is satisfied with a closed answer (e.g. "Something is a work of art if it is xyz"). If he isn't he will ask the further question, "On what grounds do we take only xyz's to be works?"
Thus, philosophy is a practice (of asking open questions), and what is at stake in it are the conceptual frameworks with which we think about the issues and objects in question.

From this it follows readily why the methods of philosophy should appear so sluggishly, both for the reader and for the writer of philosophy. It is rather difficult to always be ready to take one step further back than your opponent and to unearth yet further assumptions, ones that perhaps you yourself were in the habit of sharing.

In all this, it is assumed that an author (any author) does his utmost best to render the arguments of others correctly, and favourably, i.e. in ways the others might think appropriate to their intentions.

If, and when, in practice, you have the idea of the other as putting forward rather stupid sounding arguments this is a sure sign of your misconstruing his or her arguments. Do not turn your opponent into a straw man.
Yet, merely reconstructing the other's thoughts, although this is good groundwork for philosophical argument, is little more than an aspect of your sluggish labour.

Why is X a philosophical issue?

When you are asked to explain why some issue is a philosophical issue, consider following this method:
Once you have identified the issue (which is a crucial step!), e.g. "What is art and why is it important?", sit back, forget about what the author you just read said about it, and think for yourself why (and when) this should be a philosophical issue, i.e. why (and when) it is an issue that brings to the fore the conceptual framework that is responsible for certain prevalent answers.

On the question "What makes this a philosophical issue?" I have received unsatisfactory answers like:

"Aesthetic properties form a philosophical issue because they are what one refers to when going through an aesthetic experience"
[I am sure that we refer to aesthetic properties when we explain our aesthetic judgement, assuming that our experiences have been about these properties, but this does not explain why there would be a philosophical issue here, does it?]

"No assumptions are made in the text"
[Philosophers, indeed, tend to be wary of making assumptions, but like everyone else they are bound to make some.
Philosophers, perhaps can be characterized as people who explicitize their assumptions, but this is not typical of philosophers. Every good enough scientist would start with making his or her assumptions explicit.]

"This task is surely philosophical in nature as there is no empirical proof that relates to this issue"
[People who talk nonsense tend not to look at empirical proof either. This answer's formulation might better be in such terms as these: empirical proof is not normally decisive for philosophical issues as it will itself be the object of philosophical analysis.]

Part of your trouble in finding an answer to this question is your answer to the question that directly precedes it: "What is the main issue the author addresses in this text?"
If you have trouble finding such an issue, and, what is more, understanding why it is an issue, you are bound to be flabbergasted about the question, Why is X a philosophical issue?

Another flawed approach

Students sometimes argue that X is a philosophical issue on account of its being related to certain philosophical disciplines. [E.g. the issue of the relationships between aesthetics and ethics.] Yet, this does not follow. The priority of ethics over aesthetics can easily be a non-philosophical issue, when it is related to career possibilities, for example.

What needs to be established is whether or not 'solutions' to a particular issue shed light upon the theoretical frameworks within which its relevant elements are conceived.

A great answer

One student once identified this as the major issue in a particular chapter: "Do the aesthetic and the ethical differ fundamentally?"
She then produced this instructive answer to the question, What makes this a philosophical issue?:

This issue is fundamental for the way we view the world and art. If we would adhere to separatist views and the aesthetic and the ethical would have no connection whatsoever, one would be able to switch between an aesthetic outlook and an ethical outlook on matters, but works of art for instance would not have any reference to the moral questions that are so important in our daily lives. This would mean that art would have no immediate significance to our daily lives. While if we would adhere to the view that the aesthetic and the ethical have a connection, art would have a reference to our daily lives and would be able to influence and receive influences from society. According to this the issue is thus of enormous importance in the process of defining art and aesthetics.

A method

Consider the following as a method to tackle the present question: once you have identified the issues, e.g. "What is art and why is it important?", sit back, forget about what the author said about it, and think for yourself why (and when) this should be a philosophical issue, i.e. one which brings to the fore the conceptual framework that is responsible for certain answers.


Dutch-reading students might also want to consult the Vaardighedenreader PDF published by the department Philosophy.

Papers (in philosophy)

General specifications

Before you start

Students are required to send in a proposal before starting work on their paper, and shall normally receive comments within five working days. A proposal consists of three elements.

  1. What is the issue at stake? (Formulate the issue in such a way as to make clear that it is a philosophical issue.)
  2. What is your thesis about this issue?
  3. What is your strategy to argue for this thesis? (What texts will you discuss and what will be the structure of your argument?)

Students are recommended to use extra literature specified under "Suggested further reading", but are not normally obliged to do so. Yet, they are normally required to stick with the literature on offer throughout the course (or its prerequisites), and should produce a convincing argument to divert from the teacher's suggestions.
Under no circumstances can a paper be exclusively based on literature that was not discussed or suggested by the teacher.

It is best to put your answers to these three requirements in writing and confer about your proposal with your teacher, who should be of assistance. After that, you should be ready to write your text. This procedure is meant to allow students to learn as much as possible during the writing process and its conception.
[Obviously, it is senseless to submit a proposal after finishing the relevant paper.]

Basic structure of a paper

It is often a good strategy to attribute a thesis to one author, and, arguing against 'him', to present the argument of another author. Yet, it is never sufficient to merely summarize the positions of a few authors (whether they are contemporaries or historical, classical authors), in a so-called comparison, and then, out of the blue, draw your conclusion.
Instead, the strategy must follow from the issue at hand: your argument leads you from the thesis attacked to the thesis defended as an alternative for it. Summaries of other authors' contributions must be connected argumentatively!
Think before you write!

  1. Make sure you have a clear grasp of the problem you want to address
    »  if your paper is in philosophy, make sure it is a philosophical issue;
    »  when not: explain the nature and the importance of the issue.
  2. Be clear and explicit about the thesis you want to defend, or the intuition you want to work out. Make sure it relates to the issue at hand. Ask yourself whether it would convince your virtual or real (but in all cases: serious) opponents. Think of their reasons not to agree with your view as objections to it, and address them.
  3. Be clear about your strategy: which positions do you want (or need!) to address? Whose are they and why are they important to the issue at hand?
    Your strategy relates to the first two points (1 and 2): it will clarify how your thesis relates to the issue and to other thinkers' solutions. It will also testify of the (philosophical) nature of your argument.

Further Particulars


Make sure the title of your paper reflects either the issue discussed or the thesis you defend about that issue. The same holds for the titles of the sections of your paper.
The introduction to your paper only serves the goal of introducing the reader to the issue, to your thesis about it and the strategy you follow to defend that thesis. Do not refer, either in your introduction or elsewhere, to the course that you are writing the paper for.


Do not quote authors at length. Rather, paraphrase long quotes in your own words.
Make sure, also, to refer to the exact location of the quote (or its paraphrase).

List of references

Add a full list of references at the end of the text. Follow this format:

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1964. “Ästhetik und Hermeneutik.” Algemeen Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Wijsbegeerte, vol. 56.

Gallie, W. B. 1954. “The Function of Philosophical Aesthetics.” In Aesthetics and Language, edited by W. Elton, 13-35. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Gaut, Berys. 1998. “The Ethical Criticism of Art.” In Aesthetics and Ethics, edited by Jerrold Levinson, 182-203. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

____________. 2003. “Creativity and imagination.” In The Creation of Art. New Essays in Philosophical Aesthetics, edited by Berys Gaut and Paisley Livingston, 148-73. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gaut, Berys, and Paisley Livingston. 2003. “The creation of art: Issues and perspectives.” In The Creation of Art. New Essays in Philosophical Aesthetics, edited by Berys Gaut and Paisley Livingston, 1-32. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.


Assemble your notes at the end of a sentence (place no footnote references in mid-sentence). References in your footnotes should not quote titles at length (including all bibliographical data), as long as it is perfectly clear which of the references from the list you are referring to. The full data are in the list at the end of the paper. In your notes, you specify the exact page where you found whatever you are referring to. Do not only state the title of a book.
Your first reference to a text might go like this:1
1. Carroll, Noell: "Weeny bit problems with Honorific Definitions", 1992, p. 123.
If you refer more often to a particular text, use2
2. idem, p. 123,
3. ibidem.
These terms are used when the work referred to was quoted in the previous note. When it was referred to earlier, refresh the reader's mind by using a short reference, such as4
4. Carroll, 1992, p. 123.

From draft to final paper

If you are allowed to submit a second (final) version of your paper, make sure to add 2-300 words explaining both which were the flaws in the first version and how you repair them in the second version.
As this explanation is additional to the paper, you can also submit it beforehand as a proposal--so as to allow your teacher to comment on it.