How to Read Philosophy (And Other Difficult Books)
A comprehensive guide to tackling complex texts.
That’s how long I spent reading and decoding 15 pages of Henri Bergson's “Creative Evolution” — only to be told by my Seminar supervisor that everything I thought I knew was wrong.
Philosophy is a difficult practice. Continental Philosophy especially, is like reading a cryptic piece of poetry.
Philosophers put up barriers — they only want the most intelligent to engage with, and challenge their work. They fill them with complex and compound jargon that seems like nonsense to the everyday reader.
At times, it feels like Philosophy is impossible to understand.
But just because you or I can’t understand these on first attempt, doesn’t mean these texts should be forgotten. This style of reading just takes practice, and when accustomed to it; you will be able to understand them with ease.
Even if reading them is a hard slog, they contain important truths and insights into reality which, when properly internalised — could change your life for the better. You should bother with them.
If you’re struggling to break the barrier of jargon which is holding your understanding back; here are things you can do.
“The creative mind is the playful mind. Philosophy is the play and dance of ideas.“ — Eric Hoffer
1. Read Secondary Texts.
The entirety of Philosophy is like one continuous story. The Continental and Analytic branches, for the most part, involve Philosophers going back and forth — writing paper after paper in response to each other.
So when you read one text in isolation, you are in effect reading only part of a massive and wide Philosophical debate that spans across numerous different texts.
Reading a singular paper runs the risk of missing the bigger picture — because it relies on contextual knowledge of what has happened prior to it. That’s why you often see random pieces of jargon left undefined: because chances are, that jargon was defined somewhere in a previous paper.
Therefore, if you’re reading a complex Philosophical text that makes little sense — the best thing you can do is find a secondary text that sums up that book, along with all the contextual knowledge you might need to know.
Introductory books are invaluable here. They might seem overly simplistic to start with, but they give you enough knowledge of the background and jargon; so that when you eventually return to the primary text, you have a rough idea of what’s going on.
And that’s much more favourable and insightful than just diving into the deep end.
2. Develop a Philosophers Toolkit.
Analytic Philosophy is really rigid. Given enough knowledge, it has objective, easy to spot and somewhat mathematical truths.
It’s for these reasons that analytic work throws around terms like valid, sound, fallacious, modus ponens/tollens, reductio ad absurdum and the like.
In effect, these are well-known terms that are widely accepted — if you’re a Philosopher, you should know these terms like the back of your hand.
If you’re reading texts and don’t know what these terms mean, it’s about time you dedicated a few hours and familiarized yourself with them.
I would strongly recommend “The Philosophers Toolkit” by Baggini, or something similar — it might seem a bit dry, but it will introduce you to all the key concepts you could ever need.
By developing your Philosophers toolkit, not only will you be able to understand analytic texts easily — you’ll also acquire the skills needed to properly and rigorously assess the truth and reliability of the books you are reading.
“Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs there.”
― Julian Baggini
3. Don’t Miss the Bigger Picture.
Philosophers write with an agenda in mind. They want to convince you of one key point.
But to get there, they will take you on a journey. They will run through multiple sub-arguments, examples and thought experiments to convince you that this main point is true.
This main point is exemplified in their conclusion and is often called a thesis. It typically involves proving something as true, or disproving/discrediting someone else’s work.
Before you start reading, it will be presented to you in an “abstract.”
Bear all this in mind when you read a text — stay focused on this key thesis throughout. When you read a page that goes off on a tangent talking through an example; ask yourself: “how does this support the thesis of this paper?”
Doing so will guarantee you don’t miss the bigger picture — ensuring you acknowledge the purpose of each example. Rather than understanding what is being said, and clueless to “what the point is.”
It’s for this reason you also shouldn’t get bogged down with the little details in Philosophy. If you don’t understand one small example, it isn’t that important for the main conclusion of the paper. Maybe it’s been poorly articulated by the author, or perhaps it just doesn’t make that much sense — either way, you can conclude that you don’t find that part convincing and just move on.
And that’s a practice that even leading Philosophers adopt. Time after time I have seen them query what an author means and move on, because often it makes no sense!
“As the facts change, change your thesis. Don’t be a stubborn mule, or you’ll get killed.” — Barry Sternlicht
4. Be Open to Interpretation.
As I have mentioned, in some branches of Philosophy: like Analytic and Logic — things are clear cut, with only one definitive answer.
But in other branches, like Continental: things aren’t so rigid.
This is because the authors: like Kant, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard write in their native language, using the phrases and dialect that was common at the time.
And consequently, their translations, and the meaning of the text becomes unclear. Like Poetry, there’s often a lot of dispute as to what was going through the Philosophers mind when they wrote what they did.
Don’t be disheartened, then, if someone reads the text differently to how you did. For example, my reading of Bergson wasn’t “wrong” per se — it was just a less common and favourable interpretation to what is typically inferred.
Often there is value in perceiving a Philosophical text from a new light and standpoint — so don’t be afraid to understand these works differently to how your friends or lecturer claims they should be taken. Instead, acknowledge things are open to debate.
What the author actually meant is often unknown, yet it’s that intention which dictates the fact of the matter — rather than what your lecturer claims the text means. You have just as much chance of uncovering the author's intentions as anyone else.
“People understand me so poorly that they don’t even understand my complaint about them not understanding me.”― Søren Kierkegaard
5. Take Things Slow.
I get it. We all want to understand things — and we want to understand them now. Our whole culture is predicated on instant gratification and quick, easy knowledge.
There’s a reason why traditional Philosophy is going out fashion — not because there’s no value in it. But because it’s hard to understand; and people nowadays aren’t prepared to spend time wrestling with the ideas.
I’ve been practising for years — and I’m still not where I want to be.
But that makes Philosophy so much more rewarding — because you gain a deeper appreciation of the reality that very few people have. At times, Philosophy feels like my little secret that not many people know about.
So yes — Philosophy, along with the skills required, take years, if not a lifetime to cultivate. But your efforts will be rewarded.
Stick with it. Rather than rushing a text in the hopes of understanding it now, instead: take things slows; spend hours, days, or months reading a small segment. Return to those books as and when your skillset improves.
Because there are hidden treasures in Philosophy that often go unnoticed. Take the time, look closely enough, and you will find them.
After all —
“He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
The Apeiron Blog — Big Questions, Made Simple.
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