- Read early and often. As I mentioned on our first day, philosophy texts can be difficult and dense. It is highly recommended that you make time to read through each assigned text at least twice. On the first reading, try to get a general idea of the text’s topic and the author’s stance on that topic. On the second reading, since you already know what sort of conclusion the author is trying to defend, you can pay more attention to how the author constructs their argument in order to get to that conclusion. For example, you can ask yourself questions about the text like:
- Does the author argue against ideas presented by another philosopher or group of philosophers? Or are they arguing against a commonsense belief held by laypeople (non-philosophers)?
- What type of claims are they making: descriptive? normative? empirical? epistemological? ontological? etc.
- What sort of evidence do they appeal to: empirical data (gather from experimentation or observation of the world)? Pure reasoning? Intuitions? Thought experiments?
- Does the author address potential objections to their argument? Can you think of any objections that someone might have against the author’s argument?
- Annotate the text. As you read, you can make signposts in the text for yourself by, say, starring a passage that seems particularly crucial to the author’s argument, or marking something that you’re unsure about with a “?”, or writing down a question you have about what the author is saying right next to the part of the text that provoked the question. These will be helpful for when you want to search through the text to bring up a point during our discussion, or to ask a question, or to find a portion of the text that struck you that you’d like to address in an essay.
- Look up unfamiliar terms as soon as you come across them. You’re likely to encounter them again, so you might as well look up the definitions so you can grasp what the author is saying, and so you’ll know right away what someone is saying if they use it again. You might even find that term useful in your own writing.
- Summarize the argument in your own words. It often helps to take notes on a text, restating what the author is saying in your own words. (These notes will also be helpful to review before class – that way you don’t have to reread the whole text to recall what it was about.) If you can identify the components (premises and conclusion(s)) of the author’s argument, write those down in your notes as well. If you are having trouble identifying the premises and conclusion, perhaps you could write a note to yourself like “It’s not clear to me whether Jackson is saying that . . . or . . .”. It’s just as valuable to keep track of the uncertainties you have about the reading as to take notes on what you do understand right off the bat.
- Make yourself a study guide to review the material. Rewriting the information from the lecture slides, the texts, or even in your own notes in your own words, the best way you can explain it to yourself, is likely to reinforce it in your memory.
- Try making concept maps, flow charts, diagrams, or other visualizations of the material. Reviewing the material via imagery (rather than just text) may help to see the material in a new light, and to more easily grasp the relationships between ideas.
- Consider forming a study group. By teaming up with classmates, you can make the most of your collective understanding of the material. A companion might be able to explain to you something you didn’t quite grasp, or remember something mentioned in lecture that escaped your notes, or so forth. Also, discussing the material out loud with someone else is a great way to test your understanding: if you can summarize and/or explain it to someone else, you should be able to recall and use that knowledge for a quiz or test.
- Check the Resources page. There are probably pages in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, etc. that discuss the author of the readings or the views they espouse. It can’t hurt to see if they’ve explained something in a way that makes more sense to you than how I’ve presented it in class.