Reading original philosophical texts

Phil asked:

How can I improve my ability to read and understand original philosophical texts?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Some thoughts after recent distance learning for a degree in philosophy.


Strictly, if you wish to read original texts and don’t want to miss out some of the greats, you have to read ancient Greek, Latin, French and German. And that’s only Western philosophy. Probably, like me, you will read English translations. What’s more they’ll be modern translations. This has the effect of making, say, Descartes, seem more modern than Locke or Hume (we read these latter in quaint, original, 17th and 18th Century English requiring translator’s footnotes alerting us to changed word meanings). A recent book about Locke’s theory of personal identity even includes the author’s modern-English version alongside Locke’s original. But, no problems from 19th century onward as most analytic philosophy is from UK, USA and latterly Australasia.


Authors typically hold many of the common views of their day, or have strong opinions about them, but don’t spell out what these are (educated readers at the time would know). Religious or scientific views for instance. Thus, in arguing about personal identity, Locke aims to show that the person rewarded/punished at the Last Judgment can be the same person that did the deeds, and thereby be justly treated, even if he has a different body (material substance) and a different soul (nonmaterial, thinking substance) from when he did the deeds. The soul argument is unfamiliar these days, and we may dismiss Locke as confused here, and conclude (wrongly) that he is simply arguing for the memory-connectedness idea of persistent personal identity.

As regards science, early modern greats were influenced by Newton. Kant goes so far as to say that Newton’s views on space and time are necessarily true and constitute one of the categories in which we must perceive the world. Of course the rug was pulled from under him when it turned out that Newton’s theory, far from being necessarily true, wasn’t even true (and neither was space Euclidean as Kant also thought necessarily true). Hume hopes to produce a science of man modelled on Newton’s science of matter and motion, and compares his own scepticism to Newton’s approach to the true nature of gravity (‘I feign no hypothesis’). Leibniz thinks the idea of gravity, acting on another body not by contact but mysteriously acting across vast distances of empty space, is a return to superstition. Berkeley is horrified by the soulless, purposeless, mechanical world picture and tries to show that matter does not exist, indeed the the idea is incoherent.


It’s not like reading a car magazine where you get the gist in 5 minutes and all you need to know in 30. It’s hard work, takes hours of reading and rereading to get full value.

Have a go at the text yourself before reading what others think.

First, read the text through only to answer two questions – what is the position being advocated or defended ? Why does the author think it important ?. Often they dont tell you clearly, and you must work it out! Write down the answers.

Next, reread to find out what argument(s) the author relies on. List these (not the details, just the number of arguments and a word or two to characterize each).

Next, close reading of text to elicit the steps in the argument(s) and the conclusions. List these as series of steps, best as premises and conclusions if you can.

Now look at the arguments. Are they valid (conclusions follow from premises). Are they sound (valid plus true premises). Do they support the position being advocated (check, you wrote this down earlier), or perhaps only some lesser conclusion, or maybe just fail.

Now reread, asking: does the author consider (and refute) arguments for a position contrary to his? Does he consider (and rebut) objections to his own arguments.

Form your own provisional view.

Now read what others think (see aids below). Did you miss things? The answer will be yes. Don’t worry. Scholars sometimes spend a career wrestling with a famous text, and after years of study, may change their mind about what it all means or what the author intended. A recent book on Locke’s theory of personal identity opens with the author saying he has been misrepresenting Locke to his his students for 15 years. Also scholars disagree about what an author means or thinks. Two recent books by noted academic philosophers give different accounts of what Hume’s views on causation really were, both accounts based on the same Hume texts.

Finally, form your own view, be prepared to defend it, but stay open to new ideas, arguments or evidence.


Best is dialogue with somebody further along the philosophical road than yourself. Easy if you are a student at University or on a Pathways module. Not so easy for the distance student or the informal learner. I recall discussions up the pub with my two (engineer) mates who argued against my contention that numbers don’t exist, or gamely responded when I asked what made it the case (if it was) that we three old boys presently drinking our pints were the same old boys that had entered the pub 20 minutes previously. In addition I signed up for Pathways tuition and found it excellent value.

Every great text has spawned a shoal of Introductions, Guides, Companions, Essentials Of, etc. and I cant deal with all that here. But you will need a selection of these for serious study.

There are two series of books explicitly designed to foster reading/ understanding texts. First, the short ‘How to Read X’ books published by Granta, described (on the blurb) as ‘a personal masterclass in reading’. They deal mostly with authors not topics, and include a few philosophers, none living, eg ‘How to Read Plato’.’ Secondly, the longer ‘Reading X’ by Blackwell Wiley, described as ‘a series that aims… to teach you a technique for reading and analysing philosophical texts’. They give general introductions to the topic, excerpts from classic texts, both ancient and modern, get you to engage with them at key points and write down your thoughts and answers to questions, and conclude with ‘interactive commentary’. I used two of the How to Read X’ series (Plato, Hume) and two of the ‘Reading X’ series (Epistemology, Ethics). They are good books. But, looking back on it, I doubt that they added much to improving my ability to read/understand texts over and above what I’ve already suggested to you.

Online Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has good, critical, up-to-date, referenced articles on most everything. I used it a lot.

Finally, an example:

Getting started with Descartes

Text: ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’ by Descartes (English translation by Haldane and Ross, 1934)

Position advocated: a new grounding is needed for science. He doesn’t say why, but must think science, unlike say chess, needs a philosophical foundation, and that the time-honoured Aristotelian basis is unsound.

This grounding will be knowledge reached by reason alone (not observation) from what remains certain after using the Method of Doubt (to accept as true only what is presented so clearly and distinctly to the mind as to be certain)

Argument: he can doubt the existence of the external world, including his own body, but in order to doubt he must exist, so that he accepts as true ‘I think therefore I am’ (‘cogito ergo sum’, ‘je pense donc je suis’). He then argues his way back via knowledge of the existence of God to knowledge of the existence of the external world and his own body.

Steps in argument:

1. I can’t doubt my existence as a thinking thing, so I know this.

2. I know it solely by clear and distinct perception.

3. So, what I perceive very clearly and distinctly is true.

4. I have a clear and distinct idea of God

5. The idea of God includes necessary existence, so God exists

6. God, being all good, is no deceiver.

7. So I can rely on my God-given reason and senses, properly used.

8. Using them I have clear and distinct ideas of extension, size, shape, situation, movement, duration and particulars of an external world.

9. So, the external world, including my body, exists.

10. I (my soul) and my body (a kind of machine) are distinct substances but intermingled.

We now have framework for detailed appraisal – method of doubt, dreaming/evil demon arguments, res cogitans under 1/2/3, arguments for God’s existence/nature under 4/5/6/7, res extensa under 8/9, dualism under 10.

We can go on to consider sub-arguments (e.g. two for God’s existence: three for ‘real’ distinction of mind and body – here ‘real’ is a scholastic term meaning the distinction is between two substances).

Objections/ Replies: helpfully, Descartes sought objections and published them with his replies as a separate chapter.

Descartes’s text is orderly and systematic rather like a scientific paper or maths theorem (he was a noted scientist and great mathematician). With many other texts, we are not so lucky.

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