How Can We Read Philosophy: A First Approximation

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last revised August 24, 2006

I. Form Analysis: Identify the Type of Writing
    A. An essay trying to prove something in a more or less step by step method.
    B. A dialogue or part of a dialogue
    C. A problematic essay
II. Close Reading
    A.Key Concepts
        1. What they are
        2. Types of definition
    B. Key Claims or Statements
    C. Premises, Conclusions, Intermediate Steps

The top-down and bottom-up approaches are not mutually exclusive. To fully understand a philosophical text, one must frequently employ both methods, and cycle between them.

I. Identify the Type of Writing

A. Is this an essay that is trying to prove something in a more or less sequential way?
1. Is this essay primarily trying to disprove one or more positions with which the author disagrees?

In this case, it is important to pick out the parts of the essay in which the author is quoting or paraphrasing the view of her opponent, so as not to confuse this view with the author's own view. (Sometimes an author is trying to refute several opponents that may differ among themselves or share some ideas but not others.)

Then one can proceed as in A.2.a, by studying first the opponent's argument for her position (to the extent to which the author gives us enough information to reconstruct it), and then the author's argument against the opponent's argument.

2. Is this essay primarily a positive argument that proceeds step by step to defend the conclusion(s) the author advocates from the beginning?

a. In this case, it is important to pick out the individual steps and try to figure out how the steps advance, step by step, along the path to the author's conclusion. (See part II.B and C, below.)

b. Essays that have this form are usually developed in the context--sometimes not obvious--of a larger debate in which the author is a participant. It is almost always helpful to be aware of the opposing positions, i.e., the positions against which the author is constructing his or her arguments.

B. Is this writing a dialogue or a part of a dialogue? (Plato usually writes dialogues)
1. Does the dialogue primarily dramatize the Socratic method of refuting poorly reasoned positions held by the conversation-partner, so as to produce puzzlement and a more sincere willingness to search for truth? In this case, the step by step reasoning within the refutation of such poorly reasoned position may be studied.

2. Is it a dialogue one of whose character's likely represents the author's viewpoint?

In this case, the character's speeches (or the concessions he extracts from his dialogue partner) might be rewritten as an essay of type A.2, whose step by step procedure can then be studied (as in A.2.a.)

3. Is it a speech from a dialogue that represents a viewpoint the author is planning to challenge?

In this case, the speech might be rewritten as an essay of type A.2, whose step by step procedure can then be studied (as in A.2.a).

4. Does the author use the contradictory positions taken in the early phases of a dialogue as a springboard for projecting a solution on a totally different plane from any that was originally considered by any of the participants?

Plato has a tendency to do this in, e.g., the Republic, where he invokes a doctrine of entirely immaterial forms in order to answer questions about the nature of philosophical knowledge. In the Meno, he introduces the theory of the transmigration of immaterial souls in order to respond to Meno's sophistic paradox that challenges the very possibility of inquiry.

C. Is it a "problematic" essay, i.e., one that seeks a general answer to a general question by examining existing views and evidence? (Aristotle usually composes problematic essays on, e.g., what is happiness? what is virtue in general?)
Essays written in a "problematic" method typically proceed:

1) by examining "observed appearances" or views held by "the many" or "the wise" and trying to preserve what is best from them. Such views may contradict one another, so the inquirer must modify them to some extent.

2) by breaking a bigger problem into micro-problems whose solution may then be incorporated into a solution to the bigger problem?

3) by trying to discover the nature of the thing under study first in formal (or general) terms, then in "material" (or specific) terms.

Aristotle (a) defines happiness (or the human good) in formal terms, that is, he describes characteristics of happiness with which almost everyone would agree, and then (b) develops his own specific definition that (i) fits within the formal definition but (ii) differs from other philosopher's specific definitions.

Even a relatively specific definition may require a further analysis so as to produce a more specific definition of one of its parts. Thus, in book I of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, he gives a specific definition of the human good, but this definition includes the term "virtue," which is not precisely defined. The pursuit of a more precise definition of virtue is taken up in book II. Only after book II does Aristotle study specific moral virtues like courage, moderation, and justice, and intellectual virtues like prudence.

Note: Within the larger context of a "problematic" essay, a writer may engage in step by step deductive reasoning in order to reach (intermediate) conclusions that will play a role in the larger search. Thus in book II of his Ethics Aristotle argues from the premises that (1) There are three types of thing in the soul (which he lists) and (2) virtue is neither of the first type nor the second type--for reasons he also lists; then he concludes that (3) virtue is of the third type.

II. Close Reading
A. Pick out the key concepts (not to be confused with key claims): these are the general ideas that play an important role in the development of the author's "case."
1. Key concepts are often labeled by means of technical terms, words or phrases that are defined more precisely than most words or phrases in ordinary use. The words themselves may be quite ordinary but in the author's hands, they are used with a more fixed meaning than they usually have. Without giving terms relatively fixed meanings, it is impossible to reason well. (Mathematics is the most advanced model of a science that proceeds in this way.)

2. Key concepts may be implicitly or explicitly defined. They are implicitly defined if their meaning has to be discovered by observing have they are used by the author. (This is similar to the method used by compilers of dictionaries: they study how words are used by speakers of a language.)

3. If they are explicitly defined, they may be defined in different ways:

a. Stipulative definition: The author asserts that he or she will be using the term in a certain way: For instance: "By 'virtue' I shall mean any quality generally praised by human beings" or "By 'nibble' I shall mean four consecutive bits of information or a half a byte." These may or may not be close to the definitions such terms have in ordinary language. (Stipulative definitions cannot be criticized for being false because, e.g., they depart from ordinary usage; they can, however, be criticized as useless or harmful if one can show that they are useless or harmful.)

b. By dialectical testing. This is Plato's apparent method. A good, or true, definition is one which stands up under all possible challenges. Plato tries to model dialectical testing in many of his dialogues.

b. By producing the definition, gradually, as a solution to a problem, starting from and sticking as close as possible, to "what seems to be the case" (when one considers both what experience reveals and what those who are reputedly wise say). This is Aristotle's method in his Ethics. When this method is used the meaning of the term changes, i.e., it is gradually enriched, in the course of the study.

B. Pick out the key claims (statements) made by the author, whether they are premises, intermediate steps, or final conclusions. (To do this, of course, one must be careful not to confuse statements made by the author on her own behalf with statements made by the author's opponents or views attributed by the author to her opponents.)
1. A statement takes the form of a declarative sentence, i.e., a sentence that is true or false (or might be true or false in the future).

2. We can know that a sentence conveys a statement without knowing whether it is true or not. ("Socrates was alive in Athens at Summer Solstice in 399 B.C." conveys a statement, even if we do not know whether it is true or false.

3. A statement may contain a key concept, e.g., "Moral virtue is necessary for a life worth living." ("Moral virtue" might be a key concept in the larger essay.)

C. Distinguish premises and conclusions, and then ultimate premises, intermediate steps (=intermediate conclusions), and final conclusions.
Note: These are relative notions: a conclusion is always a conclusion relative to specific premise(s). Plato's conclusions in a given passage are relative to Plato's premises.

1. A premise is a statement that is meant by its author to support another statement. Relative to the premise (or premises-there may be several), the allegedly supported statement is the conclusion.

2. "Ultimate premises" are premises that are not meant in turn (in the writing under examination) to be supported by further premises. (These are the logical starting points of argument.)

3. "Final conclusions" are conclusions that are not in turn (in the writing under examination) treated as premises or support for further conclusions.

4. "Intermediate steps" or "intermediate conclusions" serve a dual role. On the one hand, they are conclusions from premises other than themselves; on the other hand, they are premises that allegedly support conclusions distinct from themselves.

5. Sometimes, the final conclusion of a written piece is the main point the author is trying to establish; sometimes the final conclusion is a particular application of a general main point the author was trying to establish.

For instance, if the author has argued for the main (but intermediate) conclusion that (1) in a law-governed state like Athens in 399 B.C., citizens are morally obliged to obey the law, he may also go further to conclude that (2) Socrates should not flee Athens to avoid the death penalty. Most of the work of the text may have been devoted to proving the main conclusion, even if it is not the final conclusion.