A reader recently emailed me the following series of questions:
I would like to ask you and your audience a simple question: How do you read philosophy? What methods have you experimented with in the past, which of these have stayed with you, and which proved ineffective and were tossed aside? Are you a heavy quotation scribbler, apt to copy several direct quotations from the book chapter or article you are working with, and then complementing these with your own expository notes? Or, like many I have spoken to, do you prefer to give a text a quick read, with no pen and paper or laptop nearby, and then go back and have a second (or third), more focused look, writing short but detailed paragraph summaries, that reconstruct the author's argument and bring out the implicit considerations and philosophical commitments that lay within the text, etc.?
How long will you read for per day? An article or two, fifty or so pages, how much? Do you find there are certain techniques that can keep you from burning out when working with an especially dense piece of philosophy? I am interested in all these things and more. I have an MA...am hoping to enroll in a PhD program in the fall, and have been experimenting with new reading methods and note taking techniques. Given that you often stress your own fondness for rapid production of work, and place heavy emphasis on not getting bogged down in the research process, I was hoping you could speak to how you accomplish these things on a day-to-day basis.
I think these are really great questions. During the course of my career, I cannot recall ever being given detailed tips on how to read. The only directions I can recall being given were, "Read quickly once to get the big picture, then go back and read more carefully." I also cannot recall ever discussing how to read philosophy with anyone. All of which, now that I think about it, seems rather bizarre. Reading is an enormous part of doing philosophy. It is also, in my experience, something of an artform -- an artform which affects the way one does many other things (e.g. develop paper topics, etc.).
Maybe one reason the question of how to read isn't often discussed is that it is a very individualized affair. We all have our own strengths and weaknesses, and we must learn to read in ways that speak to our strengths and improve our weaknesses. There is, I think, some real truth in this. Each person must learn what works best for them, and this typically involves quite a bit of trial and error. That being said, I think an open discussion of reading styles and tips could be really fun and informative. So, I guess I will begin.
The first thing that occurred to me when thinking about the reader's questions is that I think how to best read philosophy may be different at different stages of one's career. At an undergraduate level and in grad school, for instance, I think it is really crucial to practice close reading: taking detailed notes, doing paragraph summaries, and reconstructing arguments on paper. I think it's crucial to do a lot of this stuff at these stages because these are crucial philosophical skills to learn, and they take a lot of practice. Then, in my experience, as one goes further along in one's career (e.g. at a faculty level) these things become so second-nature that one needn't do them so much (one learns to trust oneself to choose when to read closely, reconstruct arguments, etc.). So, that's one thing I thing.
The second thing I think is that it is important to learn to read in ways that play to your strengths and improve upon your weaknesses. Some people are really good at "getting the big picture", but have trouble nailing down all the details. Others are super good at nailing down details but have trouble with the big picture. I think it's philosophically important to be a good, well-rounded reader, and work on one's weaknesses. That being said, at certain points in my career I feel like I was discouraged from doing what I think do well (i.e. really big picture stuff) -- I was told by some people to not be so ambitious, and really focus on nitty gritty details -- and I think this worked against me. I can be good at philosophical details, but only if I'm passionate about, and "see", the big picture.
So much for general remarks. I'd now like to share what my actual reading process is like nowadays (i.e. what I think works for me).
First, whatever I'm reading, I always give a quick first read to get the "big picture" (i.e. what the author is trying to do, what the gist of their arguments are, and how their arguments fit in the existing literature). Typically, at this stage, I will read with a pen in hand, underline "big idea" passages, and maybe jot down them down in a notebook in a few sentences. At this stage, I will also jot down any big worries I have about the project (viz. anything that sticks out at me, setting off my philosophical alarm bells).
A second thing I do here, during my quick first read -- if I find something I do not like about what the author is doing -- is to reconstruct what I think the author is trying to do, in my head, in my own terms, and see whether I think they went about it the right way. In my experience, some people discourage this approach. Some say, "You really need to understand what the author literally wrote before you try to understand what you think they should have written." I couldn't disagree more. I find that it is very important for me to think through a person's project in my own terms before I get too immersed in their own arguments. For, in my experience, it is all too easy to get sucked into someone else's way of thinking in a way that prevents one from seeing things afresh. Indeed, I've seen entire bodies of literature in which I think people have been so sucked into a bad way of thinking that they're unable to see their way out. I think I've fallen into this trap many times too, and my experience is that the best way to avoid it is to always think for oneself when one is reading. Don't just pay attention to what the author is writing. You should always ask yourself, "Do I think this philosopher is going about this the right way?" At least, I find this works for me.
Third, if at the level of a quick first read I find what I take to be a big picture error (i.e. a false or unjustified foundational assumption) on the author's part, I immediately pick up other articles/books in the same area, give them a quick read, and see if I they made the same big error. Notice what I still haven't done yet here, at what is essentially the third step in my reading process. I still haven't even begun to go back and read carefully. I'm still operating at the "quick read/big picture" stage. I do this deliberately because, again, I do not want to get sucked into the details of the literature -- i.e. lose the forest for the trees -- before I see whether I think the forest is well arranged.
If, after these first three stages, I find a foundational assumption that I think many people are getting wrong, I just read a little bit more closely, make sure I think there's a big error, and then write a paper on it. In these cases, I only engage in close, targeted reading to whatever extent that I need to in order make my argument that there is a foundational error in the piece/literature.
When I don't find what I take to be a big foundational error in a piece (or in the literature surrounding it), I face a choice.
On the one hand, if -- despite not finding any "big problem" -- I find a particular piece or body of literature interesting, I may go back and give it/them much closer readings, taking detailed notes, reconstructing arguments, etc. Then, if I find something that I think doesn't work, I might get a paper idea and write a paper, using my notes to write a draft (note: I almost never draft papers while reading. If I can't write a draft out of my head or off my reading notes, I conclude I haven't understood the stuff well enough to start drafting -- and so I go back, read more, and take more detailed notes. In my experience, drafting papers while reading retards my writing process. My wife reports that many people she knows in her field write papers the same way. I only go back to books/articles themselves after drafting, when I begin writing revisions).
On the other hand, if I don't find the piece/literature all that interesting, I'll just move onto something else entirely. I see no reason to get "stuck" on articles, books, or bodies of literature that I do not have clear ideas about. If nothing "jumps out" at me, setting off my philosophical alarm bells, I just move on to something else.
In a nutshell then, close, targeted readings where I take detailed notes and reconstruct arguments is literally the last thing I do. This is not to say that I do these things rarely. I do them often (I've literally worn my way through several copies of particular books and articles by poring over them so much). I just find that most of the important work I do while reading comes long before the careful, targeted reading stage. Close, targeted reading is important, but for me, it is crucial that I do all of the "big picture" stuff (and do a lot of it) before I get lost in the details. Also, as an aside, I think the "reading fast to get the big picture" element of my approach has a lot to do with my increases in scholarly productivity the past several years. It is easy to get "stuck" on an argument if one reads everything with a fine-tooth comb. The more material I get through, the easier it seems to me to come across a "big problem" worth writing about.
As for how many pages I read per day, etc., I have no simple answer. The answer is that it is quite irregular. If I'm trying to get a big picture view of a body of literature, I may go through a few hundred pages a day. However, if I'm trying to get an argument from one paper down cold, I may spend an entire day on several pages. It really just depends on what I need to do. I let whatever project I'm working on dictate how much, and how, I read in a kind of organic fashion.
In closing, I guess I should emphasize again that I think "how to read" is probably a highly individualized thing, and that one must experiment a lot in order to figure out what works for oneself. For several years in graduate school and afterwards, I tried to read and do philosophy in a certain way (roughly, the way I saw others doing it around me). It didn't work. I had trouble getting work done, and the work I did get done wasn't all that good. It just wasn't who I am. Experimenting led me to the reading, writing, and thinking styles that I have now -- and they seem to work. I have been far more productive, and I think I am doing far better work. I wouldn't recommend my approach to everyone, but it seems to work for me.
Anyway, this is how I read. How do you?