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I don't have systematic thoughts, or even just one strategy. I do lots of different things, depending on how I come to the new topic/problem I want to tackle, and how much pre-existing background I have. Here are some tips for where to start, though:

(1) Like Marcus said, the SEP and Phil Compass are excellent places to get a general overview of a topic, and suggestions for further reading. I often use these surveys to structure my approach to learning about something.

(2) Syllabi. Look for advanced undergrad and graduate course syllabi in the area you're targeting. Get a bunch of these--say, five to eight--and compare them. See where they overlap and where they don't, and pay attention to the different issues they bring up. Then pick one and do the reading on it (or: pick one and supplement from the others where it seems appropriate).

(3) Overview-style monographs. These are just like the SEP/Phil Compass, but longer and more in-depth. They can be a great starting point, too. When I needed to learn some action theory for my dissertation, for example, I started with the SEP and supplemented with Carlos Moya's excellent "The Philosophy of Action: An Introduction" (Polity: 1990), which gave me a much better idea of what the key touchstones were I needed to investigate, and what the lay of the land was.

(4) Book reviews. You don't need to read a whole book, especially when you're trying to get the lay of the land. Just do what history students are taught to do: read the intro and conclusion, and then read a few book reviews. They'll give you a good sense of what's in the book, what it argues and why, what its weaknesses are, and which particular chunks you should read more carefully for your purposes (if any).

Marcus Arvan

Hey Michel: Thanks for chiming in! I think everything you wrote is good advice. However, I want to highlight one potential drawback of things like Phil Compass and encyclopedia articles--namely, that in surveying an entire area, they can sort of 'box you in', or socializing you into thinking of a particular problem the way everyone else has.

Indeed, one thing that I've heard from many senior people is that it can be bad to 'read too much', at least early on. Once you find yourself socialized into common ways of thinking about a problem, it can be hard to 'think outside of the box.' So, especially in cases where you have a particular problem in mind when entering an unfamiliar literature, sometimes it can be good to read a few original articles or primary sources (i.e. a seminal book) and think about the problem with that as your initial background instead of reading survey articles or encyclopedia articles. Once you read a few primary sources, chew on the problem a bit on your own (as it were), and come up with an idea that you think may be original, *then* it can be a good idea to survey the broader literature. Often, you'll find that someone else had similar ideas, but sometimes you'll find that you're thinking about the problem in what seems to be a rather new way--which can be good thing! Anyway, just a little food for thought.


I no longer start by trying to read. I start by trying to write. It turns out that I always misunderstand why the people I'm reading are doing the wild and bizarre things they're doing when I am not actively engaged in trying to solve the same problems they're trying to solve.

So I just sit down and try to *DO* some philosophy in the new area. When I get stuck, I figure out who knows how to get me unstuck, and I go read them. Usually it turns out I'm stuck because I utterly misunderstood something or made a deeply dumb assumption. But now I understand that, and understand it in a way I wouldn't have if I just tried to dive straight in to the reading.

Fair warning: most of what you write if you follow this method will be utter trash. But not all of it will, and you'll get to practice your writing while you're at it.

If I'm completely honest, this method is partly a result of me coming to conclude that un-written-down philosophizing is trash. Read all you want, you still won't *grok* what's happening until you sit down and write. So if grokery is your goal, you may as well set yourself up for that possibility by starting out with the writing.

Prof L

Tom’s advice is 100% right. DO NOT start with reading. Start with writing. Just write down what you think about a topic you are interested in. Then, once you have an idea down, go see what other people have said about it. You will find yourself revising your views, strengthening your arguments, or finding that your views are commonplace and superficial or (more often) far too vague or ambiguously formulated and you need to go a little deeper, define your position more precisely. And then write some more, repeat. If you are just getting into a field, don’t expect this to produce publishable work, but I’ve found I really only absorb what I’m reading when I am also writing about it. Try and write it in paper form, too—an structured argument, not notes. Note taking is often an absurd waste of time. Situate that author’s view with respect to your own. As your own view grows more sophisticated, you may revisit that take, but the naive taking-of-positions is going to be essential to arriving at that sophisticated view.


I'm still early career but I've had a couple of pretty drastic changes in direction already (including one that happened right before dissertation proposal, like in OP's case). In terms of preliminary compiling reading list-- everything Michel said. (Though- I usually don't read introductory books since as a slow reader I find them not efficient enough.) I'll add one more:
- Read the most recently published articles in this area. This can be found on PhilPaper if the area is easily identifiable, or sometimes you might have a good idea of which journals publish on this topic and you can look at their recent issues. Skim the papers to see what works they discuss and whom they cite. That'll help you identify who the big players are and what questions people care about. I usually do this in bulk without reading any papers in detail or writing anything down. The idea is that this way the names I remember will be names that have repeatedly been mentioned.

Marcus Arvan

“Skim the papers to see what works they discuss and whom they cite. That'll help you identify who the big players are and what questions people care about.”

Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but I have to confess that on its face I find this a disturbingly cynical way to think about doing philosophical research. Is this really what a philosopher should be doing: figuring out who the big names are and what problems people care about? What about the questions *you* care about? And why should it matter who the big names are and who has “repeatedly been mentioned”? This all makes philosophy sound like a game. Shouldn’t it be the ideas and arguments that matter—indeed, truth? Isn’t that what a philosopher should be after?

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