Our books

Become a Fan

« Updating search committees? | Main | Online/hybrid teaching technologies? »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


I read it then set it aside and try again at a later date. That's usually enough. If not, then I go back again and try to summarize each section.

Or, yeah: ask a friend.

It's pretty rare that I encounter anything that opaque in my subfield, though. It's more likely to happen reading outside my subfield, and even then it's quite rare.

Ted Shear

Two tips that have worked for me:
1) When I need to really get a paper, I read it three timss. In the first pass, I don't pause to think or try to understand anything. This pass is a glorified skim to give me a feel for the general arc of the paper. I'm a slow reader but can normally make it through a normal length paper in like 30 minutes doing this. In the second, I read a bit more closely and try to understand the key points but don't let my self get bogged down thinking of objections. This takes longer but makes things easier in the third pass where I let myself wrestle with all the things I willfully moved on from in the previous passes.
2) Ask someone to discuss the paper with you. This can take a few forms. If you can get someone else to go through it with you as you both read it, that's best. You can stop eachother and be like "I didn't understand that at all" and have the other person try to clarify. If you can't get someone to do that, you can also try to explain the paper to someone who knows enough to follow without explaining all of the background literature. This lets you basically teach the paper to someone else, which can be valuable (at least) in helping expose where you're hung up.

Research says ...

The research on learning says: read the paper, and then write a short summary. The summary will alert you to what you do not understand. Then read the paper again, in light of your summary, and your new found knowledge of what you do not understand.
It works.

Overseas Tenured

This will probably come across as heavy-handed, but: when the writing feels really impenetrable, I first of all try to figure out if that's my fault or the author's. There are a few hints when the latter is the case, e.g. if most papers in the area are clear, the paper doesn't use formal tools that are uncommon in the area, and/or if other papers from the same author are similarly opaque.

If I judge that the fact that I don't understand the paper is the author's fault, and I get the general sense that understanding the paper wouldn't dramatically change how I'll do things in the future, I simply move on and ignore the paper. Life is short and there are usually tons of papers that aren't any less important and on which my time is better spent.


Try, try, try again. You can write a summary; ask a friend; try to create an outline; review critical discussions of it; read other things by the same author.

If all of that fails, you can ignore it! There are several famous works in my field where, after several years of try, try, try again I still couldn't understand them. So I just ignore them. There's lots of material out their to engage with. I prefer to engage the material I understand!


Ignoring such papers are the best option (if it is not absolutely necessary for you to understand that particular paper). There are a bunch of philosophers who cannot write well, no reason the engage their work.


My previous comment wasn't written well. I am a big fan of irony, so you can just ignore it.

non-US graduate

For particularly difficult pieces I found it helpful to read other, more clearly written, articles that engage with them.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Job-market reporting thread

Current Job-Market Discussion Thread

Philosophers in Industry Directory

Open thread on hiring timelines

Cocoon Job-Market Mentoring Program