A Guide to Reading and Analyzing Articles in Philosophy
Lawrence M. Hinman, Ph.D.
Philosophy is a conversation, an on-going dialogue about ideas and issues that in some cases stretches back over the course of centuries. Some of the earliest philosophical works that we have, Plato’s dialogues, are explicitly in the form of a conversation, and over the ages philosophers have returned to this form again and again. Many other works, however, are not explicitly in the format of a dialogue but nonetheless represent lengthy contributions to an on-going debate or dialogue among scholars that may stretch back many centuries.
This centuries-long tradition is part of the glory of philosophy, and when you begin to read philosophical texts, you get to share in some of this glory, to participate in a venerable line of thinkers stretching back in the West to Plato and Aristotle. It is a conversation in which you too can participate. Indeed, as you read more in philosophy, I hope you will begin to see yourself as part of this conversation, and that there will at least occasionally be moments when, facing a difficult issue, you ask yourself questions like, “What would Immanuel Kant say about that?” or “How would John Stuart Mill approach this problem?” Let them be voices in your internal conversations about how to live a good and meaningful life and how to deal with some of life’s most difficult issues.
Let me suggest some specific points that might make this process easier. (continued below)
Listening for the Voice of the Author
Philosophy selections often appear to be disembodied words on a page, cut off from any source. Academic writing encourages this, and most of us rarely use the pronoun “I” in our writing. We cover our tracks, as it were, letting the ideas speak for themselves. Philosophy thus appears impersonal, disembodied, detached from the narrative of individual lives. In part, this is because we want the ideas to stand on their own two feet, to be independent of us, to be judged on their own merits and perhaps not handicapped by their origins in our own, much more limited lives. We are like intellectual parents, wanting our ideas to grow up, move out of the house, and live a life of their own.
These motivations are certainly commendable, but this approach has its limitations. First, even without the use of first person pronouns, an author’s voice is often present, just not labeled as such. If, for example, I am reading an article by the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, I may recognize his implicit voice even though he presents his thoughts without those first person pronouns. Reading one of his books or article, I might well say to myself when he introduces a new argument, “Ah, of course that’s what he would say.” We get to know how people think, and the patterns of their arguments are often distinctive. Moreover, what they notice, what they pick out as salient or important, will vary from one author to another, and those patterns of saliency are noticeable as well. In other words, voice may be present, even when it is not explicitly acknowledged as such.
There is another dimension to the issue of voice that is specific to moral philosophy. There is an important interplay between moral knowledge and self-understanding that is present in ethics but not found in many other fields, especially those in the natural sciences such as chemistry or physics. Certainly I can understand, perhaps after much study, what the German philosopher Immanuel Kant means by duty, but there is a dimension of understanding and assessment that will not emerge until I bring Kant’s understanding of duty into a dialogue with my own understanding and experiences of duty. I remember a professor years ago who was teaching a graduate course on the philosophy of love, and it struck me as incongruous, since this person seemed particularly tone deaf, as it were, to the many nuances of love as it actually exists. I realized then that I must have appeared in a similar light to others when I did a dissertation on Nietzsche’s concept of play—with a ponderous seriousness that belied the very ideas I was exploring and proclaiming. In other words, in moral philosophy—as opposed to chemistry or physics—the line between reflection and self-reflection is thin and only lightly drawn. Our understanding of the moral life is inextricably bound up with our understanding of ourselves in a way that is not obviously true in other disciplines.
The psychologist and moral philosopher who awakened the awareness of the role of voice in philosophy was Carol Gilligan, for years a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Her book, In a Different Voice, became one of the landmark books of the twentieth century, transforming the self-understanding of a generation of scholars and scientists in a way similar to the way that Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions had done a couple of decades earlier.
There are many advantages to understanding the intellectual life in terms of voices rather than theories, but let me just mention two here. First, it is possible to have multiple, different voices without necessarily having conflict or disagreement. Indeed, think of the ways in which many voices may harmonize in singing, complementing one another without being the same. Second, voices have characteristic beyond being true or false. Voices may be robust or weak, playful or droning, excited or monotonous, fast or slow, etc. In other words, voices are embodied, and that lends them a richness not found in abstract theories.
Fortunately, we live in a world in which we can now hear and see authors with comparative ease. The Web allows us to find audio and video of many of the contemporary authors you will encounter in your work in moral philosophy. Take advantage of this opportunity to hear and see the authors you are reading, to begin to attach the voice to the words.
Why Philosophy Articles May Be Difficult to Read
Philosophy articles can often be difficult to read, especially those that come from journals. Some of the reasons for this are easy to understand, especially in regard to articles from professional philosophy journals. First, because they are written primarily for other professional philosophers, they often contain a specialized vocabulary. If you are not familiar with that vocabulary, it makes reading difficult. Second, again because of their intended audience, the authors often presume a lot of background, especially in regard to knowledge of what has already been said in this on-going conversation.
The third factor contributing to the level of difficulty actually arises out of an attempt to compensate for the second problem. Philosophers often begin their articles by describing the positions held by other philosophers, positions that they will ultimately criticize and reject. One advantage of this is that it does provide the reader with helpful background, and in many cases it can lead to a heightened appreciation of what this author’s unique contribution to the discussion will be. However, especially for the novice reader, it can sometimes be very confusing, especially when the exposition of someone else’s position is lengthy. We can all too easily mistake that description for the author’s own position. Indeed, at times it seems that philosophers spend an inordinate amount of time telling us why other people are wrong before ever saying what they themselves believe. However, once you’re aware of this stylistic peculiarity, you can compensate for it.
Some Questions to Ask as You Read Philosophy Articles
Ideally, when you read an article, you should be engaging in a conversation with the author. There should be a back-and-forth movement between you and the text. Here’s an analogy that might help. Imagine watching a sports event on television, perhaps a soccer match. If you are interested in the game, you don’t just stare at the screen, eyes slightly glazed over in a monotonous state of mere observation. Your eyes follow the ball, as does the lens of the camera, and typically your eyes are in motion. Moreover, you don’t look just at the ball. You look to see where other players are on the field. You may occasionally glance at the clock to see how much time is left. If there is a time out, your eyes may wander around the room, waiting for something important to begin happening again. You may turn to others and point at times, cheer, groan, throw up your hands in disgust, etc. In other words, as you watch a soccer game on TV, you react and interact with what you are seeing.
Reading philosophy articles is a little quieter and less demonstrative, but it should be basically the same kind of interaction. Often our interactions are governed by the questions we are asking of the text. There are some questions that you obviously want to ask whenever you read an article. Here are a couple of clusters of questions that may help to highlight the main points of the article:
- What is the author’s main point or thesis? What arguments does the author give in support of that main point? How strong are those arguments?
- What positions does the author consider and reject? What reasons are given for those rejections? How strong are the arguments given in support of those rejections? How do you think the advocates of those positions would respond?
Let me suggest, though, that there are other questions that may be worth considering.
- What is at stake in this argument? What difference does it make if the author is right or wrong? This is crucial. If you can’t figure out what difference it would make, you probably won’t be interested in the article. You might read it because you have to, but not because you care about the outcome of the article. Again, consider the analogy with watching a sports event. If it’s just a pre-session game or a practice match, you may enjoy watching it but not mind changing the channel if something more interesting is on. However, if the game matters, you want to watch it until the end.
- Where do you stand on this issue? Often, we are simply asked to examine other people’s positions, but without bringing them into dialogue with our own views, we are unable to see and appreciate their true value. To return to the sports metaphor: the experience changes radically when you know which team you are rooting for.
- Try to understand not only what the author is saying, but why the author is saying it and saying it at that particular point. Again, think of the sports metaphor: it is not enough simply to see someone run diagonally across the field. You must also try to figure out why the player is running to that spot at that moment. Is it in anticipation that someone will pass the ball? Is it an attempt to block an opponent’s moves? Articles are like games: particular things happen at specific junctures in the argument for certain reasons. In order to understand the action, you need to be able to do more than simply describe the action: you need to ask why something is happening at that time and in that place.
I could probably come up with more rules or suggestions, but the best way to learn is by doing. Start reading, and as you get the hang of it, think about adding some rules or suggestions of your own. If you are so inclined, you might even want to email them to me (hinman@SanDiego.edu). After all, this is a conversation.
Now, let's turn to Professor Sandel's article, "What's Wrong with Enhancement?"