How to Read Philosophy

It is always said that books convey the author’s mind, and that the authors, in a variety of manners, are communicating with the readers. With the aid of emphatic reading, the communication becomes lively and mutual. And because of this, we are able to enjoy the magic in J.K Rowling’s “Harry Potter”, the romance in John Green’s “The Fault in Our Star”, the epic fantasy in J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Ring” and many more.

However, this is not always the case for philosophy, though sometimes philosophy does bedazzle the mind as much as fantasy novel does. Philosophy has always been monotonous. It is- however influential it has been in shaping our world- always just a stamp of inks on dry paper. It has no character, no plot, no climax- nothing exciting. The philosophers seemed as if they were talking but only to themselves. Some like G. W. F. Hegel are very difficult to understand (in fact, he wrote horrendously), while some are easily understood (though I have never stumbled upon one yet). Because of this, communication hardly ever occurs between authors and readers. And this has always been as much of a problem for readers as to the development of philosophy itself.

Actually, philosophers do intend to communicate with the readers. Only that they are trying to communicate about something necessary, not exciting- excitingly necessary or necessarily exciting (however you want to put it). Therefore it requires a higher order of thinking and extensively scrutinized deliberations. Their maximized capacity of thinking is then written, as mentioned before, in the most terrible style possible. Sometimes it is as if they wanted to explain multiple points at a time. Sometimes it is as if the later points are explained earlier than the earlier points. But most of the time, they simply do not make any sense. And the vast field covered by philosophy worsens the already problematic corpora with various methods of writings. Can it become worse? Yes, unfortunately, it can.

Nevertheless, however implausibly unfathomable and various approaches these philosophers apply in their writings, there is, still, a discipline that functions as a framework for philosophical writing. And this is what this article is all about. Based on the book “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler, I intend to provide an aid to an introductory disclosure to the discipline of philosophy and how to read it. I hope this summary of the book can be much of help for laymen to understand the wonder of thinking- or as philosophers always put it; contemplating, and philosophy.

The Question Philosophers Ask

Philosophy is the oldest discipline of knowledge ever existed. Why? Because it came exactly at the time when the first human initially started thinking: “who am I?”, “why am I here?”, “who created me?”, “how did I come here?”, “what should I do with my existence?” and etc.

We see human’s lines of thoughts are composed of posing questions and answering them. “What is 1+1? 2.”, “why must I study? To get a job”, “what’s with jobs? To make a living” and etc. Therefore ‘thinking’, in a sense, is the process of asking questions and trying to propose legitimate answers for them. And hence philosophy is the art of ‘asking questions’ and ‘proposing answers’.

But what kind of questions do philosophers ask? We have concluded that philosophy started when the first human started thinking. Let us see his context. He was created when there is almost nothing but his own self. And thus the only thing to be asked is about himself. This situation is similar to a baby when he first came to this world. He sees his hand and he thinks; “what’s this?”. And so he put it in his mouth, so that he can sense it, experience it, taste it, analyze it, think about it, and assert something about it.

These are the kinds of questions that philosophers ask; childishly simple questions. But philosophers are mot children. Though they ask these kinds of questions, they do not ask it in a similar way children do because when we think again, these are not questions that are really simple in a simple sense. Rather, they are simple in the sense of being basic or fundamental.

Let us take the curiosity of a child out for a philosophical stroll shall we? Take out your hand, and ask: “what is it?” It is a hand, ok, but “whose? Is it mine? If yes, is my hand me? What if I cut my hand, do I say my hand is me? Or is it only my hand? Then who am I? Am I a body? A soul? Or the totality of both? If I am just a body, am I just the product of natural phenomena in which I’m a passive factor? And why does removing parts of my body makes the removed parts are not me? If I’m just a soul, then where am I? Why can’t I see myself? Do I really exist? What is existence? What does it really mean to exist? If I’m an existing entity, what should i do with my existence? If I’m not, then who is this ‘I’ that never stops asking questions and demanding answers?” Well, let us not go further or this article will bring problems more than it is actually trying to solve. But as we observed, though these are simple questions, they are not really easy to answer. Because of that, for more than 2500 years, humans have been and are still trying to answer them. So, then, do you still think it is that simple?

Notice that the questions that have been put forward are of two distinguishable kinds. The first are ‘what is it’ questions: “what am I?”, “What is my identity?”, “What brought me here?” and etc. These questions are theoretical questions. The aim is an understanding and demand clarifications of ‘whats and whys’.

The second kind of questions are the ‘how to?’ questions: “how do I response to the state of my existence?”, “if I’m just a body, how do I want to lead my life?”, “if I’m just a soul, how do I live in a meaningful way?”. These questions are the practical questions. Their aim is to show what to do and demand instructions for the ‘hows’.

And so we see philosophy is of two fields: theoretical/speculative and practical/normative. In speculative philosophy, we have metaphysics. They ask questions concerning beings and the properties of existence: “does God exists?”, “what am I made of?”, “what the world is made of?”, “is the world real?” and questions alike.

Besides metaphysics, we also have epistemology. Here, its concerns are on the problems of knowledge: “what is knowledge?”, “what are the criteria for knowing?”, “is knowledge certain?”, “or can it bring certainty?”, “where did knowledge come from?”, “what are the most reliable form and source of knowledge?” and so on.

Next is aesthetic. It concerns with the study of art and beauty: “what is art?”, “why art?”, “how does art give meaning to life?”, “does it serve any utility?”, “what kind of art that serves utilitarian functions?”, “what is beauty?”, “is it subjective/objective?” and else.

On the other hand, normative philosophy is divided into two: ethics and politics. Ethics is the study of moral principles and it asks questions: “what is good and bad?”, “is good always right?”, “is bad always wrong?”, “what is the standard of right and wrong?”. And sometimes God is also the subject of ethics: “is God good?”, “where did come all the evils?”, “Is it from God?”, “If it is, can we really say God is good?”, “If it’s not, then where did it come from?” and other far more complicated questions.

Lastly, we have politics. It brings ethical discussions to the social and governmental level, or we can also say its field of study is “social/governmental ethics”. Then the questions it asks are: “what is a government?”, “what binds people together?”, “Is the bond natural (men were originally put in a social structure at the beginning of their existence)?”, or “is it man made (men decide what form of bonds are the most suitable for them)?”, “what makes a good government?”, “does religious influences play parts?” and more.

We have elucidated the type of questions that philosophers ask and, simultaneously, the fields in which philosophy gives concern. Now let’s us continue on how they attempt to answer them.

On Philosophical Method

Suppose a scientist is curious about a natural phenomenon, for example, the boiling point of water. How can he conduct an investigation to find out find out the boiling factor? He conducts an experiment. In his experiment, he must hypothesize several theories, set up the apparatuses accordingly, condition the variables, collect data, and infer conclusions. And to verify his conclusion, he must repeat the experiment several times before it can be confirmed.

But what is it with all the efforts? What is there in the experiment? When he sees a natural phenomenon, he assumes a causal relationship between an event with another. That the heat of a certain degree is the cause of the boiling of water. But before the experiment, his assumption remains an assumption. Therefore he needs to replicate the phenomenon to see the consequential causality between the two successive events. He needs to experience it empirically (note the keyword: empirical). Only by experiencing it repetitively can he assert a confirmed theory and that it conforms to the objective reality. Science, as how we tried to explain it, appeals to empirical data.

Now suppose a philosopher is curious about the problem of existence. Let us take a question: “do I exist?”. What specific phenomenon can they observe? What kind of experiment can be conducted? What types of data to be collected? What apparatus can be used? What standards can they appeal to? Basically, philosophers have nothing similar to science in respect of these requirements. In fact, they had almost nothing that can be done except to reflect upon the question. There is, in short, nothing to do but think.

But philosophy is not just mere aimless speculations. Philosophers do not merely think without proper steps or doing thinking devoid of experience. Ideas do not come out and put together that way. There are stringent methods to propose a valid philosophical argument, that is, answers for the previous said questions. That is why we have mentioned earlier that philosophy is an art. It is the art of thinking. As how scientists are required to conduct a conditioned experiment based on scientific standards, the same is true for philosophers. The method is called ‘thought experiment’. And the basis employed for ‘thought experiment’ is common experience.

There is no specific scientific experiment that can be conducted to observe existence. There are no apparatus that can measure the size, degree, or any measuring unit possible for existence. Thus, no data collection and derived inference is possible. All you can do is to contemplate. All the phenomena to be observed and the data to be analyzed are in your experience. The experiment is conducted in your mind. That’s why we call it ‘thought experiment’.

How, then, philosophers can formulate an incredibly worked-out answers, even though their only source for their work is experience? Are their experiences any different than yours that they can come out with such groundbreaking discovery? Philosophy appeals to the human experience and reason, so as long as you’re a human, it counts. Then there is not any difference between the experience of philosophers and yours. We do not experience existence- as in the asked question- in a different way. I exist the same way you do. And philosophers the same way we are. We experience ‘common experience’. Rather what distinguishes them is that they think more profoundly than the rest of us have. And that they observe the methods and principles of thinking very well.

Understanding this is not really enough. But for the sake of brevity of what follows, I will leave to you only the most important part in philosophical methods.

On Philosophical Style

When we read novels, there are some styles employed by novelists to make their stories more attractive. Sometimes narratively like “Harry Potter”, sometimes first person story telling like “Skullduggery Pleasant”, and sometimes 4th person story telling like “Hayy Ibnu Yaqzan”. Similarly, philosophy has, at least, five styles of exposition that has been used throughout the discipline. However, we will take into account only four of them that which really do matter to us provided that this article is only introductory.

PHILOSOPHICAL DIALOGUE: The first to adopt this style was Plato in his Dialogues. Also known as ‘Socratic method’, the style is conversational, where a number of men discuss a subject with Socrates. In the dialogue, Socrates embarks on a series of questions. Then the men joined with him give their comments. He, then, questions their propositions further using the information therein and gradually leads them to a conclusion (oftentimes contradict their initial convictions). Surprisingly, the leading to the conclusions always appear unintentionally. Socrates had never influence them- at least explicitly. Rather, they seem to lead themselves towards it by answering Socrates’ seemingly leading questions.

PHILOSOPHICAL TREATISE OR ESSAY: This is the most popular style used in philosophical writing. Aristotle was one of the best known to adopt this style. Unlike the dramatic dialogue style, it develops a philosophical view in a straightforward exposition. It states the main problem first, goes through the subject matter in a thorough way, and treats special problem last. In this we see a philosophical beginning, middle, and end. Though it is a very neat style, its lacking of dramatic elements bores most laymen.

MEETING OF OBJECTIONS: This style is well-known for being developed by St. Thomas Aquinas. It is relatively less dramatic than dialogues, but the style is more neatly arranged than treatises. A question is posed; the opposite (wrong) answer is given and its arguments are laid with detail. It is first answered with an authoritative text. And finally, Aquinas introduces his own answer by beginning with “I answer that…” and proposes his arguments, refuting the detailed arguments of the opposition. The style really helps for those would like to follow the arguments one by one from different proponents on a same subject.

APHORISM: The aphoristic style though is employed widely in the Western tradition (as can be seen in Nietzsche), is actually a special identity of the Eastern philosophy. It always takes the form of enigmatic statements, enjoyable for those who are poetically inclined. The readers will have the impression that the statements are carrying a deeper meaning than what were actually being said. However, truly speaking, it is not expositional at all. It does not really explaining things and is very irritating for serious philosophers who would want to follow and criticize the author’s line of thought.

By recognizing the heterogenic styles in philosophical writing, it alerts us to calibrate our mind setting accordingly. Thus, making us more emphatic in reading and enables us to appreciate and enjoy our conversation with them.

On “Coming to Terms” with Philosophers

One of the regressing setbacks experienced by philosophers- as well as myself- is their unfathomable choice of words. Words such as coloniability, dialectics, supersensory and others bedazzle people’s mind and chase them away from being attracted to philosophy.

However, a more acute problem for philosophers is when they use daily used words but with different intention of meanings. Words such as logic, politics, intuition, common sense, ideas and others are some of the examples. These words, in some sense, are equivocal. However, for philosophers, they do not use any of the optional definitions available in thesaurus. They, instead, define these words with their own definitions. Despite that, we can find it extraordinarily relevant.

An example is the word ‘idea’. For most people it means a beneficial opinion. An idea, to them, is innovative and practical (even the word practical is different for both philosophers and laymen). For philosophers like John Locke, he defined ideas as the object of mental activities. Hence, an imaginary conception in the mind of something that exists outside the mind is an idea, e.g.; imagining an apple. A conception built by the thinker itself (which does not exist anywhere) is also an idea. An opinion, also, is an idea. On the other side of the world, Plato used Idea with capital ‘I’, connoting an utterly different meaning. Referring to a realm exists outside of human sensory reach but intelligible by intellectual access.

We might think, what good does using your own definitions bring to the discourse? Is it not that this that complicates things further? Well, words connote meanings. The meanings are derived from the abstract concepts that are immanent in them. One word, sometimes, provides a wide range of connotation. If, for instance, a philosopher wants to utilize a particular word with a relevant concept for the discussion but finds no compatible connotation (which actually occurred very frequently), then a new connotation must be coined for the sake of the progress of the discussion, for example in the word ‘idea’ as explained above.. In fact, sometimes, they even coin new words. Words such as ‘coloniability’ by Bennabi and ‘adequatio’ by Kant are the examples for the said effort.

Additional Hints for Reading Philosophy

Philosophy, though distinct in methods for reading it from other genre such as social science, poetry, history and others; does also share some general hints. This is because they are all product of language- however different the syntaxes and morphology of different languages are. Therefore these general hints must also be observed closely. Techniques such as reading between the lines, finding the unity between topics or subjects, recognizing the harmony of the writing as a whole, filtering the main points from the side points are all equally important. However, I cannot possibly provide it for you in this article for that will definitely defeat the purpose of being introductory. You must find it elsewhere. For additional tools, you can also refer to the book ‘The Philosopher’s Toolkit’ by Julian Baggini.

Philosophy is really worth reading- especially quality reading- because these thinkers had brought forward revolutionary ideas (or perhaps, to us, opinions) from which can be immensely benefited (and which actually evidently has benefited greatly in human development). Being intentionally ignorant of philosophy, I think, is actually ridiculing life. Because philosophy examines life and “an unexamined life is not worth living”. -Socrates-


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