Thoughts on approaching philosophy

Oh hey, guess what? I like philosophy!

I’m taking two classes this next semester, one on early Indian Buddhist philosophy and one on David Hume. Indian Buddhist philosophy is very, very new to me, so it’s been interesting to approach a really new, different philosophy. Interesting and frustrating, as I feel more like I’m intellectually flailing than understanding anything. It’s so deeply, richly, intricately systematic that taking a graduate class on it right out of the gate was probably not my best idea…. but I’m 9 weeks deep now, so onward I go!

As I’ve been struggling through different texts, I’ve been thinking about the ways I think are best to approach any philosophical text or any ideology. I hope these inform the way I teach philosophy, if I am fortunate to be able to do so at some point.

I think there are five ways of approaching a text that are important to a rich, full understanding of its philosophy:

  1. Understand the system in itself. It’s important to understand the system as something whole and as assumed to be coherent. This means asking challenging, clarifying questions, but answering them from within the system itself, on its own terms. This requires a charitable reading. (Or perhaps a curious reading?)
  2. Situate the work or idea in its place in historical and social context. Certain bits of information about the world are not available to all philosophers in all times. These were the best they could do about explaining the world around them. Seek out what was happening around it, what issues or problems the philosophy may have been responding to, what intellectual tools from other disciplines were available. (Usually its contemporary science is very illuminating.) This requires contextual reading.
  3. Identify the weaknesses within the system. Identify which of the challenging questions from #1 cannot be satisfactorily answered, and why. Identify who might be harmed by the acceptance of these ideas. This requires critical reading.
  4. Situate the work with what we know today. With all the advancements we have made since that work was written, how do the ideas this idea stand up? This requires current reading.
  5. Find its most true and helpful aspects. This is basically an overall evaluation of the idea, work, or philosophy. For metaphysical philosophies, this means trying to get a sense of how true and reality-reflecting a theory is. For ethical philosophies, it means evaluating how helpful a theory is in guiding ethical action (and if it helps more than it harms). In general, this approach evaluates how the work presents something true and new about reality, and how we can use it to understand more of the human condition and the world as a whole. This requires constructive reading.

Look how I shoe-horned in, to varying degrees of success, all “C” words for the reading typology! #thesaurus

For some very talented, brilliant people, they can probably do all these kinds of analysis in one reading. I cannot. Ideally, I would have 2-3 readings of the text to feel good about grasping the content.

That’s the one disappointment I have about graduate school: the speed with which we are required to read, contextualize, criticize, and evaluate a myriad of texts. It’s especially hard since I work full-time at a very mentally engaging (though not intellectually challenging) job. I never feel like I give the readings and philosophers their due, and I have yet to feel like I truly understand them in the way I wish I did. Alas alas. But I continue to try to apply as many of these ways of reading to as many texts as I can this semester.

Anything I’ve missed??

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