Philosophy is an amazing tool to understand the complex ideas that have dominated political and social thought in all areas where it is practiced. However, the writing to which Western-educated students are exposed today does not prepare the freshman university student well for decoding much of philosophical writing. How can the Philosophy 101 student make sense of her assignments? Here are some tips to slow down the information overload and make sense of that tricky assignment.
Things You Will NeedYou'll need your assignment and a pen and paper -- or the computer on which you're reading!
Even if you use a computer, though, have a pencil handy, preferably a light one so you can erase marks easily if you need to.
Scan your assignment. Read it line by line to put all of your fear on the table. It's often frightening to have all these words wash over you without having any idea of how they fit. Reading the assignment aloud, whether alone or to a friend, can help dispel the fear and silliness that comes with reading material you feel may be strange and above your level.
Get out a pencil and paper or open a text file on your computer. Take down each word that confuses you or whose meaning you're not sure you understand. Don't be shy. In philosophy, later ideas build on earlier ones, so it's important to understand just what you're reading, especially in the earliest selections you're given. Even if they're not in chronological order, your professor is going to compare and contrast earlier topics with later ones. It's important not to get left behind!
With a light pencil, underline the phrases or sentences that you do understand. It's okay if they're just phrases! Look at these phrases and sentences. This is to show you that you CAN understand this. Not understanding jargon is okay. We all begin as beginners.
Take your list and go to Google. Its search functions are so good that if you're reading Kant and you don't understand the "noumenon" or his "Kingdom of Ends," you can just search "Kant noumenon" and plenty of sources will appear to explain the concept. Some concepts, though, are pretty packed with information, interpretation, and analysis -- and not all of these sources agree!
Write just a couple of sentences about what you think the general ideas surrounding the concept are and move on. Spend no more than 4-5 minutes on each unfamiliar concept.
Experiment with your findings by inserting the meanings you've come up with into the sentences that are giving you trouble. Replace the mystery word with a concise phrase that sums up the supposed meaning in the sentence. Does it make sense? Does it support or contradict the sentences and concepts surrounding it? If you're confident you understand the word, feel free to cross it off your list or delete it.
Give the selection another read. Reading aloud, even to yourself, is a big help to make sure you're not just scanning it.
Take the rest of your list to your professor (or, if your prof isn't very responsive, another professor or a tutor.) She or he can help you understand the concepts you've missed, and if she's your professor, she'll see you're making an effort by your general understanding of the selection!
Everyone learns differently and at their own pace! Feel free to be creative with your strategies until you've found a perfect fit. I hope these tips will help jump-start your learning journey in the discipline of philosophy!
Tips & WarningsA Few Extra Tips:
Eat a light meal or snack before sitting down to study, and keep some granola or dried fruit around if your body needs it.
Stay hydrated. When you hit the books, dehydration headaches can crop up and leave you feeling drained. Try to go through 2 or 3 12-ounce tumbler glasses while you study.
If you need a beginner's guide that is concise, on your level, and slim on the overwhelming selections, I recommend The Practice of Philosophy: Handbook for Beginners (3rd Edition). It's the textbook I used for my Philosophy 101 class and I referred to it for the rest of my major to produce clear, concise reading and writing.