Increasingly, students are being required to delve into the intimidating realm of philosophical writing. Once reserved for awkward intellectuals, the study has since become relevant in today’s age of rapidly shifting technology. At the University of Utah, many philosophy professors explore the unique convergence between ethics and science — a field all too relevant at Utah’s premier research campus. Yet, without an extensive background in philosophy, many find themselves struggling to truly access this material; therefore, here are five pieces of advice for the uninitiated undergraduate:
1. Abandon your expectations
Theory: Yep, that is right, the first step is to completely abandon your expectations about the experience. Forget that you were marked “highly proficient” in Mrs. Honeywell’s third-grade literature class. Forget that you read the Wall Street Journal every Sunday morning in a satin robe, seated in a leather armchair while sipping on drip coffee. These subtle expectations will only serve as discouragement if you stumble upon a discussion of “deontological ethics,” or find yourself reading a few pages for an hour. Professional philosophy, in stark contrast to introductory texts, is meant to be digested over a long period of time.
Practice: Before you begin reading, place your phone and all other study material out of the immediate vicinity. Situate yourself in a private area, and give yourself plenty of time to read. Accessing philosophy takes time and thinking about seeing Chad at a mixer this weekend will not be a useful exercise.
2. Read the entire passage once
Theory: Chances are, you are not going to understand the subject material right away. That is the objective of learning, right? Be the exact conception of tabula rasa, a blank slate, when initially reading the piece. Absorb as many details as possible, making mental notes of what you do not understand. You will likely be surprised how much you do know or can intuitively reason.
Practice: Once you find a quiet place to read, go through the entire piece without a highlighter or pencil in hand. Yes, that does mean that your $24 set of three Pentel highlighters will need to remain in your supreme fanny pack for the moment. Do not despair, we will get to that step soon. For now, flip through the pages and just read.
3. Coffee and/or vape break
Theory: Once you finish that section of reading, take a break. You deserve it. Unlike a newspaper, reading philosophical text is an exercise in understanding. According to Time, “Giving your brain some down time to avoid losing focus and making sloppy mistakes that slow you down has proven benefits.” How much time should you take to resettle yourself? Hint: the answer is not several hours. During this time, transcend all mediums and let your mind wander.
Practice: Generally, for every 45 minutes of reading, make sure to take a 15-minute break. There is a chance that the piece you are reading will take fewer than 45 minutes—that is completely fine. Keep your breaks between five and 15 minutes in length, and truly let go during that time. At the least, follow the simple maxim that many optometrists recommend: every 20 minutes, look 20 feet ahead for 20 seconds. That should keep your eyes from getting fatigued!
4. Employ the highlighter
Theory: Making mental notes is an excellent method when reading the passage through initially; however, assuming that you truly want to access the material, perusing it once is not enough. Grab your highlighters and begin highlighting the passage. By the time you complete this step, you will be on your way to understanding the piece in a completely different light.
Practice: If you are not already a compulsive notetaker, now is the time to develop some compulsive highlighting habits. Use specific color-coding that you can easily remember will reading the passage. For example, here are two colors I prefer:
Yellow: The quintessential ‘all-purpose’ color that goes anywhere and everywhere. Use this pigment to mark important ideas, significant quotes and anything else that seems important.
Pink: Whenever you find a word or phrase that seems confusing, mark it using this color. Afterwards, you can go back and look up the meaning of that word in the context of the passage.
Pro tip: While you are highlighting, use a pencil to write notes in the margins. That’s right, you will have to multitask, which I realize might be daunting at first. Do not worry, you are reading the material, not writing the Constitution. Jot down a few key words or ideas after you read each paragraph — this will make the process of studying incrementally easier.
5. Summarize and decompress
Theory: Assuming the completion of steps one through four, you have read the passage twice, taken a break and left a significant amount of notes behind for later. Fantastic. Now is the time to summarize the passage and think critically about the ideas that were presented. This step is almost always brushed aside, despite being a crucial component of the philosophical process.
Practice: In less than a paragraph, summarize what the reading was about and any fascinating ideas that were presented. Do not worry about theorizing a counter-argument or refutation to the work; at this point, you are just trying to get a grasp of philosophy. Writing down a key detail that truly fascinated you will make the passage easier to remember down the road.
Pro tip: Spend five to 10 minutes searching those words or phrases which were confusing. If you want an even better grasp of the material, make an effort to discuss it with others. The University of Utah philosophy club meets on Tuesdays at 5 p.m. in the Philosophy Library (CTIHB 459).