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The London Philosophy Study Guide:Reading Philosophy

2009年9月26日 发表评论 阅读评论

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At no stage in one’s career is reading philosophy easy. Some people claim to read philosophy for pleasure. Wittgenstein is reported to have said that he found reading some philosophy ‘a kind of agony’. Many people are inclined to agree with this. Whatever good intentions philosophers have to make their works clear, accessible, and fun to read, the result is rarely any better than more dull and dense prose with a few corny jokes. Remember that you read philosophy not for the pleasure of the moment, but for what you can come away with.It is important, then, that you make your reading of philosophy as efficient and rewarding as possible. In order to do this you must maintain a sympathetic but critical attitude to the text. This can often be best achieved by approaching the text with a number of general questions in mind. Normally you will not have got everything you could have out of the text until you can answer the following questions.

A. WHAT CONCLUSION DOES THE AUTHOR WISH TO REACH?

It is very rare that you will be asked to read a piece in which the author is not arguing for or against a certain thesis or conclusion. (The conclusion might even be ‘no conclusion can be reached on this topic’.) Understanding what that conclusion or thesis is will be the first and most important step in understanding the reading.

B. WHY IS THAT CONCLUSION INTERESTING?

Of course, the conclusion may not seem very interesting to you, at least not at first. But, you hope, the conclusion should be interesting to its author. In what way? Does it contradict common sense? Or the view of some great philosopher of the past? Or some contemporary rival? Generally speaking, philosophers are writing to convince some people who hold a certain view. Who are those people and what is the view? Another way of thinking about this is to ask yourself why you think you have been set the reading, or why it appears on a reading list. What philosophical problem does it bear on, and how? What else that you know about does it connect with?

C. WHAT IS THE ARGUMENT?

This is often the most difficult part. A thesis, generally, is not merely asserted, but argued for. To identify the argument is to determine what premisses or assumptions are being used, and to determine what logical inferences are being made. Philosophers are often very inexplicit about this. Certain premisses will be taken for granted and so not even mentioned. Many different arguments might be used, but not properly distinguished. Identifying the argument or arguments, then, often requires great imaginative and forensic skill, but is indispensable for a real understanding of the text.

D. IS THE ARGUMENT VALID IN ITS OWN TERMS?

This question is really seamless with the last. If you think that you have identified the argument, but it is flagrantly invalid, then think again. Perhaps you have misunderstood something. Many readers apply a principle of hostility to philosophical texts, thinking that it is obvious that there must be a serious mistake somewhere, all one need do is identify it. A better tactic is to apply a principle of charity instead. If the argument seems flawed try to think of ways in which it can be repaired. The task here is not one of literal interpretation of the text, but of constructing the strongest line of thought available from the text. This is where some of the best, and most creative, philosophical work is to be done.

Even with your best efforts, however, not all arguments can be rescued. The most common way of showing the invalidity of an argument is to find a counter-example. A counter-example to the argument is a case in which the premisses are true but the conclusion false. This shows that the argument is logically invalid, and the next task is to identify the particular logical mistake made.

More often, counter-examples can be attempted to the main thesis, rather than the argument. If an author claims that all F’s are G, rack your brains to see if you can think of an F that is not a G. If you can, you have found a counter-example and (if it is genuine) you have refuted the thesis.

Another common defect in philosophical arguments is equivocation, where an author uses a term in more than one sense, and the argument only goes through because this ambiguity is ignored. This can be very hard (so very rewarding) to detect.

In all this, remember that the philosophically mature and responsible attitude is that understanding must precede criticism.

E. SHOULD THE PREMISSES OF THE ARGUMENT BE ACCEPTED?

Even if the argument is valid in its own terms, you might still want to reject the conclusion, perhaps because you have found a counter-example to it, or because it conflicts with something else you believe. It might even contradict something else the author has said elsewhere. At this point your strategy is to examine the premisses or assumptions of the argument. Are they true, or are there counter-examples to one or more of these? Or perhaps there are other reasons for rejecting them. If the argument relies on false premisses, then it doesn’t prove anything.

F. IF WE ACCEPT THE ARGUMENT AND CONCLUSION, WHAT ELSE FOLLOWS?

Sometimes philosophers are explicit about the further implications of their view. Often they are not. If not, here is your own chance for real originality.

G. FINALLY: A CAUTION

These notes are intended to help you read philosophy. But not all you read can be approached through these questions. Sometimes philosophers present views without argument. Sometimes they present arguments apparently without views. Some philosophers think that the governing assumption of these notes, that philosophy requires arguments for conclusions, is a vulgar mistake, and real philosophy requires something else. In all such cases, following this guide to the letter will lead only to frustration. But you can still apply the spirit: approach the text in a sympathetic but critical way; try to determine why the text is thought to be philosophically interesting; try to work out how it connects with other things you know about. Don’t just read: think.

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