When students begin studying Philosophy, they may not know how to read a VCE Philosophy text in a way that allows them to fully comprehend and engage with the material. When faced with the type of complicated texts found in Philosophy, many students can spend hours reading (and re-reading) the material, only to walk away without any clue as to what the author was trying to argue.
If this sounds like you, first up – don’t stress! You’re certainly not the only one – anyone who has studied philosophy seriously has been there before, likely many, many times.
The good news is that even texts that seem incomprehensible at first can become more manageable once you break the reading process down into a few simple steps. For this guide, we’ll use extracts from Meditation I of Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy as an example text.
How to read a VCE Philosophy text
For a printable PDF copy of this guide, please click here: Philosophy Reading Guide PDF
Step 1: Pre-reading
Before you pick up a text, it can be helpful to do a little pre-reading research. This is especially useful for older texts, as these may use concepts or words that have fallen out of use.
Some useful places to do pre-reading research include:
- The VCE Philosophy textbook. The textbook often provides background information about the text as well as commentary on individual parts of the argument.
- Internet resources such as Wikipedia or Sparknotes. Many pages on Wikipedia can be set to ‘Simple English’, which is useful if you need a ‘bare bones’ summary of the argument to help guide your reading. Sparknotes provides very useful summaries of many philosophical texts, which can help guide you in your reading.
- Early Modern Texts is an excellent resource for historical philosophical texts. The team at Early Modern Texts ‘translate’ philosophical texts from the early modern period, such as those from Hume, Descartes, and Locke, into modern English. Their translations may help you understand texts that are difficult because of the way they are written.
None of these resources can or should replace a careful reading of the text itself.
Once you have finished your pre-reading research and have a general idea of the arguments you’ll be reading, it is time to move on to the next step.
Step 2: Skim the text
It can be useful to skim a text prior to reading to get a general feel for the structure of the argument.
Some texts have sub-headings which allow you to get a general feel for the ‘bare bones’ structure of the text. Read these before you begin reading the article.
Other texts, like Descartes’ Meditations, do not have subheadings. You should still skim these texts and, instead, read the first and last sentence of each paragraph to get a general feel for how the argument progresses through the text.
Step 3: Actively read the text
(No, this does not mean highlighting everything!)
A lot of students (including me, when I was a student!) think highlighting everything counts as ‘active reading’. The problem is, simply highlighting sentences in a text does very little to improve comprehension or retention.
The first time you read a philosophical text, it’s usually better to refrain from highlighting at all. Unlike something like a history text where you know names and dates will be relevant to your revision notes, you often won’t know what parts of a philosophical text are relevant until you’ve read the entire text.
Ways to actively read
- Signposting: On the first read, it may be useful to signpost in the margins where a new argument begins by creating your own subheadings. When you return to the text later, these subheadings will give you a quick overview of the article and help you find the exact section you need.
- Understanding new words: When reading a philosophical text, you’re likely to encounter words you’ve never read before. Underline/jot down any unfamiliar words and look up their definitions. Feel free to jot down the definition in the margins – this will save you having to look it up again at a later date.
- Dealing with confusing sections: If there are sections you don’t understand, or sections you have questions about, pop a little symbol next to them. Once you have finished reading, return to these sections and carefully re-read them. If you are still confused or still have questions, ask your teacher for clarification next time you are in class.
- Summary notes: You can summarise each section by placing a few small summary notes in the margins. This helps remind you what the article is about/the article’s structure when you revise it later.
An example of an annotated reading:
Congratulations, you have finished the first reading! Don’t be concerned if you still don’t understand everything – that’s normal.
Some people like to take a break here and let the reading ‘sit’ for a while, whereas others find that they have to take notes straight away or they forget too much. Experiment with both approaches to find which one works best for you.
Step 4: Taking notes from the text
You should get into the habit of taking notes from what you read – this will help improve your understanding of the text and increase retention of the material. There is no one ‘right’ way to take notes. The only thing that matters is that your notes work for you.
Key things to keep in mind when taking notes:
- Take notes in your own words. When taking notes, think “How would I explain this text to someone who has not studied philosophy?”. Putting notes in your own words helps you identify where you need to improve your comprehension (if you’re struggling to explain it in your own words, you likely don’t understand it well enough) and improves retention.
- Quality over quantity. Your notes shouldn’t aim to summarise everything, but instead the key information you need to know. You can always re-read the text if you forget specifics.
- Remember that your first set of notes are not supposed to be ‘the world’s greatest set of notes ever’ – they’re a learning tool.
- Keep your notes safe and organised. These notes may not be your final revision notes, but they’ll come in handy when it’s time to make your final revision notes.
Note-taking approach 1: The ‘traditional’ method
This approach involves taking notes in words, usually in chronological order. Here is a set of ‘traditional’ notes taken about a section of Meditation I.
These notes are divided into three sections.
On the left-hand side, the student has sign-posted what the notes on the right-hand side contain. This is helpful if you need to quickly review your notes. These signposts can also serve as useful revision tools – cover up the notes on the right-hand side and ask yourself questions based on the summaries on the left, such as “What is the method of doubt?” or “Why does Descartes think the senses are fallible?”
At the bottom the student has written questions for their teacher, leaving space to fill in the answers when they get them.
Note-taking approach 2: The flow-chart method
This method creates notes that are very easy to come back to, especially for visual learners. The key idea here is to
create a flow-chart that visualises the progression of the argument. Here is an example of flow-chart notes about Meditation I:
At the bottom, the student has written down questions they have for their teacher.
Flow-charts may also be a tool you use in your active-reading – some people find that they understand texts better if they create a flow-chart as they read.
Note-taking approach 3: Mind maps
Mind-maps are great for students who are very visual or have trouble reading/comprehending chunks of text. Don’t be afraid to use lots of colour!
The first few times you try this reading/note-taking approach, you may find that it is quite time consuming. With practice it becomes a lot quicker and, ultimately, should save you time by improving your retention of the material.
If you have found this guide useful, check out my VCE Philosophy Essay Writing Guide.