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Eric Dayton, Philosophy Faculty

Reading Critically

What does it mean to read critically?

In some disciplines the writing... the function of the writing is to convey some facts. Then that's all you have to do. So, you can skim it and you can strip the facts out and you can memorize those or you can write them on a list and then you have mastered the material. In most of the Humanities and certainly in Philosophy you can't do that. To read to understand philosophical ideas you have to read slowly. That is to say you have to read on the assumption that every single word that was written was used deliberately because it was better than some other word and so then you need to know exactly what it means and how it affects the total meaning complex, which is the argument, the paragraph, the whole thesis. The thing that I mostly tell students is 'Slow down... Don't try to read it quickly. Don't try to skim it. Don't try to make notes. Try to understand what's being said sentence by sentence as you read it really slowly and let that be hard. Let it be difficult, and let it take time. Then read it again.' (Do you think it's useful to read more than once. I mean, maybe to read once, looking for the thesis or the main point, looking at the transitional language, looking at the language that shows relationships between ideas, looking at topic sentences, and the conclusion and then reading it again for more detail?) Yeah, I mean I do think that... That's already very sophisticated reading: to be able to look for those things, to be able to identify a sentence as a transition sentence, or to identify the sign-posting that goes on through an article, to identify what the key topics are, and the key conclusions. If you can do that, then you should start out by doing that, but what that won't give you is whether the argumentation was sufficient. You'll know that the author was attempting to prove some proposition, or to defeat some counterposition, by making an argument, but you won't know whether the argument was valid or not. You won't know whether he did it successfully unless you can follow the argument all the way through. That might be a good way of identifying what the things are that need to be understood, and then to evaluate whether or not the person has a right to those conclusions. Very often students ask the question, 'Should I just write what he said or do you want my own opinion?' That's really a false dichotomy. I want you to understand what he said, and if you have an opinion that's sort of lovely frosting on the cake of your answer. It's not the... (Your understanding of the text...) Your understanding of the text is what I want. That shows... That isn't just a duplication of what was said, otherwise you could just Xerox the article and hand it in as your essay. To show understanding is to be able to put things in your own words and to see consequences that weren't mentioned.