How to Understand Philosophy

Understanding philosophy can be difficult for a whole variety of reasons. Often the concepts themselves are already hard to understand, the writing style is a little dated and the context in which the author is writing is foreign to us. This guide is intended to help people learn how to understand philosophy.

Slow Down

The first trick to understanding philosophy is to slow down a little and think on what was written. The ideas presented in philosophy are subtle and complex, so you will often find yourself spending far more time thinking on the concepts than actually reading them. Furthermore, do not be put off if you simply do not understand a concept within a day, or even a week. Give it time, try different angles of reading it.

Read About The Author

Learning about the author of a specific philosophical work can both help to understand it and be extremely entertaining. A lot of the personalities behind philosophy are really interesting people, often quite eccentric and controversial. An example of this in practice is understanding that the philosopher Rene Descartes was Christian, which can assist in illuminating the way his philosophy seperates the material and the ‘self’ or ‘soul’. Basically, if you can try to imagine the particular philosopher writing the work, it is easier to read.

Understand the Historical and Theoretical Context

Understanding the historical context of the author involves examining what is going on around them in their time period and location. For example, existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sarte are writing in a disillusioned post-World War II setting. As such, you see this rebellion against the sort of ideologies involved in World War II.

Understanding the theoretical context of the author is basically getting to understand a bit about the philosophical framework in which they are writing, and the ideas that lead to their views. For example, with Michel Foucault understanding a little of Nietzsche’s views helps. With Aristotle, understanding the way in which his materialism is contrasting with Plato’s philosophy is helpful.

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