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How to Properly Understand a Philosophical Text

Updated: Feb 12


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Why Clarity is Key in Philosophical Writing


The philosophical text often differs from other types of writing. If we approach it with a reasoning not aligned with its nature, we risk misinterpretation. This has been a frequent source of frustration for me, as my own work has been misunderstood due to this very disconnect. This is ironic, considering the reader's genuine desire to comprehend the text, wouldn't you agree?


To navigate this conundrum, I'll focus on two main types of philosophical texts. One type, which I'll set aside for now, demands profound reflection on the reader's part. It's known as reflective thinking. The other, often more readily accepted as "wise," tends to be characterized by abstract and seemingly paradoxical reasoning. Examples of this can be found in the writings of ancient Chinese philosophers.


To quote Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu:


Now, here's the important thing: writing like Confucius isn't a prerequisite for passing a philosophy exam. In such situations, clarity and directness are far more valuable than cryptic pronouncements. Remember, philosophy is inherently complex, even when expressed in simple words. Why, then, burden your reader with unnecessary obscurity, when the understanding itself requires significant effort either way?


Traits of a Strong Philosophical Text


The intrinsic worth of a good philosophical text is not entirely subject to external comprehension. Its strength lies in its inherent qualities, regardless of misinterpretations by readers. The fact, for example, that philosophy is hard to understand, does not mean it does not get its point across, nor that it does not make any objective sense. It's in this case where the subjective should adjust itself to the objective, and not be redeemed.


  • Firstly, such a text is self-sufficient. It presents all necessary information with minimal, if any, subtext. The duty lies on the reader to possess a grasp of logical fallacies, for the text might assume familiarity with them. By minimizing these fallacies, the text reduces potential misunderstandings.

  • Secondly, a strong philosophical text strives for neutrality. Even when critiquing opposing viewpoints, it prioritizes clarity over bias. Explaining the rationale behind opposing positions, regardless of personal disagreement, is crucial. This applies especially when advocating against something – understanding its underlying logic is equally important. Subtext has no place in this pursuit, for omitting relevant data compromises the text's integrity.

  • Thirdly, A competent philosopher is a skilled communicator. Philosophy thrives on diverse forms of communication, be it articles or videos. The core argument and evidence should be readily apparent, aiming to either persuade or inspire readers, thus proving the practicality and relevance of philosophy.

  • Fourthly, a focus on ad hominem attacks distracts from the text's substance. Whether a philosopher is deemed arrogant or pretentious is irrelevant; the text itself and its potential insights hold precedence. While personal experiences can enhance arguments, using them solely for self-promotion is antithetical to the point of philosophy, which extends beyond the philosopher themsselves.

Striving for Excellence in Philosophical Exploration


A text set towards adoration or appreciation becomes one-sided, failing in its mission to illuminate reality for its readership. Philosophy seeks understanding, not indoctrination. Those who use philosophizing to push personal agendas are closer to ideologues than philosophers.


While no writer is entirely responsible for reader misconceptions, misinterpretations based on perceived "subtext" or "tone" are solely the reader's burden. The author's responsibility lies in clarity and precision; hinting and implying only makes the message unnecessarily unclear. Write down all what you have to say, that's important for the text in order for it to be properly understood. Otherwise, people will attribute to you things you never wrote down or said; things that they believe you meant to imply, but never actually implied.


Don't expect the reader to take what you take for granted, as such, as well. You and them might not have the same depth of knowledge, so expecting them to know the same thing you know, just because you're both engaging in philosophical interaction via your text, is counter-intuitive. Lay whatever needs to be laid down on the paper/file/whatever.


To enhance your understanding of philosophical texts, including my own, mastering logical fallacies is invaluable. Identifying and minimizing these flaws improves comprehension significantly. It is something I myself attempt to do to this day occasionally, and remembering them all isn't easy at all. I may sometimes even devise my own fallacies, such as the Victory Fallacy or the Bored Man's fallacy. From this we can infer that there might be even more fallacies to be devised.


It's important to acknowledge that not every philosophical text adheres perfectly to these criteria of this article's previous segment. However, even imperfect texts can offer valuable insights, and as such should not be discarded so easily. Striving for self-improvement, lifelong-learning and reflection on the quality of my own work, while deleting of unworthy pieces and revamping existing ones, demonstrates my commitment to delivering valuable philosophical discourse.


Remember, readers of philosophy seek truth, not disguised propaganda.


Cultivating Clarity in Philosophy Discourse

By the way, any concept that requires more than common knowledge deserves a detailed explanation. Whether it's a concrete detail or an abstract idea, your readers deserve to understand exactly what you're talking about. This isn't just for their benefit, but for your own as well. If you want to be taken seriously, clarity is key.


For example, mentioning a fictional character without context alienates newcomers. Just assuming everyone knows who Walter White from "Breaking Bad" is a major misstep. In many media analysis videos, this "assumed expertise" amongst viewers, creates a barrier to entry, hindering the very discussion the video creators aim to create.


And don't fall victim to the ad-populum fallacy. The fact that something is widely known does not mean that everyone knows it. Not worldwide, and not even in a specific country.


Summary


This article aspires to equip both readers and writers of philosophical texts with the understanding and proficiency they deserve in this fascinating niche. By embracing clarity, and understanding how to cultivate the good traits of a philosophical traits, and aiming for mastery, we can unlock the depths of philosophical discourse. And as such, we can ensure inclusivity is included.

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Tomasio A. Rubinshtein, Philosocom's Founder & Writer

I am a philosopher from Israel, author of several books in 2 languages, and Quora's Top Writer of the year 2018. I'm also a semi-hermit who has decided to dedicate his life to writing and sharing my articles across the globe. Several podcasts on me, as well as a radio interview, have been made since my career as a writer. More information about me can be found here.

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