Chapter 18 – How To Read Philosophy (part 2 of 4)


For the sake of brevity in what follows, let us call questions about what is and happens in the world, or about what men ought to do or seek, “first-order questions.” We should recognize, then, that there are also “second-order questions” that can be asked: questions about our first-order knowledge, questions about the content of our thinking when we try to answer first-order questions, questions about the ways in which we express such thoughts in language.

The majority of professional philosophers at the present day no longer believe that first-order questions can be answered by philosophers. Most professional philosophers today devote their attention exclusively to second-order questions, very often to questions having to do with the language in which thought is expressed.

This makes modern philosophy very hard to read for non-philosophers – as difficult, indeed, as science for non-scientists. … However, there are philosophical books that you can read, and that we believe you should read. These books ask the kinds of questions that we have called first-order ones. It is not accidental that they were also written primarily for a lay audience rather than exclusively for other philosophers.

All of the great classical works in philosophy, from Plato onward, were written from this point of view. These books are accessible to the lay reader; you can succeed in reading them if you wish to. Everything that we have to say in this chapter is intended to help you do that.


It is important to understand what philosophical method consists in – at least insofar as philosophy is conceived as asking and trying to answer first-order questions. Suppose that you are a philosopher who is troubled by one of the childishly simple questions we have mentioned – the question, for instance, about the properties of everything that exists, … How do you proceed?

If your question were scientific, you would know that to answer it you would have to perform some kind of special research. … If your question were historical, you would know that you would also have to perform research, although a different kind. But there is no experiment that will tell you what all existing things have in common, precisely in respect to have existence. … all you can do is reflect upon the question. There is, in short, nothing to do but think.

You are not thinking in a total vacuum, of course. Philosophy, when it is good, is not “pure” speculation. … Ideas cannot be put together just anyway. There are stringent testes of the validity of answers to philosophical questions. But such tests are based on common experience alone – on the experience that you already have because you are a human being, not a philosopher. … What distinguishes [the greatest philosophers] is that they thought about it extremely well: they formulated the most penetrating questions that could be asked about it, and they undertook to develop carefully and clearly worked-out answers. By what means? Not by investigation. Not by having or trying to get more experience than the rest of us have. Rather, by thinking more profoundly about the experience than the rest of us have.


Although there is only one philosophical method, there are at least five styles of exposition that have been employed by the great philosophers of the Western tradition. The student or reader of philosophy should be able to distinguish between them and know the advantages and disadvantages of each.

  1. THE PHILOSOPHICAL DIALOGUE: The first philosophical style of exposition, first in time if not in effectiveness, is the one adopted by Plato in his Dialogues. The style is conversational, even colloquial; a number of men discuss a subject with Socrates (or, in the later dialogues, with a speaker known as The Athenian Stranger); often, after a certain amount of fumbling, Socrates embarks on a series of questions and comments that help to elucidate the subject. In the hands of a master, like Plato, this style is heuristic, that is, it allows the reader, indeed leads him, to discover things for himself. When the style is enriched by the high drama – some would say the high comedy – of the story of Socrates, it becomes enormously powerful.
  2. THE PHILOSOPHICAL TREATISE OR ESSAY: Aristotle was Plato’s best pupil; he studied under him for twenty years. … The subjects covered by Aristotle in his treatises, and the various styles adopted by him in presenting his findings, also helped to establish the branches and approaches of philosophy in the succeeding centuries. … Finally, there are the major treatises, some of which, like the Physics and Metaphysics, or the Ethics, Politics, and Poetics, are purely philosophical works, theoretical or normative; some of which, like the book On the Soul, are mixtures of philosophical theory and early scientific investigation; and some of which, like the biological treatises, are mainly scientific works in the field of natural history.

Immanuel Kant, although he was probably more influenced by Plato in a philosophical sense, adopted Aristotle’s style of exposition. His treatises are finished works of art, unlike Aristotle’s in this respect. They state the main problem first, go through the subject matter in a thorough and businesslike way, and treat special problems by the way or at the last. The clarity of both Kant and Aristotle may be said to consist in the order that they impose on the subject. We see a philosophical beginning, middle, and end. We also, particularly in the case of Aristotle, are provided with accounts of the views and objections of others, both philosophers and ordinary men. Thus, in one sense the style of the treatise is similar to the style of the dialogue. But the element of drama is missing from the Kantian or Aristotelean treatise; a philosophical view is developed through straightforward exposition rather than through the conflict of positions and opinions, as in Plato.

  1. THE MEETING OF OBJECTIONS: The philosophical style developed in the Middle Ages and perfected by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica has likenesses to both of those already discussed. Plato, we have pointed out, raises most of the persistent philosophical problems; and Socrates, as we might have observed, asks in the course of the dialogues the kind of simple but profound questions that children ask. And Aristotle, as we have also pointed out, recognizes the objections of other philosophers and replies to them.

Aquinas’ style is a combination of question-raising and objection-meeting. The Summa is divided into parts, treatises, questions, and articles. The form of all the articles is the same. A question is posed; the opposite (wrong) answer to it is given; arguments are educed in support of that wrong answer; these are countered first by an authoritative text (often a quotation from Scripture); and finally, Aquinas introduces his own answer or solution with the words “I answer that.” Having given his own view of the matter, he then replies to each of the arguments for the wrong answer. 

The neatness and order of this style are appealing to men with orderly minds, but that is not the most important feature of the Thomistic way of philosophizing. Rather, it is Aquinas’ explicit recognition of conflicts, his reporting of different views, and his attempt to meet all possible objections to his own solutions.  … the civilization of the Middle Ages was essentially oral, partly because books were few and hard to come by. A proposition was not accepted as true unless it could meet the test of open discussion’ the philosopher was not a solitary thinker, but instead faced his opponents in the intellectual market place (as Socrates might have said). Thus, the Summa Theologica is imbued with the spirit of debate and discussion.

  1. THE SYSTEMIZATION OF PHILOSOPHY: In the seventeenth century, a fourth style of philosophical exposition was developed by two notable philosophers, Descartes and Spinoza. Fascinated by the promised success of mathematics in organizing man’s knowledge of nature, they attempted to organize philosophy itself in a way akin to the organization of mathematics.

Probably there are no absolute rules of rhetoric. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether it is possible to write a satisfactory philosophical work in mathematical form, as Spinoza tried to do, or a satisfactory scientific work in dialogue form, as Galileo tried to do. The fact is that both of these men failed to some extent to communicate what they wished to communicate, and it seems likely that the form they chose was a major reason for the failure.

  1. THE APHORISTIC STYLE: There is one other style of philosophical exposition that deserves mention, although it is probably not as important as the other four. This is the aphoristic style adopted by Nietzsche in such works as Thus Spake Zarathustra and by certain modern French philosophers.

The great advantage of the aphoristic form in philosophy is that it is heuristic; the reader has the impression that more is being said than is actually said, for he does much f the work of thinking – of making connections between statements and of constructing arguments for positions – himself. At the same time, however, this is the great disadvantage of the style, which is really not expositional at all. The author is like a hit-and-run driver; he touches on a subject, he suggests a truth or insight about it, and then runs off to another subject without properly defending what he has said. Thus, although the aphoristic style is enjoyable for those who are poetically included, it is irritating for serious philosophers who would rather try to follow and criticize an author’s line of thought.

As far as we know, there is no other important style of philosophical exposition that has been employed in our Western tradition. … This means that all of the great philosophers have employed one or the other of these five styles. … The treatise or essay is probably the most common form, both in the past and the present. … Dialogues are notoriously hard to write, and the geometrical style is enormously difficult both to write and to read. The aphoristic style is highly unsatisfactory from a philosophical point of view. The Thomistic style has not been used very much in recent times. Perhaps it would not be acceptable to modern readers, but that seems a shame, considering all its advantages.