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I just started reading philosophy, and I started by reading Plato's Republic, Phaedo, and Apology. I don't feel like I could explain much about Plato's philosophical thought though, and I feel almost like I'm wasting my time.

I take notes and understand what is being written, but it feels hopelessly shallow. In Phaedo, for example, he talks through Socrates about the immortality of the soul for an extremely long time. I understood the arguments well enough, but is that really all there is to understanding a philosophical text? When I hear people talk about texts, it seems so long and convoluted, and all I can help but think is "how on Earth did you glean absolutely any of that from the extremely simplistic arguments given by Plato"?

Yet, there must be more to it, as every single philosopher or enthusiast speaks this way about these texts. I mean, how could anyone give a lecture about Plato's argument in Phaedo about the harmony of the soul and body based solely on the arguments given in the book? It feels so gibberish and postural.

Is the only possible way to understand, say, Nietzsche, to read every single book he reads, and then read every author that he references as the setup to his work? If so, how does one understand any text at all?

So many philosophical texts seem like they're built upon 400 other philosophers and no explanation is given for how they reached the presumptive claims -- just "if you have read my previous books, and are familiar with Schopenhauer, you will understand this... here are seven arguments built on his several books that you haven't read and can't understand unless you do."

I understand how ranty this is, but it is necessary for people to understand my conundrum. It's starting to seem like reading philosophy is a completely hopeless engagement in retracing the history of every philosophical text ever written to understand the current read.

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    If you are asking about Plato, he certainly did not build on "400 other philosophers", but if you feel you are missing context you should start by reading commentary instead of originals until you are ready to take those in. That applies also to Nietzsche. Commentaries can be easily found by googling, e.g. SEP and IEP have commentaries on most Plato's dialogues, here is IEP's on Phaedo. – Conifold Feb 21 '18 at 4:27
  • I share your sentiments. the way philosophy is taught is weird. Scientists don't spend years reading physicists who didn't get anywhere.but it's the norm in large parts of philosophy. I've never read Plato and cannot see the point. Schopenhauer is different and I'd say worth a browse, but only as a pointer to the way forward. I'd suggest you follow your instincts and where a philosopher seems muddled and lost in problems then go looking for one who isn't. – PeterJ Feb 21 '18 at 11:33
  • Scientists actually do. You don't even get to anything new or near cutting until postgraduate level. You need to work your way through understanding how the old problems have been addressed, to be ready for the new ones. At the same time, citizen science and armchair philosophy can be done by anyone any time – CriglCragl Feb 21 '18 at 13:36
  • @CriglCragl - Yes, but nobody studies failed theories like philostogen. What would be the point? – PeterJ Feb 22 '18 at 12:11
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    Phlogiston. Kuhn looked at examples like that, in regard to the philosophy of science. Understanding how the overturning of Aristotle's theory of buoyancy helped give confidence to the renaissance is as important to understanding science as understanding the role of Copernicus. Philosophy which addresses things we no longer consider problems is also ignored, except similarly where it helps tell the story of how we got here. The important thing for both subjects, is what are considered open problems, that are interesting or meaningful. But understand those latter qualifiers, you need context. – CriglCragl Feb 22 '18 at 17:29
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I'll simply tell you about my own experience, hoping this would give you an idea as to what you'd like to do.

I first met with philosophy by trying to read Martin Buber's "I and Thou" - and boy, I never thought I'd be encountered with so many philosophers' names in such short time - in the first 3 pages Buber referenced at least 10 philosophers and talked about their philosophy. Now granted, I could've easily just skipped a little and not mind the references, but I wanted to reach the full potentially of reading that book, so I started summarizing all the philosophers he mentioned from Wikipedia (sometimes good enough source) - by those Wikipedia pages referenced more philosophers, so I started summarizing them too and.. That was just a lot, and honestly, I just felt like I wanted to know more than a Wikipedia page about them, so I did what I'd suggest you to do - I went to the library and took one of the many "history of philosophy" books (I took Samuel Hugo Bergmann's, and I highly recommend it, also it's only on the modern philosophy - from the 15th century until the 19th).

This, without any doubt, was the best choice I made. I was met with many philosophers that intrigued me, and received a very good summary of their philosophy. But mainly, I just took this series (4 books) as an introduction to philosophy, so that I would later be able to take the original works of the philosophers that I was mostly interested in, and actually understand them without any issue. After reading that series I had little trouble reading original works, which is in my opinion the best pro of doing that.

Of course, you'll always be met with philosophers and ideas that you haven't met yet, and reading briefly on them on sites such as SEP and IEP like @Conifold suggested is a very good choice, at least to get familiar with them. Articles are also a nice venue to get acquainted with new concepts and philosophers you haven't heard about, or you're interested in. There are also a lot (and I mean, a lot) of books on philosophers, that quite often give you a well recognition with the philosopher so much as you often don't need to read the original works later (but that's always a good thing to do, because as is their nature, those books are always certain interpretation of the philosopher's works, and it's better to read the philosopher's work on your own to see if you don't have a different interpretation of your own).

So to sum it up, there are many ways to get to know philosophy. I haven't even started on other venue like videos and podcasts and all the options media has to offer. I'd really like to suggest reading one of those "history of philosophy" series books for starters. Have a good read :)

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When I hear people talk about texts, it seems so long and convoluted, and all I can help but think is "how on Earth did you glean absolutely any of that from the extremely simplistic arguments given by Plato"?

Arguments can be very long and complicated. For any text, interpretation is needed. For most philosophical texts this isn't exactly simple. It starts with making sense of the style of the text, goes over deciphering terminology and ends with reasoning how to deal with ambiguities or issues. Furthermore philosophical texts can be dense, long, complicated, dry, badly written, etc.

For older texts a number of problems are added:
1) Any references to events or other texts we must recover with much more work, simply because we live in a different time with a different view on the world.
2) Translation is needed. In the case of Plato, translating from Ancient Greek is no easy business.
Etc.

Is the only possible way to understand, say, Nietzsche, to read every single book he reads, and then read every author that he references as the setup to his work? If so, how does one understand any text at all?

To understand older texts, context is especially important. Hence stuff like biographical backdrop matters. There's a concept called Hermeneutics that deals with understanding of texts, ideas, and so on. Here's an article on it. The core idea of it is one take on 1) if and why such an extensive procedure is necessary to understand the text and 2) how we should go about it. Hermeneutics in particular treats understanding of texts as a process that is never finished.

I understand how ranty this is, but it is necessary for people to understand my conundrum. It's starting to seem like reading philosophy is a completely hopeless engagement in retracing the history of every philosophical text ever written to understand the current read.

To suggest a more practical approach, why not make use of introductory texts? Of course, those need to be of good quality. But treating them as a tool that will be inaccurate, incomplete, simplifiying or wrong makes it an efficient way of building knowledge. Either way there's work involved which can not be avoided.

Also note that certain approaches don't try that hard to be faithful to the texts and that philosophy can be done with much less focus on past philosophers. A philosopher of mind in the analytic tradition can get away with not caring very much about Plato and focusing on contemporary stuff. So maybe a different focus would be better suited to your area of interest.

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My first reaction - My attendance at University Ba(hons)philo, was the best way possible to start reading philosophy. But not all can do that and things have changed since 1968 - 71 anyway. Second reaction - We were directed to certain general introductory texts in the first year. I'm re-reading some of them now and finding new ones. This is helpful to get some sort of 'framework' to slot ideas into. Third - I agree about using someone else's commentary. Fourth - Plato's Socrates does seem to labour every point. Don't forget just how long ago it was written, how different his society was and how little philosophical thought there had been, in the west anyway, up to then. I fell in love with philosophy because Plato transported me to the charming world of ancient Greece.

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I've been very "philosophical" all my life, but I didn't start studying philosophy until I was about sixty-two. Actually, I took Philosophy 101 in college, but I remember nothing about it except that it was a very dull, meaningless course taught by a dull, meaningless instructor.

There are a couple things I really like about philosophy.

First, many people see the world in black-and-white. As a "liberal" (loosely speaking), I have long prided myself on being able to see shades of gray.

But philosophy takes us even farther. Instead of asking if God exists (Yes or No), a philosopher might ask, "What do you mean by 'God'?"

That example also illustrates the second thing I like about philosophy. It forces us to pay attention to the meaning of words, something that's especially important in the realm of political science.

In fact, I think philosophy should be studied by anyone who wants to understand mind control, because, believe it or not, there's a lot of propaganda in philosophy.

With this in mind, philosophy is a lot like history. Most of what we know about ancient Greece was written by ancient Greeks, and only a fool would believe they were completely honest in their description of their culture. On top of that, philosophy can be really complex and wordy, as you noted.

My free advice to a novice student of philosophy is DON'T DIVE HEADFIRST INTO PLATO, MACHIAVELLI OR ANY OTHER PHILOSOPHER.

A better strategy (in my opinion) is to get on the Internet and start watching philosophy videos, focusing especially on videos that focus on the big picture. I'm talking about things like the origin of philosophy, the history of philosophy, the most famous philosophers. Try to get a grasp on the major philosophical schools, questions and ideas.

Watching a 15-minute video is a helluva lot more enjoyable than trying to wade through a vast manuscript written by an ancient Greek.

After watching a few videos and reading a few (hopefully interesting, if not enjoyable) articles, you should have a basic roadmap in your head.

Now you can pursue a specific interest, diving headfirst into Plato, if you want. But you're still going to have to read Plato several times before you really get it. And I'll be upfront in saying that I haven't yet explored Plato's works in any depth. Instead, I've simply focused on what's been written about Plato.

My response was a bit rambling and wordy, but was it worse than Plato? ;)

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Is the only possible way to understand, say, Nietzsche, to read every single book he reads, and then read every author that he references as the setup to his work?

The glib answer is "yes."

Consider the reading list for the Marquette Philosophy PhD program's comprehensive exam. I don't know exactly how Marquette's program is structured, but probably graduate students have to pass this exam — know all of these 40 or 50 books extremely well — before they can start writing their dissertation. In other words, according to the faculty at Marquette, this is the minimum that you need to to know in order to be a professional teacher and researcher in academic philosophy.

When your instructor gives a lecture on Plato on the relationship between the soul and the body, that's not based only on what Plato says in that part of the Phaedo that you read. The complete works of Plato are 1800 pages long. Your instructor has probably read a good chunk of those 1800 pages, plus the work of later philosophers interpreting, commenting on, and critiquing Plato.

If so, how does one understand any text at all?

Here's where we need the non-glib answer. If you study philosophy properly, you're not pushing through a dense thicket of words on your own. Instead you're following a steep but well-traveled path, being guided by your instructors and the authors whom you read. Aristotle tells you how he interpreted Plato. Aquinas tells you how he interpreted Aristotle and Plato. You're also watching everyone involved — the authors, plus your instructors, as well as your fellow students — criticize and debate with each other.

So initially you can use the interpretations given to you by people who have already traveled this path. As you continue to study philosophy, you'll learn more of the details and context, as well a skills of close reading and argument. By applying those skills, you'll be able to identify the strengths and limitations of different interpretations of what you've read, and eventually develop your own interpretations.

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