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There is a lot of content in works of philosophy, yet its unreasonable to say that one must comprehend and memorize every detail and claim in order to understand the work as a whole. I struggle with understanding philosophical texts because I frequently get bogged down in minor details that. I often write too many notes. As a result, reading a particular section takes unreasonably long.

How does one distinguish the essential content from the inessential in a work in such a way as to come away with a sufficient understanding of it?

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    One approach is to use secondary literature, small bite secondary literature first, i.e. SEP and IEP articles, focused papers written about few specific issues, etc. They map the big picture in brief and provide additional context and examples. With this map at hand you can then better handle longer comprehensive works, recognizing the overall structure behind the minutiae and being able to sort out interweaved ideas into different shelves and organize them better in your mind. Another approach is leapfrogging: pick a single issue to focus on and mine the text for the relevant parts only.
    – Conifold
    Jun 1 at 23:25
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    As Conifold says, commentaries and encyclopedic articles help a lot. Major works have loads of books and articles written about them. At first it feels strange to read a "book about a book", but it really helps. And it adds a lot to the learning process once you read the book itself and discover you disagree with the commentator, go back to see were they come from with their opinion, and so on.
    – armand
    Jun 2 at 7:29
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    It takes practice, and more practice. After each section, ask yourself: what was the main point of that section? Then after you've done that for several sections, try to find the thread that weaves each of these main points together. Accept that you will not understand everything now and take what you can on this reading. Understand that study is a process of progressive overload, which means you are not reading this work just for now but also to set yourself up for a more productive future reading. Jun 2 at 16:39
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    Reading summaries first, in order to see the big picture. Then tackle the original text. ( Anthologies are not so much helpful as summaries, so summaries). Jun 3 at 18:18
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    For example : Masterpieces Of World Philosophy. Also, there are many readng guides ( Routledge, Cambridge, etc). Jun 3 at 18:20
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My suggestion is to try to read proactively. If you're getting bogged down and taking overly copious notes, that tells me that you're reading passively: taking each passage as it arrives on the page, trying to hold it in mind, and hoping that enough accumulation will make the meaning of the work as a whole clear. That rarely works (I'm tempted to say 'never' with more advanced work). The human mind can retain vast amounts of knowledge, but knowledge and understanding are often at odds. One could memorize thousands of trees without really getting a sense for the forest, if you follow me...

A better approach (at least, it works for me) is to try to anticipate the argument. As you're reading, ask yourself: What is this passage leading to? Why is s'he including this point? Is it defending against a different position, advancing a chain of reasoning, exemplifying something said earlier? What does this passage lay the groundwork for? And then as you continue to read, see if you were right or wrong, and if you're wrong take the time to skim backwards to see what clues you missed. This allows you to enter into a kind of dialog with the author, one in which you can wrestle with the ideas as they are being presented rather than waiting for eventual revelation.

This ought to give you a clearer insight into what is central and what peripheral. You'll start to recognize hierarchical structures of logic (think of the sentence-paragraph-section-chapter hierarchy of a work, though not every work is laid out that way).

As a corollary, I'd suggest not marking a passage or adding a marginal note until you've gotten a paragraph or two beyond it. Only mark the text in four cases:

  1. When a passage is central to advancing the argument
  2. When an example is particularly informative or useful
  3. When the argument went in some direction you did not expect (a blindspot in your thinking you need to examine)
  4. When a passage grabs you and/or suggests a different line of reasoning you might want to explore later.

That should keep your markup sparse and on point for later review.

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