Zettelkasten Forum


Reading Very Difficult Books

The question of reading difficult books has come up tangentially a few times in the past here (for instance, on the discussion of the three-layer structure of evidence), but I wanted to make a thread to consolidate discussion on some of the typical problems we run into when reading very difficult books and how we might go about reading them in a Zettelkasten-compatible way. Perhaps there can be no general method, but we might get some value from discussing the typical problems.

First I should clarify what sorts of books I have in mind. In terms of @sfast's Barbell Method matrix, these are books where the vast majority of their contents fall into the “Difficult to understand” column, and, for most of those difficult to understand parts, it’s not immediately clear whether they are “useful” or not (i.e. it’s not immediately clear what their significance is either for you or the larger argument of the book). In the worst-case scenario, the “part” may be so obscure you do not immediately recognize it as a “part” separate from another “part.” (For instance, a typical move of 20th century French philosophy is to explicitly argue for X while implicitly critiquing Y. If you aren’t aware of Y, you’ll miss the implicit point). Obviously certain ambitious works of philosophy would fall into this category: Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Heidegger’s Being and Time, etc. But it also might include historical documents that are hard to read because they were written in a vastly different historical period than our own, sacred texts, or academic works in a field you're not familiar with.

I have a decent amount of experience reading difficult works of philosophy, so I’m going to bring up problems I typically encounter while reading them, however I’m interested in how you approach any difficult text. In terms of philosophy, the ideal situation to read these difficult books is in the context of a seminar. But we don’t always have the luxury of reading a difficult book with others. So, I want to focus on how to read a difficult book on your own. Here are some general questions that come up for me repeatedly when reading on my own, and that I haven’t totally decided on.

Read and process chapter by chapter, or read then entire book and then process the entire book?

@sfast's two step advice is (1) read the book swiftly then (2) read the book a second time to process marked passages. There are pros and cons to this in the case of difficult books. The pro of reading the entire book gives you a rough idea of the whole, so that when you go to process you have a better idea of the context of each part within the larger argument of the work. However, these books often can’t be read very swiftly (my average for difficult works of philosophy is about 5 pages every half hour, while making minimal marginalia, whereas for popular or easier non-fiction I can get up to 15 or even 20 pages per half-hour). This leads to reading the book “swiftly” often taking weeks or even months, which can lead to a lack of momentum, and forgetting of earlier parts.

On the other hand, we could proceed by reading one chapter, then processing it, then reading the next chapter, then processing it, etc. This has the advantage of producing writing earlier. Also, thinking more deeply about earlier chapters in the book will likely help you better understand later chapters. The danger is that processing too early can lead to misreadings of earlier parts of the book. For instance, a lot of philosophy in the “Continental” tradition that I’m most familiar with is written in a way that Gary Gutting calls “persuasive elaboration.” In earlier chapters, a philosopher may make provocative and controversial claims and, instead of immediately arguing for it or explaining it, will spend the rest of the book “developing, refining, extending, [and] defending the new claims in ways that will exhibit their ability to illuminate question that are of interest to philosophers,” (pp. 200-01). A result of this is that you might be liable to misunderstand the claim or the concept until you’ve read the rest of the book. This is perhaps not an issue since we can always (and indeed should) revise our notes when we realize they were a misinterpretation. However, the method of chapter by chapter processing could potentially lead to daunting tasks of revision later on: say I have 50 notes on the first few chapters of a book advancing an interpretation that I later realize is completely misguided. It might be easier to just scrap those 50 notes and start over than to go through each of them and revise or explain what’s wrong with them.

Should we include question or problem notes, notes on why we don’t understand something?

Often when I’m reading a difficult book, and I realize I’m not going to be able to figure out what a passage means by close reading that passage alone, I’ll try to write out exactly what it is I don’t understand about the passage: an ambiguous phrase, a word I don’t understand, my unclarity about the significance of a passage, etc. In this case, I don’t end up with a note describing an argument or a concept or a position, but instead an interpretive question that might end up guiding my later reading. I haven’t decided on whether I think it’s appropriate to include these sorts of question notes in my ZK. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. For instance, here’s a question note I have on Saussure’s concept of la langue:

I haven’t answered this question yet. But when I do, I would link the question note to the answer, or to a note explaining why the question is ill formed. Sometimes I find these sorts of questions useful to keep on hand, since they are usually questions a typical reader might have and could end up as good jumping off points for essays. However, a potential con could be relying on question notes as a crutch: rather than doing to the work to actually understand something, just adding a bunch of question notes to your ZK. Despite that, I tend to think question notes are more useful than not (at least, to me). But I’d be interested in what others think about this practice.

When and how to read secondary sources?

A seminar is helpful when reading a difficult book because there are others struggling alongside you and discussing the book with them can help you clarify your own thinking. We might think reading secondary sources or commentaries could be a substitute for this benefit of seminars. However, I’m not always sure. Let’s posit this as an either/or choice, like the other questions I raised. We generally have three options: (1) First process the difficult book in its entirety, then turn to secondary sources for help on particular questions you still have after completing the book. (2) Read and process secondary sources at the same time as reading and processing the difficult book. (3) Read and process secondary sources before reading the difficult book, to quickly give oneself an orientation. I’ve always been warry of (3) since I’m concerned that my own interpretation will get shaped by another author's and will cause me to overlook things that otherwise would have stood out to me. (1) appeals to me the most, but there you have the same danger of processing chapter-by-chapter that I raised: it could be you finish processing the difficult book, amass hundreds of zettels, and then find out that the secondary literature on the book all agree that your interpretation is, in fact, a common misinterpretation. Maybe you read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit as an account of the actual historical development of human consciousness. Then what do you do? It seems tempting, again, to scrap your zettels rather than reframe them as a very good example of the wrong way to read Hegel.

So (2) seems like the best option. Though it can raise its own challenges. You’ll be processing multiple related books at once. This could drag out your reading even farther: say you read a chapter of the difficult book, process it, then read a commentary on that chapter in a secondary source, process it and update your notes. Typically, you’ll then have to go back to the difficult book to reread sections of the chapter to clarify your notes further. This is time consuming, but perhaps it’s the way it has to be to avoid both being too influenced by secondary sources and falling into the trap of investing too much energy in a tempting misinterpretation. I have fewer thoughts on this since, in the seminar context, I’ve found I didn’t really have to rely on secondary sources that much. On my own, however, I’m feeling a greater need for them. So I’d be grateful if anyone could share advice on how they handle processing a secondary source or commentary alongside a primary source.

Those are the thoughts I’ve had so far on reading difficult books. Some of the cons I mention might just be inevitabilities of reading very difficult books. One of the things I find valuable about these sorts of books is their ability to not merely convey information but to provoke multiple new thoughts and new interpretations that go beyond what is said in the text. This often means that processing them once is not enough. Maybe some of the problems I identity come from attempting to exhaust these books while only having to process them once… If anyone else has encountered other problems, or has any advice on processing very difficult books, I’d like to hear them.

Comments

  • The Barbell Method goes out the window if you really have to wrestle with the text. That is for sure.

    With difficult text, I do a lot of preprocessing on paper and longhand. The chance of me drawing is way higher because it helps to see the whole. When I have worked out a major milestone I'll process it for the final step.

    I am a Zettler

  • These are very interesting questions you open up @Taylor ! I have also been studying philosophy in an academic context for quite some time and have struggled with taking notes on what I read.

    I myself have given up taking notes on what I read in any detail. For one thing, it would take an insane amount of time to compile notes through which one could understand works such as Phenomenology of Spirit or Being and Time. As you know, many academics have made whole careers of reading a very small number of books very carefully...

    Apart from the time aspect, taking notes on (very) difficult books sometimes feels futile as one’s understanding of a chapter or passage changes dramatically during the process of reading and rereading. Previous notes can appear non-sensical, after one finally ‘gets’ a certain aspect of philosophical work, calling into question all the previous effort of elaborating on a misunderstanding. Inevitably, my understanding of a text is not corrected through note-taking, but through reading.

    I have come to restrict myself to margin notes and underlining of key terminology in a text, so that it is easier to find the relevant passages when I inevitably return to them. If I take notes on such texts, it is almost always in light of a certain question or theme I am exploring. I find reconstructing philosophical texts in a linear fashion very confusing, as it misrepresents the hermeneutical aspect of understanding. I have also found it helpful to create glossaries of certain terms that help me track how my own understanding of certain concepts develops; such as what Dasein means.

    Being guided by themes or concepts means that I am happy to consult secondary literature without worrying too much if it may contaminate my reading of the original. I generally compare different readings of key passages from secondary texts, and that usually helps me understand what the difficulty of a passage is more clearly.

    I think you are right that the problems one is faced with when taking notes on continental philosophy are unique. You may have already heard of the program Hypernomicon, which is advertised as a personal philosophy database. It struck me that it is likely very useful for tracing debates in analytical philosophy, but I would not know how to enter a text such as Phenomenology of Spirit.

    Something I only found out very recently that struck me is that Luhmann did not annotate the texts he read: no underlining or writing in the margins. I have been trying to imagine what such a practice would mean for my writing and research. I would feel very lost!

  • GBCGBC
    edited June 7

    This is extremely useful since it aligns with my recent realisation that my frustrations / challenges with the ZK method are as much, if not more, arising from the specific reading / note taking required for my course than the general method.

    My own situation is this: I'm doing a completely untaught, home-based philosophy degree, with no previous experience / knowledge / learning in the subject at all. I get a module overview booklet to outline the key topics, a reading list and access to past papers, and I'm assessed only by a single exam per module at the end of the year. There's really no other interaction / teaching. And usually I'm doing this around a full time job with a long drive.

    The reading list tends towards papers representing the main different interpretations / positions rather than recommended 'beginners guides', and is presented alphabetically, so I usually don't know if there's a sensible order to read them. So I often find myself reading something that is difficult in itself but for which I also don't have the required background knowledge to actually understand what I'm reading. As a result, if I'm finding something hard to understand, I don't know whether that's because it is hard to understand, or whether it's because I need more background knowledge than I have at the time of reading.

    I am often much slower than even your 5 pages per half hour, so it can take me days to get through a single paper.

    So, I recognise the difficulties you are relating, though for me they also apply to academic paper length reading (25-30 pages), and where you're taking about processing parts / chapters, I'm often finding difficulties at the paragraph level.

    I too have tried both ways of reading. My natural instinct is to gain a basic understanding of each point before I move on. At the paper (rather than book) level, this often requires an understanding of each paragraph, but this is sloooooow, and as you rightly say, later points often clarify earlier ones or make it clear that earlier points were not terribly relevant.

    I've tried doing a swift first reading, but I usually find I lose track of the points, with the result that towards the end I'm just looking at words.

    The typical philosophy reading advice is to identify the thesis , argument and conclusion of each paper - but again this requires a good understanding first and I trip up on this, too.

    I've not solved this challenge as yet. Although I seem to engage and take more in when reading proper paper based material, I do a lot of reading on the iPad and have started to lean more heavily on an app called LiquidText that allows you to drag out sections to a workspace. I've had some success with this - but there's always a temptation to start reconstructing the whole paper rather than with the essential argument.

    It also doesn't get round the challenge of taking notes to understand vs taking notes of the core takeaway points. I think I'm still very much developing my skill in the first, and that's what is tripping me up when it comes to the ZK technique which seems more effective when based on the second.

  • @GBC I remember that it took me a semester to get used to reading, then another one to get faster. Looking back, I wonder how I could've ever read so slowly and with such a bad retention. I guess I had to unlearn my fidgety PC habits in front of a book and learn to focus and keep the context in my head. (That was all before the ZK method.)

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

  • @ctietze What type of books are you referring to there - the kinds of philosophical texts that we are talking about in this thread that are incredibly difficult to understand at the paragraph level (or chapter level in the case of the OP)? I'm actually pretty quick at reading ordinary books (lazy about processing them, and unskilled at identifying what to process from them, but that's another story) but for me this thread is specifically about those that really are so difficult that the Barbell method does not seem as good a fit as it does for 'ordinary' difficult books. When you read a book / paper that requires a lot of thought to understand each paragraph, doing a swift reading quickly becomes a very different exercise to swift reading something that's difficult overall but understandable at the paragraph level.

    I was about to type 'because they quite often seem like a different language', and so that makes me wonder whether you had more practice at reading books that were difficult to understand when you were younger when you first started reading books in a non native language. Did you develop any techniques that would be useful?

  • Should we include question or problem notes, notes on why we don’t understand something?

    I've added "question"-notes to my collection and I think it is somewhat useful. The reason why I think it "deserves" to be a full-blown note is that a question usually requires an answer which links together several ideas. In some sense, the question is very much like an idea or concept, it just doesn't have a form of its own yet. In this way, I've been able to build relationships up around questions and find a way to approach them. It is a little bit like how conjectures are useful, despite not being theorems.

  • edited June 8

    Interesting discussion! I believe that philosophy literature rarely does bow to any method, but I found that three general approaches work for me. But let me stress that texts like this are never going to be easy to understand because they challenge (an/or establish) the very foundations of methods in many cases.

    1. Let it wash over you - I had a lot of success with this. Instead of trying to understand anything specific, you try to let the text be text and you just read it. You try the opposite of investigating, you just let the words wash over you, pass through you and you do this for many many pages. The game is to just read the text, without it offending you. Saw something interesting in the last paragraph? Don't think about it! Move on. Even if you don't understand. Even if you are wrong. Let it pass. It sounds counter-intuitive but by not engaging with literally anything in the text, I found that I stopped stoping and thinking all the time. Reading a text a second time is so much more easier than the first time - even if your first time was just a light wash. Get it over with. A difficult text will stay with you. Let your "subconscious" do some work. But most importantly: Do not engage more with the text than you absolutely have to.
    2. Fight it - Also a successful strategy. Hate it. Try to prove it wrong! Come up with counter examples. Just read it for its lack of a convincing argument. Criticise everything about it, including its overly complicated language for such bunch of stupidly obvious concepts, why exactly you have to read it, where it came from, etc. Be harsh, be unforgiving, be unloving. Basically: Try really hard to destroy the text. This can be very fun or even freeing. Nothing is holy. Destroying the aura of a text will allow you to engage with the text you read on your terms.
    3. Love everything about it. You love this one, you might not yet understand why, but this one makes you ecstatic. Read it like you would have a crush on it. What a delicious and profound articulation of what you believe. Try to explain your love.

    In general writing and or discussing a text can be a way to shorten the feedback loop. Try to find other ways to shorten that loop (Try to be wrong. Over and over and over again. The quicker you can be wrong the better.). Do not worry too much about longevity of the by-products of your learning journey, I'd say.

    I also have this quote from the memoir of a mathematician on the subject, which I find applies somewhat to difficult philosophical texts, too:

    It's been said before and often, but it cannot be overemphasized: study actively. Don't just read it; fight it! Ask your own questions, look for your own examples, discover your own proofs. Is the hypothesis necessary? Is the converse true? What happens in the classical special case? What about the degenerate cases? Where does the proof use the hypothesis?
    Another way I keep active as I read is by changing the notation; if there is nothing else I can do, I can at least change (improve?) the choice of letters. Some of my friends think that's silly, but it works for me. When I reported on Chapter VII of Stone's book (the chapter on multiplicity theory, a complicated subject) to a small seminar containing Ambrose and Doob, my listeners poked fun at me for having changed the letters, but I felt it helped me to keep my eye on the ball as I was trying to organize and systematize the material. I feel that subtleties are less likely to escape me if I must concentrate on the bricks and mortar as well as gape admiringly at the architecture. I choose letters (and other symbols) that I prefer to the ones the author chose, and, more importantly, I choose the same ones throughout the subject, unifying the notations of the part of the literature that I am studying.
    Changing the notation is an attention-focusing device, like taking notes during lectures, but it's something else too. It tends to show up the differences in the approaches of different authors, and it can therefore serve to point to something of mathematical depth that the more complacent reader would just nod at yes, yes, this must be the same theorem I read in another book yesterday. I believe that changing the notation of everything I read, to make it harmonious with my own, saves me time in the long run. If I can do it well, I don't have to waste time fitting each new paper on the subject into the notational scheme of things; I have already thought that through and I can now go on to more important matters. Finally, a small point, but one with some psychological validity: as I keep changing the notation to my own, I get a feeling of being creative, tiny but non-zero-even before I understand what's going on, and long before I can generalize it, improve it, or apply it, I am already active, I am doing something.
    Learning a language is different from learning a mathematical subject; in one the problem is to acquire a habit, in the other to understand a structure. The difference has some important implications. In learning a language from a textbook, you might as well go through the book as it stands and work all the exercises in it; what matters is to keep practising tbe use of the language. If, however. you want to learn group theory, it is not a good idea to open a book on page I and read it, working all the problems in order, till you come to the last page. It's a bad idea. The material is arranged in the book so that its linear reading is logically defensible, to be sure, but we readers are human, all different from one another and from the author, and each of us is likely to find something difficult that is easy for someone else. My advice is to read till you come to a definition new to you, and then stop and try to think of examples and non-examples, or till you come to a theorem new to you, and then stop and try to understand it and prove it for yourself and, most important, when you come to an obstacle, a mysterious passage, an unsolvable problem, just skip it. Jump ahead, try the next problem, turn the page, go to the next chapter, or even abandon the book and start another one. Books may be linearly ordered, but our minds are not.

    Paul R. Halmos: I want to be a mathematician: an automathography, New York 1985, p. 69-70

  • @GBC

    There should be some distinct factors involved:

    1. The general reading ability. This means decoding letters, grouping them to words, directing the gaze over the lines etc. This is a very basic skill that is akin to a physical attribute. I compare it to general endurance. It will improve with almost any activity up to a point.
    2. Domain specific recognition. Each domain, be it science vs fiction or philosophy vs sociology, has its specific patterns one needs to learn. To me, Luhmann is not very difficult to read because he writes in this academic-platonic way I know very well from my studies. Trained sociologist for example had more difficulties (up to point, Christian and I were asigned the title "The Luhmann Specialists" though we were both philosophy students and this was a sociology class) and I think that is because he wrote more akin to a philosopher than to a sociologist.
    3. General knowledge. If you know enough about the matter most text will read quite easy.

    In my experience, reading is not a single skill but a collection of skills that are "reading of specific text classes". The transfer of skill from one text class to another is suprisingly low.

    From reading how you have difficulties, I'd do the following:

    1. Always read very easy text on the topic first. It is way easier to adress the third aspect then the first two.
    2. Always read introductory material first. It eases you in the domain specific language.
    3. If you are reading less than 2--3 hours per day, increase your reading time incrementally. This gives you enough training volume for your general reading ability.

    Basically, an outside-in approach.

    And: Many academic texts are very badly written. It is not that they are difficult but they seem to purposfully obstruct their main message.

    I am a Zettler

  • edited June 9

    @sfast said:

    And: Many academic texts are very badly written. It is not that they are difficult but they seem to purposfully obstruct their main message.

    I agree with the first sentence, but why should one purposefully obstruct ones main message? I think its rather (1) the author wrestling with the writing process and just getting to the point where it is finally written up so that the obstruction results from a lack of abilities or time, or from inexperience; or (2) there is no real main message but a text needed to be written anyway (publish or perish).

  • GBCGBC
    edited June 9

    @sfast said:
    @GBC

    There should be some distinct factors involved:

    1. The general reading ability. This means decoding letters, grouping them to words, directing the gaze over the lines etc. This is a very basic skill that is akin to a physical attribute. I compare it to general endurance. It will improve with almost any activity up to a point.
    2. Domain specific recognition. Each domain, be it science vs fiction or philosophy vs sociology, has its specific patterns one needs to learn. To me, Luhmann is not very difficult to read because he writes in this academic-platonic way I know very well from my studies. Trained sociologist for example had more difficulties (up to point, Christian and I were asigned the title "The Luhmann Specialists" though we were both philosophy students and this was a sociology class) and I think that is because he wrote more akin to a philosopher than to a sociologist.
    3. General knowledge. If you know enough about the matter most text will read quite easy.

    Thank you.

    This might be implicit in your first point, but there's an important layer after 'grouping letters to words' and that's 'grouping words to meaningful sentences' and 'grouping sentences / paragraphs to recognise the point of what's being said' - that's when reading becomes a way of understanding rather than recognising words.

    And that's the very well known challenge with philosophy, isn't it - it's obviously easy to read words, but to actually understand what's being said takes a lot more time and thought than most other subjects, and often at a much more granular level. I understand every word that is presented to me in a translation of Kant but to actually understand even at a high level what's being said takes a lot more time / effort / note jotting (as just one example).

    My own reading ability (point 1) is way above average (if I may say so) with normal (and even reasonably tricky academic) texts but this does not translate to skill in philosophical reading. And the point of this thread, to my understanding, is that the Barbell method isn't an immediately good fit to philosophical reading either: hence the conversation about good ways to approach it.

    Anyway, I don't want to bang on about the difficulties of philosophy, it's well known to be the case and I dare say that's why many of us have chosen to do it.

    Your further two points about knowledge align exactly with what I've previously mentioned, here and on other threads, as the challenges that I've been finding in using a ZK when you don't have domain or background knowledge. Personally, I now think it's possible to use ZK, but most of the conversations here assume that background knowledge is present so there's been a process of thinking and adaptation of the points and approaches discussed here.

  • @rhubarb said:

    @sfast said:

    And: Many academic texts are very badly written. It is not that they are difficult but they seem to purposfully obstruct their main message.

    I agree with the first sentence, but why should one purposefully obstruct ones main message? I think its rather (1) the author wrestling with the writing process and just getting to the point where it is finally written up so that the obstruction results from a lack of abilities or time, or from inexperience; or (2) there is no real main message but a text needed to be written anyway (publish or perish).

    I agree - some are very much more easily read than others. My heart leaps for joy when I open a paper that's on my essential reading list and it is well written, with clear signposting and good pacing and structure. Nonetheless, many of the papers on the essential reading list are very definitely not of this nature, but necessary to process all the same... :(

  • @rhubarb said:

    @sfast said:

    And: Many academic texts are very badly written. It is not that they are difficult but they seem to purposfully obstruct their main message.

    I agree with the first sentence, but why should one purposefully obstruct ones main message? I think its rather (1) the author wrestling with the writing process and just getting to the point where it is finally written up so that the obstruction results from a lack of abilities or time, or from inexperience; or (2) there is no real main message but a text needed to be written anyway (publish or perish).

    Oh, in German we have two seperate words for "to seem". One means it seems and its likely and the other means it seems and is rathe unlikely.

    I mean: Academic texts are very often not optimised for transferring the message but rather to impress, obscure the lack of message (see your second point), etc. Many academics are not in the business of truth seeking and research but in the business of self-promoting.

    I am a Zettler

  • Thank you everyone for your responses!

    @sfast said:
    The Barbell Method goes out the window if you really have to wrestle with the text. That is for sure.

    With difficult text, I do a lot of preprocessing on paper and longhand. The chance of me drawing is way higher because it helps to see the whole. When I have worked out a major milestone I'll process it for the final step.

    This is reassuring, and I think the truth is just that difficulty philosophy texts will require a preprocessing step between reading and zetteling. I actually was doing something like this during my MA. A professor of mine recommended Peter Elbow's book Writing Without Teachers. It was pretty much "writing is thinking" the book. He advocates a model of non-fiction writing where you cycle between freewriting sessions (writing for 10, 20, or even 45 minutes about your topic without stopping or caring about grammar, spelling, or digressions) and pulling out theses and main points from those freewriting sessions to structure into an outline, then using that outline or a point from the outline as a starting point for a new freewriting session, etc. I found that process effective, and wanted to integrate it into my ZK workflow. I was reading Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception at the time and my process was:

    1. Read a chapter or a section, putting asterisks next to conclusions/major claims and dashes next to premises for those claims (I think I've heard this called the morse-code method). I'd also put words or phrases in the margins to indicate where topics appeared in the text.
    2. After I was done the chapter, set a timer for 10 minutes and write without stopping all that I could remember from the chapter. Usually I'd end up developing some questions or major points I was interested in.
    3. I'd use those questions and points to guide a close reading of the text. This meant going sentence by sentence over the parts that were relevant to my questions or interests and extracting as much as I could.
    4. Then I'd set a timer again, possibly for 20 minutes, and write out as much as I could about the chapter having done a thorough close reading. From this I could usually put out a few good points and, combining those with my close reading notes, write a few zettels.

    This was very effective for understanding, but I abandoned it because of how long it took. If I was lucky I could get steps 1 and 2 done in a single day. Step 3 would typically take 2 or 3 days, and step 4 would be 1 or 2 days. And this was just for one week's reading from one of the three seminars I was taking. So it was unsustainable. I've been since looking for a more workable "preprocessing" step, and I haven't yet found one. Maybe the solution is I have to be more discriminating in step 3, more selective with what I close read.

    @GBC said:
    The reading list tends towards papers representing the main different interpretations / positions rather than recommended 'beginners guides', and is presented alphabetically, so I usually don't know if there's a sensible order to read them. So I often find myself reading something that is difficult in itself but for which I also don't have the required background knowledge to actually understand what I'm reading. As a result, if I'm finding something hard to understand, I don't know whether that's because it is hard to understand, or whether it's because I need more background knowledge than I have at the time of reading.

    I think the lack of background knowledge is something I struggle with as well, though I find I it's worse when I'm reading introductory secondary source books. When I was reading Hegel and Levinas I occasionally consulted introductory texts, but I found that their explanations of Hegel's and Levinas's points were so general and simplified that there wasn't anything precise enough to grasp on to. So I just went back to reading Hegel and Levinas themselves. I'm currently doing a project on Deleuze right now and the situation is even worse. There are many terrible secondary sources on Deleuze that just repeat his own vocabulary without explaining the terms very well (ironically, this is a practice Deleuze would have despised). But, though I have a good background in French and German phenomenology, Deleuze is outside of that tradition in a way that I'm still struggling to read him directly. What I'm doing at the moment is reading some secondary sources (Todd May, Daniel Smith, and Henry Somers-Hall are some of the very few good Deleuze commentators) but I'm not bothering to process them like I would a regular philosophical text. I'm just using them to get a general orientation, and perhaps taking a few rough notes about general themes, but I'm not putting them in my ZK. That seems like a better use of my time right now.

    @GBC said:
    I too have tried both ways of reading. My natural instinct is to gain a basic understanding of each point before I move on. At the paper (rather than book) level, this often requires an understanding of each paragraph, but this is sloooooow, and as you rightly say, later points often clarify earlier ones or make it clear that earlier points were not terribly relevant.

    I think this reveals one of the unique characteristics of philosophical texts. Their points seem to develop and hang together in a way that other disciplines do not. In a more empirical-experimental discipline, there is a base set of terms and phenomena that everyone agrees on and, after learning that set of common knowledge, you can start posing hypotheses that can be empirically tested. After running multiple experiments you then produce results that, again, everybody would agree about what they mean (perhaps I'm caricaturing here, since I've never done scientific research, but this seems broadly accurate). So taking notes in a more scientific discipline lends itself more readily to connecting because researchers in these disciplines often do not disagree about what it is they're talking about, but only about some aspect of what they're talking about. In many philosophy papers, however, the disagreement is about how we should think about, say, truth, knowledge, right action, infinity, subject/predicate relations, semantic reference, normativity, logical validity, etc.

    Since these are deep, conceptual disagreements, and the arguments tend to develop in such a way that the points and concepts and premises all depend on each other to be understood, it becomes hard to apply both the principles of connectivity and atomicity. It's hard to atomize points, since to understand some point Hegel makes late in the Phenomenology depends on understanding much of what led up to that point. Though this is especially evident in continental philosophy, I think this is true of papers in analytic philosophy as well to an extent. I recently came across a paper called "Why There Still Are No People". The thesis of the paper is clearly presented in the first sentence: "This paper will argue that there are no people." I haven't read the entire paper, but judging form the first page, to appreciate Stone's claim here requires understanding particular concepts of personhood, identity, psychological connectedness, "what matters in survival," and perhaps even what it means for something to exist. It seems that, before you can begin to atomize, you have to understand how these concepts all work together to lead to the conclusion. Before you do this, you can't even understand what Stone means when he says "there are no people." And you can't create any new connections between this paper and other ideas (beyond perhaps the evident ones in the paper: to positions held by Parfit and Unger) until you can properly understand and atomize each point that the paper makes, or else you risk making false connections. So it seems that often with philosophy you can't just pick out isolated points you find interesting, like the Barbell Method advocates, but you have to understand a paper or book holistically, seeing all or most of its internal connections, before you can start atomizing and connecting it with other papers or books.

    Perhaps this is again just to reiterate the point that @sfast made above: that philosophy tends to require more extensive preprocessing than other disciplines do. I'm still trying to work out what exactly this preprocessing should involve.

  • How I aspire to read "very difficult texts" in three stages using a modified or extended Bar-Bell Method.

    1. Read the text. Depending on the difficulty of the material and the time I can devote to reading. I tend to read shorter sections before noting in my Zettelkasen the more difficult the material and the less time I can spend on each session, and if the source material is an owned or borrowed physical book or digital book. The source and mode of the book determines the marginalia style.

    I let time pass. Sometimes as little as an hour sometimes as much as months.

    1. Starting from a Structured Note I'll create for the book, I create one zettel per marginalia notation from my reading text. I won't edit myself too much, I'll let things flow. I look for other notes relative to the new one to link to. I won't spend a huge amount of time at this stage. It is important that I capture the complete idea and I feel the next step(s) are where the wins come in expanding and integrating knowledge.

    Time pass. A good night's sleep.

    1. In the morning I am presented with a template that I use for journaling, with all the notes I worked on in my Zettelkasten in the last 24 hours. Sample below. I journal in a graph intensive proprietary database app that is notorious for its lock-in. Hint: Evernote.

    I review each note modified or created from the day before. This is usually 3-6 notes. If the book is not too hard then I may have 10-20 notes and I can use this as an indication as to the amount of time to review each note. During the review, I might reword sections, refactor the structure, find more links to notes/ideas already in my Zettelkasten, some of which are in the structure note for the book and some older notes, I may refine the biblo data, I've spent time on secondary research.

    I still don't have to be perfect. Now comes what has been key for me. Because I modify the note and maybe some of the notes at the other end of my linking integration, these all show up on tomorrows notes to review. I keep reviewing the notes and making interactive improvements. As my understand improves eventually sometimes after 4or5 interactions through this third step I get to something I can be happy with. The serendipitous thing is that in the future when this note comes to my attending again through its idea being linked with a new note, It can be modified and drops back into the review cycle again.

    Will Simpson
    I'm a Zettelnant.
    Research: Rationalism, Zen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • @Will said:
    I still don't have to be perfect. Now comes what has been key for me. Because I modify the note and maybe some of the notes at the other end of my linking integration, these all show up on tomorrows notes to review. I keep reviewing the notes and making interactive improvements. As my understand improves eventually sometimes after 4or5 interactions through this third step I get to something I can be happy with. The serendipitous thing is that in the future when this note comes to my attending again through its idea being linked with a new note, It can be modified and drops back into the review cycle again.

    Thank you, as always, for your insight Will. Your response made me realize that reviewing notes is something I resist, and perhaps a reason why I feel alienated from much stuff that's in my Zettelkasten. I think this is just a general tendency of mine that I have to get over. Once I finish writing an essay, I never want to see it again. Once I write something about one topic, I want to jump to a new one. I always find starting from scratch more appealing than working with what I have.

    I tried to address this problem by making more use of my index as an entry-point. Whenever I go to add a new note, I first look through my index to see if I already have topics this note might relate to, then travel through links until I find a note I have that my new note can expand on. But I'm finding myself resisting this process too, convincing myself that I don't have any related notes so I shouldn't bother going through my index. I think I'll experiment with a daily review like yours and see if it helps me resist this resistance.

  • GBCGBC
    edited June 14

    @Will said:
    I keep reviewing the notes and making interactive improvements.

    @Taylor said:
    Your response made me realize that reviewing notes is something I resist,

    This has also made me stop and evaluate my process, so thank you both. Partly for me, it is a matter of time pressure - as I study after work (when I'm not out of a job due to covid) it always seems that reviewing notes is a luxury I don't have... but equally it's something I can't afford not to do.

    Second, and a further reason for the first, is the lack of a good technique for extracting and finding notes. As I've mentioned elsewhere, I'd completely skipped the part of the technique that suggests structure notes (or, for some reason, I'd thought these were something done after taking multiple notes in prep for a project) and every time I looked at my archive I felt overwhelmed.

    I now have a really great starting point to make tweaks and improvements so, again, thank you both.

  • @Taylor wrote:
    Perhaps this is again just to reiterate the point that @sfast made above: that philosophy tends to require more extensive preprocessing than other disciplines do. I'm still trying to work out what exactly this preprocessing should involve.

    No, that is not accurate. Text do not have an intrinsic difficulty but it arises from the reader's competency in relation to the text. If you are competent in philosophy philosophical texts are just texts.

    I am a Zettler

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