Rule 17 for history of philosophy: focus on the primary text

Posted on ..

Rule 17: Focus on the primary text, not secondary literature

I often tell my students, "I would always rather you read the primary text one more time than go read a piece of secondary literature." The point of this is to encourage students to form their own impressions and analysis of a historical source, rather than just reproducing what scholars have already written about that source. This is not to say that secondary literature is useless. It would be pretty hypocritical for me to say that, given that I produce it myself! But one needs to think carefully about how to use it, and about the balance between reading the primary source and using scholarly literature. I think that it is a good rule of thumb for everyone - from beginning student to professional historian of philosophy - to focus on the primary text, and to have a clear idea what one is trying to get out of secondary literature when one does turn to it. Some uses are pretty much unproblematic, for instance:

• It may help provide historical context for the primary source, e.g. what other texts the author is responding to; often you just won't be able to get that out of the primary text (editorial notes indicating sources or parallels in other works are, of course, themselves a "secondary" intervention and not part of the primary text).
• If you want to produce new research about the primary text you obviously need to know what has already been said, so that you aren't just reinventing the wheel.
• General secondary works (like this podcast and the books based on it!) can give you a broad sense of what primary texts are out there, and which you may want to study more closely. To employ a metaphor I've used before, something like the podcast is akin to a travel guide, which tells you which cities and landmarks you may want to visit; but you shouldn't only read the guide book, you should go visit yourself.

The tricky part comes when secondary literature tries to help you understand the primary text, by making distinctions or observations you may not have seen yourself. Of course this is useful too; indeed it is usually the point of reading published scholarship on history of philosophy. But it is more treacherous, because having read this scholarship you run the risk of coming to the primary text without "fresh eyes" and only seeing the problems or solutions others have already found in it. Hence the point of my advice to students: when in doubt, make up your own mind first and then check to see how your understanding of the text compares to what others have said.

Blrp on 6 June 2015

Is there a difference between

Is there a difference between "secondary literature" and philosophical commentary?

In reply to by Blrp

Peter Adamson on 6 June 2015

I think that's pretty much

I think that's pretty much what the phrase means, though it could be other kinds of commentary too, like providing the biographical info or historical setting of a philosopher. Basically I take it to mean any text other than the historical work you are actually interested in studying, which is meant somehow to illuminate that text. I suppose if one wanted to be pedantic - which, being philosophers, we no doubt do - one could say that the distinction is unclear, because for instance if I read Aquinas' commentary on a work by Aristotle, it isn't so clear that I would want to call his commentary "secondary literature." But the distinction is good enough for practical use in most cases, I would say.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.