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Write a Close Reading

Structuring your close reading in philosophy

Close reading in Philosophy usually requires writers to explain a text, word, or definition. Specifically, you might be asked to analyse the meaning of a particular term or how the philosopher sets up an argument. The philosopher will make a claim and then provide evidence for that claim. It is your job to see what evidence is relevant to that claim and demonstrate that you understand that relationship.

Here is one common structure you might follow in a philosophy explication paper: Introduction – Definitions – Analysis.


Most philosophy papers follow a simple pattern, using the FIRST SENTENCE to state the thesis or main argument. This establishes the context for the paper, and tells the reader why you are writing this paper. For example, you might begin with, "In this paper I will argue that…" Follow this by explaining HOW you will argue this. "I will do this by…" Are you going to compare two philosophers? Are you going to explicate a philosopher's argument to show us how he or she reaches a certain conclusion? Tell readers what the structure of your argument will look like.


Because philosophers use words in different ways to explore different concepts, it is vital that you explain what a philosopher means by the term or concept being discussed. In most philosophy papers, writers will begin by explaining the terms at hand. If your essay argues that Rousseau's concept of the social contract provides greater freedom than Mill's arguments for individual liberty, you'll need to explain what liberty means to these philosophers, and the similarities/differences in their understanding and use of the term. Sometimes philosophers' use of a term may change during the course of a paper or work—be sure to explore how they use words from the beginning to end. Does the philosopher contradict herself or himself? Does he or she change her mind about the concepts at hand?


As you define these terms and describe how philosophers differ or agree on these definitions, you are doing the most crucial work of the essay— analyzing. Your instructor is interested less in what the philosopher has said (which they probably already know) and MORE in what you think of what the philosopher has said.

In an explication paper, your analysis involves explaining how a philosopher makes an argument. What are the pieces of the argument, and how do they fit together? Remember, this requires more than summarizing. If you find yourself using phrases like "Next, Rousseau says…" or "Then, she argues…" you might be in danger of simply re-capping the author's argument. Be sure you explain how the philosopher reaches a particular conclusion. How is the argument supported? What is it supported by?

An example of the analytical process for a close reading in Philosophy

If you are asked to choose a passage yourself, look for something that appears to be a key quote and begin asking yourself some questions about it. For example, take a very important quote from Kant:

Intuitions without concepts are blind. Concepts without intuitions are empty.

There are two key terms in these sentences: intuitions and concepts. A philosophical analysis would typically start off with a definition of each of these terms. This could be provided by looking at some other passages in Kant to see where he might provide a definition. Try to explain what each element is on its own before showing how it relates to other elements. There are likely other passages that could be used; your job is to summarize those passages in a simple definition, such as "intuition is the content of our experience." Then we move onto "concepts."

The same thing applies here with concepts. We can start talking about the relationship of concepts to ideas or how concepts belong to the faculty of understanding, but we want to stick with something simple to begin with and then we can move onto the more complex. For a concept, we could find a quote in Kant that provides the evidence for the following claim: "concepts are the form of our experience; they are what we bring to experience in order to make sense of it." This is where things get a little confusing because concepts, in their very nature, relate to other things, but it is different to say that concepts relate to other things full stop than to say that concepts relate to other things and then proceed to explain what those other things are. To do the latter would be tangential. For now, we just want to say that concepts are what we bring to experience in order to make experience meaningful; they are the forms of experience.

Now that we've taken apart the sentence and identified the major components, we are in a better position to understand how those components relate to each other. Once we see that intuition provides the content of experience and that concepts provide the form of experience that make experience meaningful, then we can better understand what Kant means when he says that intuitions without concepts are blind and concepts without intuitions are empty. What would it look like to experience something that we have no idea how to understand or that is totally meaningless to us? Imagine seeing something that you can barely describe, like some giant machine in a factory—it's very difficult to see what it is or what it does without understanding how it relates to all the other machines. There is no direction for that experience to move in and there is no way of properly understanding that experience. Similarly, simply having concepts is not sufficient in order to say that we actually understand and have experience of something. For example, if someone was to say the word "Gavagi" without giving you an idea of what that word refers to. It doesn't make much sense, right? Well, just think about how often people use words or concepts without actually having any experience of those concepts; their concepts are empty and ultimately meaningless as well. We need both concepts and intuitions in order to render our concrete experience meaningful.

Though it may seem silly to spend so much time understanding one line of a philosopher's work, oftentimes the entire work can be understood if a single line is properly understood. Furthermore, the more that you can pull out of a single line, the more depth you can demonstrate in understanding that philosopher. Sometimes developing philosophical abilities really comes down to developing the art of explaining or teaching. This starts off by stating everything that you know (or could know) about a given word, concept, paragraph that you are analyzing and then stringing it together in a clear and logical manner. The ability to do this is the interpretation itself. It may seem straightforward, but each person has a slightly different take on what's going on in sentences like the one above and your own individuality will come out as you try to explain yourself as clearly as possible.

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