Five Ways to Understand Philosophy

When Rico Vitz came as a visiting professor to BYU in January 2019, he mentioned five things he found very helpful for understanding philosophy. Although Rico mentioned these five things in relation to philosophy, it can be broadened to all literature as well. Having trouble understanding your British Literature class? Struggling with your Spanish Literature class? Try this!

Historical Context:

When you’re reading something, it’s important to understand and know the background that surrounds the text, especially in considering what would make a philosopher ask a certain question or why he would write about a certain topic. Rico Vitz commented that “you read Descartes Meditation for the first time and you get to line one and you’re like, ‘WHAT, why would anyone do that?’ But if you understand the historical context, that kind of question makes a lot more sense.” Not just understanding the historical context or just understanding the motivation, but why they wrote a certain way. Ask the question as to why Hume is writing about something in a certain way, in some way that Adam Smith and Francis Hutcheson are not. Rico Vitz said that “I think these can be really illuminating for why historical figures are asking, and why the way they’re asking the way they’re asking.”

Textual Interpretation:

Looking at literary texts you may think “What does that mean?” Rico Vitz commiserated as he recounted reading a medieval literature text and hearing all this talk about prime matter and substantial forms and thinking “I have no idea what you’re talking about”. Understanding the text is one thing, but you also need to be able to understand the different terms and uses. When studying Hume and Locke you don’t need to know another language to be able to read them, such as some Chinese philosophers, but there are terms and phrases in the English Language that have changed over time. Rico mentioned that “I remember reading things in Hume that I misunderstood because I was reading a particular term in a kind of contemporary way, when he meant it in another way.” It is helpful to be familiar with the period of time that the language came from and how different authors use certain words that can have a different meaning today.

Comparative Understanding:

Although Rico said he wasn’t taught to do comparative understanding, he found it to be helpful for thoroughly understanding a text. In the examples that Rico Vitz used he mentioned that while reading Hume you may recognize similar topics brought up by other philosophers, such as in Mencius and Confucius. In recognizing the similarities between different philosophers, Rico advised asking yourself “what can I learn from putting these things side by side and asking how are they similar, and how are they different.” This is a skill that can be used for historical texts as well as contemporary texts. So by analyzing how things are similar, you can gain a certain insight on how we ought to think things through.

Evaluation and Application:

The last two principles go hand in hand when looking at how to understand philosophy. Evaluation is looking at everything you have already learned and asking “who is right, and how do I understand this subject now that I have researched it.” On a similar note, application is recognizing what you now believe about the topic, recognizing what is right and wrong, and deciding what you do with this information. It’s how you go about contextualizing the information you have now learned.

—Jessica Mellor (B.A. English ’19)