General Tips for Using Secondary Sources in Philosophy

(These tips are designed primarily for use in my tutorial on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, but they also provide good general advice about the use of secondary sources.)

Instructions for the proper use of secondary sources:

Secondary sources are secondary. That means that you should read them second, and you should accord them secondary status in your arguments. With respect to the first point, you should always read the material from Kant before you turn to the secondary sources. It will be tempting to read the secondary sources first, since the material from Kant is very difficult, but taking this easy way out will ultimately be self-defeating, for at least three reasons. First, the secondary material itself is very difficult, and without grappling with Kant on your own first, many of the issues raised in the secondary literature will not make sense. Second, and more importantly, reading secondary material first taints your reading of the primary material in a way that makes it difficult to be creative or insightful. Papers written after reading the secondary material first usually end up simply taking a side already defended in one of the secondary sources; papers written after serious initial engagement with Kant on your own can bear out totally new interpretations. Third, secondary literature steals from you the experience of struggling with Kant, trying to figure out what the key texts are and how to interpret them, and thinking about whether you find Kant plausible. This kind of engagement with a text is what philosophy is all about, and if you let someone else dothe engagement for you, then you will not learn to philosophize through reading Kant.

In that context, your reading should generally follow something like the following pattern. You should start with a careful reading of the primary text in order to get the main points and overall flow. Then you should go back through the primary text, reading with the week's question in mind. Whether or not you are writing the paper for that week, you should develop your own answer to the question. If you are writing the paper, you should take substantial notes on this second reading. Then, and only then, you should read through the secondary sources. With your own ideas in mind, you will be a more attentive and critical reader of those secondary sources. Look for arguments that help you bolster your own (perhaps including texts that you missed or texts found in other parts of Kant's writings), and look for challenges that lead you to change your mind about key claims, or to which you need to give responses. Let the secondary literature challenge your own interpretation, but also let your reading challenge the secondary sources. When you read these secondary sources, you will want to have the primary text, and your initial notes on it, in front of you. When a source refers to a passage, look at what you thought of that passage when you first read it. Whose reading is more plausible, yours or the secondary sources? Why? When a source offers a philosophical objection or argument, think about whether that argument is sound, whether it is consistent with Kant, and/or whether Kant has a response to it (if it's in opposition to Kant). Then, if you are writing the paper for that week, write a draft of your paper, taking into account significant passages (both that you discovered for yourself and that were brought to your attention by secondary sources), key arguments, and key objections or alternatives to your central claims. (Papers are generally stronger when they respond to strong objections.) Or, if you are responding, read the paper from your partner. Then, read through the primary text one more time, keeping an eye out for passages or arguments that you may have missed that either support or call into question your (or your partner's) interpretation of and response to Kant. Finally, revise your paper (if you are writing) or write your response (if you are commenting).

How to find high-quality secondary sources:

There are five main ways to find secondary sources on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.

(1) Search in the Philosopher's Index. The Philosopher's Index is a more-or-less exhaustive index of all major scholarly publications in philosophy. You can search for articles on Kant there, though you will want to get much more specific than "Kant," which will bring you 10,987 hits. Once you find the sources, you can get some of them online, others in the stacks in the library, and others through ILL.

The advantage of this approach is that it will give you access to the most recent work on your particular topic in a way that allows for focused searching. It is also a good way to find articles that might be under-appreciated or articles on obscure sub-topics in Kant. The disadvantage of this approach is that it does not discriminate on the basis of the quality of the article. To some extent, quality can be determined by where the article is published, but the Philosopher's Index is likely to return at least some, and often many, results that are not of very high quality. (Also, if sources are available only through ILL, you will probably not be able to get them in time for your paper.)

(2) Browse widely through books and journals. For books, you can go to the library shelves, where Kant books are generally located around B2799 (on the 4th floor). The journals are located downstairs in the library (and in the periodical reading rooms). While good articles on Kant are published in a wide variety of journals, the most likely sources for high-quality articles are Kant-Studien (with articles in both German and English), Kantian Review, Journal of the History of Philosophy, and History of Philosophy Quarterly.

The advantage of this approach is that you can get a general sense for what a variety of people think is important or interesting about Kant, and you may discover some approaches that I have not given much regard to in our syllabus. As with the Philosopher's Index, this will be a good way to find recent or under-appreciated work on Kant. Moreover, these sources will usually be good, since our library tries to avoid buying second-rate books and journals. The disadvantage of this approach is that it may be hard to tell where in a book or journal a particular topic is discussed (or even whether it is discussed).

(3) Browse narrowly through the books that are on reserve. There are many very good books on reserve for this course, and I have only assigned portions of them on the syllabus.
The advantage of this approach is that the material will all be of very high quality, and you can also follow an interpretation that you liked in an earlier week into a topic that comes up in a later week. The disadvantage is that you may not find any discussion of the topic you are interested in, and you will not get access to perspectives on Kant that are fundamentally new.

(4) Follow the footnotes, bibliography, or other references in the secondary sources you are already reading. Most of these secondary sources themselves make use of and interact with other interpretations of Kant or other philosophy more generally. This is a particularly good approach if you are reading a text whose author critiques a view that seems interesting or appealing to you. Trace the source of that view to see how its original author defends it. (Often critics misstate their opponents' arguments in ways that make them easier to refute.)

The advantage of this approach is that it will usually take you to high quality work that is directly relevant to the topic you are working on. The disadvantage is that it can only take you to work that is older than your newest secondary source (since people generally do not refer to articles written in the future!).

(5) Ask me for recommendations of further sources.
The advantage of this is that if I recommend a source, I will probably consider it good. Also, you do not have to do much work on your own to find the source, which can save a lot of time and energy. The disadvantages are related to the advantages. First, since I will recommend sources that I consider good, and I have already done that on the syllabus, you will not uncover the hidden perspectives on Kant that my prejudices wrongly lead me to dismiss. Second, since this approach shifts the work of finding secondary sources from you to me, if you come to me for help I probably will not give you any. I am more likely to ignore you, refer you to the syllabus, or make fun of you.

Different approaches will be suitable for different contexts. For most contexts, however, the best approach will be a combination of following the footnotes (4) in order to find relevant and high quality sources and searching the Philosopher's Index (1) or browsing in journals (Kant-Studien, Kantian Review, Journal of the History of Philosophy, and History of Philosophy Quarterly) in order to find recent work.