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.
(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.