Feb 22

How I Teach Exegesis (And How To Write Them)

There are high chances philosophy students at university have to write exegetical papers, which we also call an exegesis reading in philosophy. An exegetical reading is an exercise that comes down from the Scholastic tradition in the Middle-Ages, which consists in doing a close reading of a text in philosophy. For historical examples, you can read Aquinas’ commentary on Aristotle’s Physics and Suárez’s commentary on Aristotle.

But what the Scholastics did were exegetical readings of entire books – for the most part. In contemporary philosophy we restrain the exercise to short passages. The idea behind this sort of assignment is to teach students the following skills: i) To be able to understand an argument by deconstructing it so as to highlight a crucial premise in it; ii) to be able to contextualize that premise within the whole argument, its relevance and significance; iii) to be able to clearly explain philosophical terminology that is proper to the historical context and the author using them.

These are three key skills that this exercise makes you practice but it helps you develop other skills for sure. When I teach exegesis to my students I emphasize this single point which I think says it all: It’s to make you learn how to read. When doing exegetical papers, we don’t care about your opinion and your critical thinking (exceptions apply to some extent). We want to know whether or not you can read – if you can make an interpretation that stays true to the text. This is because in order to get into philosophy discussions (to make your own opinions and debate with others), you need to understand what other people are talking about. The better you understand these texts, the better you can get in conversation with other people about the ideas being discussed. But it also makes you practice your writing skills extensively because you also need other people to be able to understand you. Not only does it make you practice explaining other people’s thoughts clearly, but it’s also good practice for when you’ll have to express your own thoughts to others.

Because of that, I emphasize two key points that I use as grading components: clarity and conciseness. The clearer your paper can be, the more it tells me that you understand the materials especially if it’s in your own words. Conciseness depends on the word count that’s imposed by the professor, but it’s there to make sure you can explain something clearly without lingering on. If it takes me ages to understand what you’re talking about (more than 2-3 mins when reading your paper), it tells me you’re not getting it well enough. It’s also a matter of whether or not you are able to keep on explaining materials by adding new information, building up on what you’ve said without repeating yourself, and how much information you can give me within the constraints being imposed to you.

I’ve briefly explained what’s the point of doing exegetical papers and what skills they make you practice, but what’s the assignment really like? The paper prompt has different forms and professors can make you do it in different ways. But it usually consists in choosing a short passage and writing about this passage with two goals in mind: a) what information do you need to understand the text and b) what is the text saying. Professors will either provide passages for you to choose which one you want to write on, or they’ll ask you to choose it yourself. A passage has to be 1-3 sentences max. It’s not a whole paragraph, and it’s definitely not a whole page from the text. It’s at best 1-2 sentences from a philosophy text that are supposed to express something pivotal, crucial, or important to some degree in the text.(1) When I teach undergraduates I would usually give them examples to choose from because not all of them have the skills required to know how to choose a passage on their own (you ideally want to write on something interesting, relevant, or significant, that can make you raise some insight about the text). I know at the graduate level we have to pick our own passages because it’s our job to have the skills to see where something is relevant in a text.

Then, the paper itself has to revolve around two things: a) What information do we need to understand this text and b) what is the text actually saying? A is usually (almost always) about the terminology used in the text. I ask my students to tell me what terms are used in the text that you need to know in order to understand what is going on. I also tell them this should be the first part of their paper. Just explain to me your own definition of each term without giving away the whole argument. B is about what the text is literally saying. This is where you should literally explain what each individual sentence (or line) in the text is saying. The first sentence means X, the second sentence means Y, and it all makes sense because we already know the terms as well as any background information we need in order to interpret these lines. I personally always ask my students to structure their papers in that order: Terminology first, close reading second. But I’ve worked with professors who didn’t care so much about paper structure as long as the content was good – understandably so: I know it’s possible to do exegetical readings in many ways, but this is the easy way that I think works best for students.

Here’s a few questions you can use for when you write your paper so you can tell whether or not you’re on the right track. Simultaneously, these are also the questions I use to grade my students’ exegetical papers:

  • Did you present all the right terms and any other information needed to make sense of the text?
  • Is your interpretation of the text accurate? Are you sticking to each individual line?
  • Are your explanations crystal clear?
  • Are your explanations concise?
  • Are you making sense of how this passage fits within the whole text it belongs to?

This last question is not always relevant because oftentimes we don’t ask students to write intros and conclusions. I personally ask my students to have a third paragraph (at the start or at the end, it doesn’t matter), that tells me how the passage is relevant. But it has to be short (1-2 sentences max).


Below is an example of an exegetical paper on Kant’s transcendental apperception that I had to write for a graduate seminar. The grade was A, but I’m not claiming that this is a picture-perfect example. It should at the very least give you the gist of what your paper is supposed to be like. For instance, I went a bit out of my way to provide a rounder idea of how the passage fits within a larger portion of the First Critique, and I also conclude the paper with a thicker recap of what’s going on. I didn’t do this just to add more fat to the paper, but to make it more fluid and to highlight some intricacies in the passage. In all cases, notice how the sole focus of the paper is just the terminology and the close reading. Finally, notice also how I keep citations to a strict minimum. You’re not supposed to cite in this exercise for a few reasons: i) Because it’s good practice to explain things without relying on other people’s words, and ii) because I (allegedly) already know what passage you’re talking about, so I don’t need you to repeat yourself. Here, I use citations only as markers to help readers to keep track of where I’m at in the passage while at the same time associating my own interpretation with the textual evidence, and I do this very sporadically.

I hope this helps. When in doubt, ask your professor.


Exegetical Reading – Kant’s Argument for Transcendental Apperception in the B-Edition

“The I think must be able to accompany all my representations; for otherwise something would be represented in me that could not be thought at all, which is as much as to say that the representation would either be impossible or else at least would be nothing for me. That representation that can be given prior to all thinking is called intuition. Thus all manifold of intuition has a necessary relation to the I think in the same subject in which this manifold is to be encountered.” (B132)


This excerpt is from the second section of the transcendental deduction of the pure concepts of the understanding in the B-Edition of Kant’s Critique. This is where he is presenting the argument for the objective validity of the categories, the pure concepts necessary to establish relationships between our mental representations and things-in-themselves, which is commonly called the objective deduction. I will first introduce the terminology needed to understand this passage, then expose an exegetical reading of it which will allow me to briefly explain the crucial relevance of this passage to Kant’s argument for the objective deduction.

Representation is a general term that Kant uses in order to talk about mental states, contents, and acts being performed by a conscious subject. Representations can also be given as intuitions and thoughts. Intuitions are representations from which we get an immediate or direct cognitive contact with a particular object. They are immediate and direct because there is no other representation or abstraction going on that interferes with the cognition we have of the object that is being intuited. A thought, however, is a manner in which concepts are actively used for making judgements. Next, we also need to understand the essential term which this section of the transcendental deduction is about, which is transcendental apperception. This term refers to the faculty that is responsible for bringing representations to a consciousness that is aware of itself. However, this consciousness has to be aware of itself in virtue of some specific conditions: It has to be aware that it is numerically identical, singular, and it has to be aware of itself regardless of the content in those representations. As we shall see later on, this faculty of cognition presupposes the categories of the understanding because a kind of synthesis has to be performed with them in order to cognize the contents of these representations. The categories are the a priori concepts needed in order to cognize any empirical representation, and to have the possibility of empirical experience at all. As we shall see now, the faculty of apperception is transcendental because it is a necessary condition for the possibility of empirical cognition.

Following this brief exposition of the terms used by Kant in the objective deduction, we can now look more closely at how the argument is presented through the passage cited above. The first sentence begins by affirming that apperception, expressed as “I think”, must always accompany every representation that is cognized. This is because, according to Kant, there could be no thinkable representations if they could not be accompanied by a self-awareness of these representations. If there was no self-awareness supplementing the representation we have of an object, we would not be able to make judgements and connect this immediate representation to concepts. As a result, it could not be thought as such. Since a representation cannot be both a cognition and unthinkable, this representation devoid of any thought is “nothing for me”, which means it is either impossible or nothing meaningful. The next sentence is a reminder of the definition of intuition: A direct representation of an object without any concept added to it, which always precedes thought and thinking. Kant is reminding us that he is specifically talking about intuitions obtained via empirical cognition: Intuitions given by the faculty of sensibility. The third sentence concludes that a multiplicity of intuitions turned into a single representation, a “manifold of intuition”, has to be joined to a self-awareness, the faculty of apperception, in order to exist as such (B132).

Kant, then, is arguing that there must be transcendental apperception for the possibility of having empirical cognition. We must be aware of ourselves as making judgements – able to connect subjects with predicates – in order to turn empirical intuitions into judgements based on concepts. But this self-awareness of the ability to make judgements requires normative concepts that dictate how other concepts and intuitions can be assembled together in order to make judgements. The need for these normative concepts is not only to be able to make judgements, but to also enable apperception to produce a synthetic unity which is a unifying representation of the manifold of intuitions that we get from different faculties such as sensibility and the imagination. These normative concepts are the categories of the understanding. This is specifically the key subtlety in Kant’s argument for the objective validity of the categories. However, the way in which transcendental apperception produces synthetic unity is much more complex and out of scope here. The rest of section §16, B132-B136, expands on this. It is only necessary to keep in mind that the passage above is part of Kant’s argument for transcendental apperception and its character of providing synthetic unity, which complements the objective deduction.

(1) Of course the length depends on many things, especially on the text itself. When working on Kant, students are usually analyzing 1-2 sentences. But whole fragments from ancient Greek texts can be used. We take into account how dense the text is and when a new idea starts and stops so we can choose the lines that comprise it.

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