To do research for your philosophy essay you need to do only two things: read and think. Actually, for problem-focused essays, thinking is the only truly necessary bit, but it's highly likely that you will find your thinking much assisted if you do some reading as well. Philosophical research at university is a little different to research in most other disciplines (especially the natural sciences), in that it is not really about "collecting data" to support or refute explanatory theories. Rather, the thinking that's involved in philosophical research (as part of one's preparation for philosophical writing) is more a matter of reflecting critically upon the problems in front of one. Researching the writings of other philosophers should, therefore, be primarily directed towards helping you with that reflection rather than aiming at gathering together and reporting on "the relevant findings" on a particular topic. In many other disciplines, a "literature review" is an important research skill, and sometimes philosophy academics do such reviews - but it is rare that philosophy students are asked to do one.
What, then, to read? It should be clear from your lectures and tutorials what some starting points for your reading might be. (All courses provide reading guides; many also have booklets of reading material.) Your tutor and lecturer are also available for consultation on what readings you might begin with for any particular topic in that subject. Independent research can also uncover useful sources, and evidence of this in your essay can be a pleasing sign of intellectual independence. Make sure, though, that what you come up with is relevant to the topic. (See Section 5.2 below on relevance.) Whichever way you proceed, your reading should be purposive and selective.
In the case of essay questions that refer to a particular text, you should familiarise yourself thoroughly with this text. Usually, such a text will be a primary text, i.e. one in which a philosopher writes directly about a philosophical issue. Texts on or about a primary text are called secondary texts. (Many philosophical works will combine these two tasks, and discuss other philosophical texts while also dealing directly with a philosophical issue.) Some secondary texts can be helpful to students. However, don't think you will only ever understand a primary text if you have a nice friendly secondary text to take you by the hand through the primary text. More often than not, you need to have a good grasp of the primary text in order to make sense of the secondary text.
How much to read? The amount of reading you do should be that which maximises the quality of your thinking - that is, you should not swamp yourself with vast slabs of text that you can't digest, but nor should you starve your mind of ideas to chew over. There is, of course, no simple rule for determining this optimal amount. Be wary, though, of falling into the vice of looking for excuses not to read some philosopher or text, as in "Oh, that's boring old religious stuff" or "She's one of those obscure literary feminist types", or "In X Department they laugh at you if you mention those authors in tutes". If someone wants a reason not to think, they'll soon come up with one.
Most philosophical writings come in either of two forms: books or articles. Articles appear either in books that are edited anthologies or in academic journals, such as Philosophical Quarterly or Australasian Journal of Philosophy. Some academic journals are also on the internet. Most articles in the journals are written by professional philosophers for professional philosophers; similarly with many books. But by no means let this put you off. Everyone begins philosophy at the deep end - it's really the only kind there is!
There are, however, many books written for student audiences. Some of these are general introductions to philosophy as a whole; others are introductions to particular areas or issues (eg biomedical ethics or philosophy of science). Among the general introductions are various philosophical dictionaries, encyclopedias and "companions". These reference works collect short articles on a wide range of topics and can be very useful starting points for newcomers to a topic. Among the most useful of the general reference works are:
- Edward Craig, ed., The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (10 vols.) (London: Routledge, 1998)
- Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (8 vols.) (New York: Macmillan, 1967)
- Robert Audi, ed., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
- Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)
- Simon Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)
- Thomas Mautner, ed., The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy (London: Penguin, 1998)
- J.O. Urmson and Jonathan Ree, eds., The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers (London: Routledge, 1993)
- Edward N. Zalta, ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (an internet-based reference work: plato.stanford.edu/)
Note taking, like your reading, should not be random, but ought to be guided by the topic in question and by your particular lines of response to the issues involved. Note taking for philosophy is very much an individual art, which you develop as you progress. By and large it is not of much use to copy out reams of text as part of your researches. Nor is it generally helpful to read a great number of pages without making any note of what they contain for future reference. But between these two extremes it is up to you to find the mean that best helps you in getting your thoughts together.
Libraries and electronic resources
The University's Baillieu Library (including the Institute of Education Resource Centre), which is open to all members of the University, contains more than 2,500 years' worth of philosophical writings. The best way to become acquainted with them is by using them, including using the catalogues (including the Baillieu's on-line catalogues and subject resources web-pages), following up a work's references (and references in the references), intelligent browsing of the shelves, etc.
In the main Baillieu Library, the philosophical books are located (mostly) between 100–199 in the Dewey decimal system, and philosophical journals are located in the basement. The Reference section on the ground floor also has some relevant works. The Education Resource Centre also has a good philosophy collection.
In addition to hard-copy philosophical writings, there is also a variety of electronic resources in philosophy, mostly internet-based. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy was already mentioned above. Links to other useful internet sites (such as the Australasian Association of Philosophy website) can be found through the Baillieu Library's web-page and the Philosophy Department's web-page.
A strong word of warning, however, for the would-be philosophical web-surfer: because anyone can put material on a website, all kinds of stuff, of varying levels of quality, is out there - and new-comers to philosophy are usually not well placed to sort their way through it. Unless you have a very good understanding of what you're looking for - and what you're not looking for - most of you will be much better off simply carefully reading and thinking about a central text for your course, eg Descartes' First Meditation, rather than wandering about the internet clicking on all the hits for "Descartes". Exercise your mind, not your index finger.