Most college students take notes the same way they did in high school:  They jot down whatever seems important as they go along.  That works for predigested goo, but as you may have discovered already, it does not work for material you must digest for yourself -- especially arguments which are written from unfamiliar perspectives.

Learning to take notes in a new way is not enough.  You must learn to read in a new way.  Analytical outlining helps with both.  It is a new way of taking notes, and it also encourages a new way of reading.  Analytical outlining forces you to look beyond the author's propositions to his arguments, beyond his beliefs to his reasoning for his beliefs.

Because it helps you to respond to the author with your intelligence rather than your prejudices, it is a liberating experience.  Liberation,in exactly this sense, is the purpose of the liberal arts.  It isn't the only kind of liberation, or even the most important kind.  But it's nothing to sneeze at.

Resist efforts to re-enslave you!  Some people (even some university teachers) say that all reasoning is a fraud; that all arguments are forms of propaganda; that truth is a chimera, and that arguments are really just ways of seizing power.  To be sure, some arguments are power plays.  Perhaps even most are power plays.  But not all are power plays.  In order to pierce the veil -- in order to know which arguments are simply grabs for power and which are reaches for truth -- you have to begin by taking them seriously as arguments.  For that matter, even when an argument is intended simply as a grab for power, that doesn't let you off the hook. You still have to take it seriously, because the fact that an argument is offered by a bad man or from a bad motive doesn't make it invalid.  Only false premises, unclear terms, or faulty logic can do that.

Besides, the argument that all arguments are grabs for power is a cheat.  The next time someone expresses it to you, try turning it around. Ask the speaker, "Really?  What kind of power are you grabbing for with that argument?"  The answer may be interesting.


A Little Warning


In learning to outline analytically, the biggest mistake most people make is to try to construct an outline after only one reading of a text. This leads to several mistakes.

First, it leads you to start with the trees, not with the forest.   The consequence of this mistake is that you are overwhelmed.  One  reason is that you can?t distinguish the more important from the less important trees, since you encounter only one tree at a time.  If the writer whose work you are studying has a well-organized mind, this problem may not be so bad, because each time he shows you a tree, he reminds you of its place in the forest.  But not all authors do have such well-organized minds.  Another problem with beginning with the trees is that you can?t pace yourself:  Since you don't know how many trees there will be until you finish, you don?t know how much detail to include in your outline.  If the text you are reading is brief, this difficulty may not be very great.  But not all texts are brief.

Second, trying to make an outline after only one reading leads you to group the trees according to the order in which you encounter them, rather than by logical units.  The consequence of this mistake is that you are confused; you are unable to perceive how one point depends on another.  If the author is very logical, very linear, and very explicit, then this difficulty is minimized.  But not all authors are equally logical; even among very logical authors, not all are equally linear; and even among logical and linear authors, not all are equally explicit.

Don't begin an analytical outline of a difficult text before you have read it at least three times.  Then use your judgment as to how much detail is needed.  Base your judgment on the logical complexity of the text, and on your own ease or difficulty in understanding it.


Three Examples


Following are three examples of analytical outlines.  Examples I and II are adapted to a course on the Federalists and Anti-Federalists; Example III is adapted to in an introduction to political philosophy.  Notice that these three examples are written in different styles.  Example III is in question-and-answer format, like a dialogue, but Example I is straight explanation, and Example II is like an inventory of talking points.  Match the style of the outline to the style of the text, and use what works best for you.  Minds are not cut from the same mold.  Neither are their writings.


Example I-A
James Madison, The Federalist, No. 10
Getting Started


  1. A faction, says Madison, is (1) any number of citizens, whether a minority or a majority of the whole, who are (2) united and (3) actuated by some (4) common impulse of (5) passion or (6) interest which is either (7) adverse to the rights of other citizens or (8) contrary to the aggregate interests of the community.  These phrases need explanation.


(These seven phrases serve as technical terms for Madison, and their meaning is not self-evident, so you may want to include explanations.  To continue:)


  1. Because the disease of faction is fatal, it needs remedy.
  2. However, Madison distinguishes between two types of remedy.
    1. One is removing their causes.  This means ...
    2. The other is controlling their effects.  This means ...
    3. What Madison goes on to show is that removing the causes of factions is out of the question.  Therefore, if there is any hope for the Union at all, it must rest on controlling their effects.
  3. But why is it out of the question to remove the causes of factions?  Because there are only two ways to do it, and neither is feasible.
    1. The first way would be .... and it isn't feasible because ....
    2. The other way would be ... and it isn't feasible for the following two reasons.
      1. One reason is that ....
      2. The other reason is that ...


Example I-B

Same text by James Madison

Going Deeper


(Treat every analytical outline as a first draft.  Leave it alone for a while to clear your mind -- that's more important than you think.  Then return and see if it needs any changes.  One reason for revising your outline is that you've left out the author's silent premises.  For instance, consider the following argument.)


  1. The proposed system of government isn't national.
  2. Therefore the proposed system of government must be federal.


(The silent premise here is that every system of government is either national or federal.  Put it in, as follows.)


  1. The proposed system of government isn't national.
  2. But every system of government is either national or federal (silent premise).
  3. Therefore the proposed system of government must be federal.


(Another reason for revising your outline is that your author mentioned his points in a different order than their logical order.  When this happens you need to put them back in logical order so that you can see what is going on.  Suppose, for instance, that on page 1 your author says "The proposed government is a tyranny," on page 6 he says "The proposed government concentrates all powers in the same hands," and on page 16 he says "Concentration of all powers in the same hands is tyranny."  Confusingly, he has put his conclusion first, his minor premise second, and his major premise last.  In your analytical outline, go ahead and reorder them, like this.)


  1. Concentration of all powers in the same hands is tyranny.  (Major premise.)
  2. The proposed government concentrates all powers in the same hands.  (Minor premise.)
  3. Therefore, the proposed government is a tyranny.  (Conclusion.)


(Yet another reason for going back and revising your outline is that in the meantime you've learned about the objections raised by his opponents.  For example, the first draft of your analytical outline of The Federalist, No. 10, might have included the following argument by Madison.)


  1. Impartiality Argument:  Madison says large electoral districts are better than small ones, because the smaller the district, the more likely elected officials are to put local interests before the good of the country.


(But later you learn of an Anti-Federalist objection to this argument, so you put it in.)


  1. Objection.  But if electoral districts are too large, won't elected officials know too little about local circumstances to be good representatives?


(Whenever you add an objection, you should also try to reason out how the author would probably reply.)


  1. Probable reply.  No, because the federal government has power to legislate only about those "great and aggregate" objects enumerated in the Constitution.  "Local and particular" objects are reserved for the states to make laws about.  Federal elected officials don't need to know about them.


(What if the author's opponents have an objection to his reply to their objection?  Then you put the new objection in too.)


  1. Objection to the reply.  But the "necessary and proper" clause "stretches" the powers of the Congress so much that it might try to make laws about "local and particular" objects too.


(If at any point in such a debate you think that this time the author is stumped, say so!  But if you think he can answer, go ahead and put his answer in.)


  1. Probable reply.  According to Madison and the other Federalists, the "necessary and proper" clause doesn't give Congress any more power than it would have had even had the clause been omitted from the Constitution.


Finally remember that you may put your own objections to an author's argument in your analytical outline, too.  Just remember to give him equal time -- and reason out his answer from his beliefs, not yours.  More about this in Example III.)



Example II

James Madison, Notes on the Constitutional Convention


(In the case of The Federalist, No. 10, an entire outline was necessary to present a single extended argument.  The Constitutional Convention presents a very different case.  Instead of a single extended argument, we find a multitude of very brief arguments on a variety of different topics, presented by a number of different delegates who often disagree.  The discussion jumps from one topic, to another topic, and later, perhaps, back to the first one.  Sometimes a proposition is stated at one point in time, but arguments for the proposition are not given until another point in time.)


(When you are analytically outlining a document like this, resist the temptation to write a chronological, blow-by-blow account.  Synopses of that sort are very useful for certain purposes, but not for getting an overview of the issues and arguments.  Your chief task is to put all the arguments in topical order in order to provide some perspective on the issues facing the Convention.  A single chunk of an analytical outline of Madison’s Notes might look like this:)


  1. Arguments about the composition of the executive.
    1. Should the executive be unitary or plural?
      1. Arguments that the executive should be unitary.
        1. The Responsibility Argument.  The executive should be unitary because that way, if something is done wrong, it will be easier to figure out who is to blame.
          1. Objection.  The Responsibility Argument is flawed, because …
          2. Reply.  The objection is mistaken, because …


(and so on.)


Example III-A
Thomas Aquinas, Treatise on Kingship
Getting Started


  1. What is meant by the word "king"?  St. Thomas approaches this definitional  problem through a series of questions about order in complex composites.
    1. What things need a directive principle?
      1. Answer:  Things which work for a purpose toward which more than one course of action may be adopted.
      2. Reason:  Someone or something must determine or decide which course of action provides the best route to the purpose.
    2. Then does a human community need a directive principle?
      1. Answer:  Yes.
      2. Reasons:
        1. Man is an intelligent agent, so he works for a purpose.  In political society, this purpose is the common good.
        2. Clearly, however, men adopt different courses toward that purpose.
        3. Where there are many men working together but each one is looking after his own interest, the group is broken up and scattered.
    3. Could the natural reason of each man supply the needed directive principle?  Answer:
      1. If man is intended by nature to live alone, then yes.
      2. But if man is by nature a social and political animal, then no.
    4. Then is man then a social and political animal?
      1. Answer:  Yes.
      2. Reasons:
        1. No man can procure all of the necessities of a good life by his own unaided labor.
        2. Nor can any man arrive at a knowledge of all things necessary for a good life by his own unaided reason.
        3. The last two points, by the way, explain why man communicates mor e completely with his kind, through language, than any other social animal does.
    5. What then can supply to the society of men its directive principle?
      1. Answer:  A king -- that is, a single man ruling for the common good.
      2. Reasons why he must be a single man:  see main heading 2, below.
      3. Reasons why his rule must be for the common good:
        1. He rules over free men, not slaves.
        2. Free men exist for their own sake, not for the sake of someone else.
    6.  Over what sort of society does he ideally rule?
      1. Answer:  A "perfect" community, meaning a complete community (following Aristotle).
      2. Reason:  Because, by definition, this is a community which can supply itself with all the necessities of a good life.
      3. Like Aristotle, who identified the city as the perfect community, Thomas is speaking of both moral and physical necessities.
    7. Then is there only one kind of perfect community, as Aristotle thought?
      1. Answer:  No.
      2. Reason:
        1. Aristotle was right to consider the city a perfect community, because a city can supply itself with all the necessities of a good life.
        2. However, a province -- a sort of confederation of cities -- can supply itself with all the necessities of a good life, too.  In fact, it can provide one of them even better than a single city can, because the cities that make up a province give each other greater security against enemies.
        3. Therefore the province is also a perfect community.
    8. If a king's rule is best in a perfect community, then is there only one just form of government?
      1. Answer:  No, there are three:  Monarchy, aristocracy, and oligarchy.  The corresponding unjust forms are tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy.
      2. Reason:  Neither monarchy, aristocracy, nor polity depends on injustice for its existence, so all three forms are just forms.
      3. But this raises the question of which of the three just forms is best, to which we now turn.
  2. Is it better for a city or province to be ruled by one man or many?  This chapter fills in a gap in the argument at I.C., above.
    1. Answer:  Rule by one man is better.
    2. Reasons:
      1. Argument from the purpose of government:
        1. The safety and welfare of the people require unity.
        2. But the rule of one man is more conducive to unity.  How we know this:
          1. Whatever has unity is better able to bring about unity.
          2. If several persons ruled, they might disagree, so that stability could not be guaranteed.
      2. Argument from nature:
        1. The more closely artificial things (like governments) follow nature, they better they are.
        2. But in nature, governance is always by one, as we see by many examples.
      3. Argument from experience:
        1. Cities and provinces that are ruled by many suffer from dissensions.
        2. By contrast, cities and provinces that are ruled by one enjoy peace, justice, and prosperity.
        3. The goodness of monarchy raises the question of the goodness or badness of tyranny, to which we turn under main heading 3.


(And so on.  Always state every argument in simple declarative sentences.  If you wish, you may even give the arguments names to help you remember them.  You may have noticed that I have done that with several of the arguments above.)


Example III-B

Same text by St. Thomas

Going Deeper


(As we saw in Example I, one way to go deeper is to add objections to the outline.  They might be your own objections, objections that others have raised, objections that you think others might raise, or objections that the author thinks others might raise.  To illustrate, an objection has been added after section I.B.3., below.)


  1. Then does a human community need a directive principle?
    1. Answer:  Yes.
    2. Reasons:
      1. Man is an intelligent agent, so he works for a purpose.  In political society, this purpose is the common good.
      2. Clearly, however, men adopt different courses toward that purpose.
      3. Where there are many men working together but each one is looking after his own interest, the group is broken up and scattered.
    3. Objection:  Beginning with Adam Smith, modern economists have shown that competition among self-interested individuals can organize the processes of production and exchange more efficiently than central coordination.


(But stating an objection is hardly fair unless you consider how your author might reply.  If he anticipates an objection and replies to it in advance, your job is easy.  Sometimes, though, you will have to make a guess about how he might reply on the basis of other things he says.  For instance, you might speculate as follows.)


  1. Possible Reply:  Even a self-organizing competitive market has need of a minimal directive principle.
    1. Someone must decide what kinds of things can be someone's property in the first place.
    2. Someone must also have authority to make and enforce rules against force and fraud.


(Be sure to cross-examine your own guesses, though.  For instance, you might add something like this to your outline.)


  1. Second Thoughts:  But is a minimal directive principle all St. Thomas has in mind?  Would he be satisfied to let the directive principle take care of 1.a and 1.b, leaving all other things, such as prices, to be determined by voluntary agreement between buyers and sellers?


(Asking yourself such questions will give you direction for further study.  Who knows what you might discover!)