Last week, I recommended that students should approach difficult texts by slowing down, reading sentence by sentence, and refusing to move on before they have thoroughly understood what has been said.

This week, I will give directly contradictory advice.

Sometimes, people are hampered by a certain intimidation factor when it comes to difficult texts. They feel that they are too uneducated, haven’t read such-and-such books that ought to come before, need the for-dummies introductory version, and need someone to hold their hand while offering them a glass of milk.

I think such students should get over it and become comfortable reading things that they don’t understand and aren’t ready for.

So you didn’t completely understand what Kant was getting at because you never did read the Hume assignment and you’re not entirely sure what he’s referring to. So what? Keep going and focus on the part that does make sense to you.

At other times, the very best way to start understanding something is to immerse yourself in a huge flood of it. This is common advice for foreign languages. Just expose your mind to large volumes of the desired language without bothering to understand each and every word. Your mind will be processing all these currently unintelligible sounds in the background without any conscious methodical analysis. There is a caveat with this, however. You can’t just passively leave the radio on in the background while doing other things. You may pick up a Spanish phrase or two this way, but it will be a long, long time before you can speak the language. You do have to make some effort to follow what is being said and grasp what you can out of the unintelligible mess as it is flying past.

I give this advice to middle school students approaching Shakespeare for the first time. When students first start, there are a huge number of unfamiliar words. Looking each one up would make the whole thing a slog and would interrupt the joyous rhythms of Shakespeare’s poetry. They need to just revel in the sound of it for a little while, even without understanding the meaning. If they just read and read and read, while making—this part is important—some effort to understand, the language slowly starts to become more and more intelligible. By the time they’re on their third play, they might be ready to follow the plot. After a while, they don’t need to look up many words at all because they learned the words from context and usage.

I said that this week’s advice contradicts last week’s, but I’m (mostly) speaking tongue-in-cheek. In reality, I think the two approaches just apply to different scenarios. The flood-of-unintelligible-material approach applies when the kind of learning in play mostly involves making large amounts of intuitive associations. This applies to broad aesthetic appreciation, to gross physical skills like running or chopping wood, to fluency with language, or to intuitive social skills. It also has its place when you want to have a very broad-but-shallow knowledge of some reading material in preparation for a deep-dive in one specific area.

By contrast, the step-by-step-painfully-slow approach applies when you need to grasp a piece of careful analytical reasoning or gain a detailed understanding of something by breaking it down. This applies to logic, to close legal argument, to the detailed mastery of specific micro-skills in dance or painting, or to a grammatical analysis of language.

Both have their place, and human intelligence is at its best when we use both in combination under appropriate circumstances. The trouble is that many people seem to apply the flood-of-unintelligible-material approach out of laziness when they should be making an effort to understand just one tiny thing at a time, but for the same reason, they give up on that approach long before they’ve actually exposed their mind to enough material for it to work.

When it comes to tough philosophical argumentation, which is most of what I teach, I’ll stick to my earlier advice.