I have read, recently, that it is better for a student of philosophy to have completely mastered the secondary literature before moving on to the primary. Is this really the best approach to a philosophical text?

Mastering! If so, no one would get around to primary texts!

My answer would be: it depends on what is the student’s purpose in reading. As your question suggests, there are two sides to this issue.

One the one hand, what does it matter if you have read Aristotle (for example) if you are unaware of how Aristotle’s work is understood and put to use in contemporary philosophy? Otherwise, you are studying history rather than philosophy (nothing wrong with history, but it’s a different subject). This last argument conceives of philosophy as a contemporary subject matter, like physics or sociology. If the purpose of reading philosophical books is to learn philosophy, then starting with the secondary material is at least efficient and perhaps even necessary.

On the other hand, suppose the purpose is not to master the subject content, but rather to learn to philosophise. That means, I suppose, to think critically and carefully about problems, examine one’s assumptions, draw implications. It also means, to have the skills and self-confidence to read the next primary text. If that is the case, then where better to learn this than from the ‘masters’? Accordingly, toss aside all those secondary texts and head straight for the original.

Of course, many books from the history of philosophy appear both forbidding and alien. How could they be read without some guidance? The best overall pedagogical advice is probably somewhere in between.

Philosophy differs from physics in this respect. If you want to learn physics, you pretty much have to start with textbooks. Indeed you may well complete an undergraduate major in physics without ever reading a research paper. But philosophy is a deep-end-first subject. The text you are reading in your freshman course may be the same text your teacher is focusing on for her research. That is one of the neat things about the subject. Of course not just any primary source is a good place to start: Kant can wait. But anyone with decent reading skills could do a lot worse than start their philosophical career by reading Plato's Meno or Descartes' Meditations or Hume's Inquiry concerning Human Understanding.

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