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Postgraduate philosophy: Secrets to studying effectively

James Davis

It’s hard to study effectively for topics that require a great deal of original thought as opposed to rote learning. Luckily, we’re here to help.

If you’ve ever taken philosophy units alongside other courses, you’ll have quickly come to the realisation there’s more to learn than facts, methods and their application. Granted, it’s not all like this, but cases it is can be nightmarish for the unprepared. Reading and doing questions can help in many respects, but there are some skills you just can’t learn this way. In this article, we’ll talk about developing some of the skills essential to success in philosophy, particularly if you’re new to it. Here are some great practices you can adopt to improve.

Make friends… and argue with them!

Old hands should know: when we say “argue”, we aren’t talking about shouting matches. For those just starting out, a philosophical argument concerns collecting premises that logically follow to produce a true conclusion if and only if the premises are also true. Participants then engage in a joint effort attempting to disprove each other’s arguments by interrogating their validity (argument structure; do the premises, if true, force a true conclusion?) and soundness (truth of the premises). To this end, there are a variety of techniques and pitfalls like logical fallacies that a budding philosopher is likely to have learned or are just about to, but these are things you’ll cover in class. The most obvious way to improve these skills, however, is one often under-utilised. Simply do your best to make friends with people in your class and strike up an ordinary conversation on the topic of a recent lesson, lecture or work you’ve read. It’s then easy enough to take up the alternative position to your conversational partner, regardless if you believe it or not. During this exercise, there are some important things to keep in mind that will help you and your partner get more out of the exercise.

  • You’re talking to a person, so treat them with kindness.
  • Argue in good faith. This entails interpreting your opponent’s position in the best possible light so as to not misconstrue them. This is the opposite of arguing in bad faith, where you’re looking for ‘gotcha!’ moments, picking at semantic hiccups, attacking a strawman or otherwise. Arguing in good faith has a great deal of benefits, like forcing you to internalise and understand your opponent’s position without dismissing it simply by virtue of it being theirs and not yours. Humans are subject to myriad cognitive biases and predisposed to logical fallacies beyond count, both formal and informal.
  • Define your terms early. A classic blunder among novices is to never define any terms and realise thirty minutes in that they’re arguing over entirely different things.
  • Keep it purposeful. Anyone can muse about nothing. It takes a philosopher to argue with purpose and a defined end. So, keep the scope narrow if you want to be home for dinner! If you’re itching to argue all the merits and pitfalls of utilitarianism, it’s probably more manageable and productive to start at a more fundamental level, like talking about a single term and what it ought to encompass.
  • Keep it short. If you’re arguing within a short timeframe, you’re forced to be more succinct. The topics you’re likely to be discussing are complicated enough already. If you speak with brevity, you can make it easier for everyone.
  • Do not conflate argument with debate. During a debate, participants are forced into intellectual dishonesty, as they must argue for a singular, unmoving position regardless of evidence to the contrary. They are free to deploy fallacies, or gloss over weaknesses in their position in the hopes an opponent won’t catch them. A good philosopher must make the weaknesses in their positions known so as to better them. They must invite challenge where they are weakest to either change their position or present argument contradictory to the flaw(s).

Consider online discussions and videos

Of course, spoken argument like this isn’t the skeleton key to Socratic mastery. The greatest philosophers across hundreds of years spoke with one another through voluminous tomes for good reason. Margaret Cavendish would even write letters to herself, taking up all the contrary positions to her arguments and arguing fervently against herself. We should all strive for this level of mastery!

Spur-of-the-moment argument only permits swift response. In matters such as these, sometimes it takes far more consideration to reach a workable conclusion, or refutation as the case may be. Spoken argument can improve your instinctive ability to catch fallacies and flaws, or form counter-examples quickly. Written argument is where you can really develop your longform reasoning. Sit down with a debate on YouTube occasionally, or some controversial text, and pause occasionally to reflect on things said. Write any issues you catch, or things that don’t sound right, and write down why you think that to be the case. Was there some structural problem with their argument? Was it garbled somehow? If so, in what way? It’s in matters like these where you can once against deploy the principles of good faith.

Attempt to make a ‘steel-man’ argument of their position: If you were on their side, how would you argue their case? In asking this of yourself and really reflecting on how you’d do this best, you once more develop your empathy for those with positions contrary to your own. Furthermore, you do it to a far greater extent than in the swift nature of spoken argument, where it’s not always possible to formulate the best possible position to then make a case against!

The next level echoes the work of Cavendish: try to argue against yourself. Nothing smashes through the cognitive biases we all hold quite like honest critique and dismissal of one’s own ideas. So long as you go into it as Socrates would, knowing that you know nothing, you can humble yourself enough to admit places you’re wrong. Take any given belief you hold about the world or yourself and ask yourself if you ought to continue holding that belief. With practice, you might be horrified at how epistemically weak the majority of your positions are! Fear not, however. Existential anguish is the best part of the job.

Of course, you’ll have to do plenty of rote learning to grasp all the concepts and names rife within the field. However, these little pieces of advice ought to sharpen your skills when practiced habitually. What you learn throughout will help when writing papers, exams and even considering all the various little trivialities of life. Wherever you choose to take your postgraduate philosophy course, make it count! The ideas of long-dead philosophers are best studied as thought exercises, the fruits of which ought to be employed during practical pursuits. Good luck!