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.
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.
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!