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Tips for being a philosophy student at university

James Davis

Starting out as a philosophy student can be a difficult experience given the tough subject matter. Fortunately, we’re here to help.

Philosophy tends to teach more than just concepts and history, although that has a prominent role. One of the most important, yet difficult things to grasp, are the methods of thinking and self-awareness students have to develop. In preliminary philosophy courses, students tend to go from smugness to existential horror about no longer being sure they’re real. This isn’t the hard part though. The hard part is learning to think in terms of validity and soundness, Ps and Qs or counterexamples. These are things picked up with practice of course, but to begin with they can be daunting for some students. So, we’ve compiled a few tips for sharpening your philosophical mind and succeeding in your course.

Spend idle time thinking rather than distracting yourself

The world around us is rife with distractions. On any given commute, it’s possible to be distracted with podcasts, Instagram, Reddit posts, Facebook activity, tweets and all else. In philosophy courses, it pays to use this time thinking about whatever the latest issues you may have encountered throughout study. At most, put some music on. At best, turn your phone off and look out the window or at nothing at all. Ask yourself questions about that first categorical imperative old Kant was on about. Is this a reasonable law that any given person can practice to morally acceptable results, however you wish to define ‘morally acceptable’? If not, why not? If so, why? Are there flaws? What are the flaws and why are they flaws? Are these flaws as significant as the flaws present in other theories of ethical conduct you’re aware of? Can they be accepted? These are all thought exercises you can embark upon to further your understanding of just about anything you’re chewing on, provided you have the discipline to neglect a bit of phone or podcast time. In both the short and long run, this is a beneficial practice! It can quicken your mind and improve your reasoning skills inside and outside the classroom.

Argue in good faith whenever possible

This is a practice that can be employed across several other disciplines, like political science. The concept of ‘good faith’ simply refers to taking an opponent’s position and doing your best to make it the strongest it can be. You then attack that strengthened position. This ‘steel-man’ argument as it’s sometimes known, which derives its name from the fallacious ‘straw-man’ equivalent, is a fantastic way to truly comprehend an opponent’s position. After all, if you’re doing your utmost to understand, fairly interpret and then bolster your opponent’s argument in whatever way you can, be it removing ambiguities, logical hiccups or otherwise, you’re forced to consider theirs and your own far more carefully. Why does it make you consider your own positions more carefully? Well, it’s due to having to consider them better. If your opponent’s once-frail argument had the potential to be picked apart based on invalidity or semantic issues alone, you wouldn’t really be engaging with what they intended. Not everyone is equipped with the argumentative abilities of Socrates, so try to argue against the best possible version of what they meant rather than the literal interpretation. Otherwise, you’ll just look pedantic and won’t achieve anything.

As far as the process of creating the steel man is concerned, it also provides the ability to empathise with your opponent to such an extent that with practice, you could even argue their position for them and suggest points of attack in weaker elements of your argument. This manner of ‘playing chess against yourself’ is a wonderful way to understand flaws in both positions with little bias. If you feel up to it, you can perhaps spend that commute doing more than just questioning yourself. You could be pitting two opposite positions against one another!

Starting out, you may not feel confident in your ability to represent your opponent’s position fairly. Furthermore, in expending the mental effort to fortify theirs, you may feel you’ve put yourself at a disadvantage or no longer have your attention on your own position. That’s OK! This all takes practice. Just do your best to ‘steel man’ in whatever ways you can, even if it’s as simple as restating their position as succinctly as possible in order to convey you’ve understood. In this case, if there has been a misunderstanding, your opponent is given an opportunity to correct your mistake.

Read as much as you can

You’ll inevitably have a lot of reading to do, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying to read more when necessary! Attempt to discover responses to philosophers you’ve read about previously, or explore more of their work. Maybe just make time to explore the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is an invaluable, peer-reviewed resource for any philosopher. By expanding the catalogue of ideas you keep in mind, you broaden your ability to criticise or evaluate.

Hopefully, this short article will have given you some useful advice for your philosophical career. Wherever you choose to go with your degree, we wish you all the best!