One of the most common criticisms of philosophy is that it’s not ‘practical’; that is, the study of philosophy doesn’t require students to learn anything useful. I strongly disagree with this charge, of course. For those who are studying philosophy develop many highly valuable ‘meta-skills’, such as those required by activities involving careful analysis and clear communication, that can be applied directly to countless specific endeavors. But there’s one area of philosophy that’s immediately practical par excellence, for it’s concerned with the choices we all make every day of our lives. This, of course, is the study of ethics.
Suppose that you’ve always wanted to learn how to box. Having decided that you can put it off no longer, you join a boxing gym to begin your study of the sweet science. After a few weeks of instruction, you’ve learned some basic punches, some basic defenses and some basic footwork, and so your coach informs you that you’re now ready to begin sparring. You’re nervous, of course; but you’re also excited to have an opportunity to test your newfound skills. As you enter the ring, you don your headgear and glance at the opposing corner. Only then do you discover that your very first opponent is the reigning heavyweight champion of the world.
While a mismatch of that sort may be patently ridiculous in the context of learning how to box, it’s precisely what happens when you begin to study philosophy. Only the mismatch is in fact much worse. For in philosophy, your first opponents include not merely the best living philosophers; rather, they’re among the best philosophers of all time. So, after only a few weeks of philosophical training, you’re expected – indeed, strongly encouraged – to tell the likes of Plato and Descartes and Locke not only what you think they got right and wrong, but whether you think that their work in a particular area should be altered, improved, or abandoned altogether.
The University of London International Programmes (UoL) has just begun releasing exam results for students who sat for exams in May. Suppose that on the day that results are released for your program, you access them in the way you’re officially instructed to by UoL, which involves entering your personal information into a UoL-supplied web form. You do precisely as you’re instructed, and as you pull your results up, you learn that you scored a 71 on exam X. ‘Excellent!’ you happily exclaim. And from this information, coupled with your awareness of the fact that all scores of 70 and over merit a first, you validly deduce,
(B) ‘I scored a first in exam X’.
Most of us, on the basis of the information provided above, would unhesitatingly say that you know that you scored a first on exam X. That is, we would ascribe knowledge of (B) to you. And the reason we’d be inclined to say that you have knowledge in this case is because you have excellent reasons for holding a true belief. For you validly inferred (B) from two powerfully supported premises, viz. (1) I scored a 71 on exam X (which is supported by the results you received, in a legitimate way, from a highly reliable source), and (2) all scores over 70 merit a first (which is supported by information received through legitimate sources like student handbooks etc.).
By now, many of us have completed our 2015 University of London (UoL) exams. We’re hoping for good results. But that’s only because there’s a sense in which we don’t know how well we performed. That is, we have doubts about how well we performed. In this case, our doubts are in a sense forced upon us by the nature of our situation. For we desire good grades, we’ve completed our exam essays, and there are criteria that our essays must satisfy to earn good grades. But we have insufficient information to determine precisely what criteria our completed exam essays in fact satisfy. Thus, we’re left with our doubts and our hopes (at least until July!).
Exams are only weeks away. Perhaps many of you woke up earlier than usual this morning so that, after the usual chores, you could continue revising a subject that you began working on last night. I did. But as is often the case in philosophy, this very ordinary scenario raises some fascinating and remarkably difficult questions. One of them is called ‘the problem of personal identity’, which we could put, at a first pass, like this: How do you know that the ‘you’ who awoke this morning and continued revising is one and the same person as the ‘you’ who was revising and then went to sleep last night? Let’s call this the Basic Question.
I realize that this problem – or even the suggestion that it actually is a problem — may sound ridiculous to many of you. But I shall try, as Bouwsma said a philosopher must, to ‘quicken the sense of the queer’ – that is, to explain why it is in fact so wonderfully problematic. And later, I shall try to explain some of the practical implications that follow from how we ultimately answer questions like the Basic Question.
Questions about study habits and practices are very personal questions. They’re not personal in the impolite sense that to raise them evinces a bit of social ineptitude on the part of the enquirer. Rather, they’re personal in the sense that what ‘works’ for each of us will be determined by largely subjective or person-relative factors: What are our goals? What resources do we have access to? What sort of preparation have we undergone? What learning-strategies have we found to be most effective? What extra-academic obligations do we have? And so on.
Given that studying is so deeply personal in that latter sense, this post will only be about how I approach studying. Specifically, it will be about how I approach the study of philosophy as a University of London (UoL) student. My aim in sharing my approach to studying philosophy is threefold: first, I hope that it will provide those who may be interested in studying philosophy both with an idea of what it’s like to study it at the university level, and what it’s like to study it as a UoL student; second, I hope that others who are studying philosophy, or other essay-based humanities subjects, will glean some ideas from my approach that might help them with their studies; and third, I hope that others will share their ideas on studying with me (perhaps in the comments section of this post!) so that I might learn from them.
Philosophy students love questions. Most of us were introduced to philosophy through memorable encounters with particularly riveting questions – questions that gripped us as soon as we gripped them. Is there a god? What are rights? Do we have free will? Is any action really right or wrong? Why does anything exist rather than nothing at all?
But there’s one question that most of us don’t find particularly compelling. Unfortunately, it may also be the question that we are, as philosophy students, most frequently asked:
“What can you do with a philosophy degree?”
I’m going to try to answer that question. But first, I’d like to reformulate the question in the following way:
“Why study philosophy?”
One frustration most philosophy students share is a consequence of the gulf that exists between what the study of philosophy actually involves, and what many people who have never studied philosophy – which includes most of our family and friends and acquaintances — think it involves.
When someone studying philosophy begins a discussion with the question ‘Who am I?’ your instinctive reaction may be to look for the nearest exit. But before you take your leave, let me assure you that my aim in asking and answering that question is much more prosaic than the label ‘philosopher’ might at first lead you to believe.
My name is Eric DeJardin, and I live in the state of Rhode Island in the United States. I’ve been interested in philosophy since I was a teenager, but I didn’t begin to study it formally until I began to work towards a Bachelors degree at Harvard’s Extension School in Cambridge, MA. My classes on the history of philosophy and on logic with Hugo Bedau, Eli Hirsch and Jay Harris were among the most enjoyable and enlightening I’ve ever taken. I had planned to attain a degree from the Extension School, but after completing about half the required coursework the costs of travelling three times per week from Providence, RI to Cambridge, MA became prohibitive. So I put my formal academic goals on hold and began to look about for an affordable — but, very importantly, high quality — alternative.