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.