3 Studying philosophy
In the final section of this taster course I want to say something about the process of studying philosophy. We can divide the process up into three components: reading (and listening), discussing, and writing. Let us take them in turn and see what they will involve in A211.
Reading. Reading philosophy is a special skill. You can't read a philosophy book as you would a novel. You will need to approach it carefully and critically, taking much more time than normal. Different people have different strategies here. Some read each chapter or section through once quickly in order to get a general idea of the subject matter, then read it again more slowly, making notes and annotations as they go. Others prefer to begin with a slow reading, making lots of notes, followed by a quicker re-reading to get the big picture. Either way, you will need to keep certain questions in mind as you go. What are the key terms? What arguments and examples are introduced and what are they supposed to show? What conclusions does the author reach? Make a note of any passages you don't understand, but don't let them hold you up too long; things will probably fall into place later. Finally, you read the material through again with a critical eye. Are the arguments and examples good ones? What objections might be raised? How might the author respond to these objections? On A211 the main reading will consist of a series of specially written books, which also include extracts from the work of famous philosophers. There will also be a set of audio CDs which contain short lectures from the course team and guest speakers.
Discussing. If you want to be a philosopher, it is no good just reading philosophy; you will need to start doing it – clarifying meanings, drawing distinctions, and evaluating and constructing arguments. And the best way to do this is in debate with fellow students and tutors. (Philosophy has always had a social dimension; the ancient Greek philosophers used to discuss their ideas while strolling in the public buildings of Athens.) Some people find this daunting, and get upset when their views are criticized, but you should look at it as an opportunity to develop your ideas and hone your philosophical skills. By raising objections to your views, other people will help you to improve your arguments and make your position clearer and stronger. And if it is all done in the right spirit (as it usually is), it can be great fun too! On A211 the main opportunity for discussion will come at tutorials, where you will meet your tutor and fellow students from your region. Tutorial groups are small and friendly, and the atmosphere is very supportive. Do try to attend them if you can, and be prepared to speak up and get involved. The value of tutorials stretches well beyond the two hours you spend in the seminar room. After you leave, you will find yourself thinking about what you said, how it was received, how you might have said it better, or even how, on reflection, the thought behind what you said was mistaken. This is all part of learning to become a philosopher. You will also have an opportunity to debate with fellow students online.
Writing. Writing is an extension of the discussion process described above. When you sit down to write about a topic you will be doing much the same thing as when you discuss it in a tutorial. You will be interpreting, evaluating, and constructing arguments. But now you will be doing it in a more careful and structured way, setting out arguments systematically and considering objections to them. And, again, when you get feedback from your tutor, you should regard it as an opportunity to develop your skills and improve your arguments. On A211 there are two types of written assessment: seven tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) and a final exam. Each has a different function. TMAs require you to develop a considered response to a question, which may take several days to compose. They give you the chance to develop and demonstrate your philosophical skills to best advantage. Exams, on the other hand, require a quicker, more focused response – the sort you might give if you decided to present your thoughts on a topic in the form of a short talk. The ability to produce exam-style responses is an important philosophical skill, and you should prepare for and sit the exam, even if you are not studying the course for credit.