7

In September I will begin my first year in uni and because I have studied philosophy only in high school, do you have any tips / advice to give me?

I have been thinking a lot about the different courses I will be taking and more specifically about the fact that I know very little to nothing about the topics, concepts, etc., these courses aim to teach, so my question - and I apologise in advance if it sounds silly to ask - is: how do I gain a basic background knowledge to get around different topics? how do I select what to study and where should I begin? Any books recommendations?

10
  • 1
    The most important thing is to choose something that you really want to do. Enthusiasm is a crucial factor in doing well at uni, when there are so many other distractions. Studying philosophy will teach you how to absorb complex ideas quickly, how to explain them clearly and how to argue with someone politely - listening carefully and not descending into anger and abuse. It will give you a good background for learning any technical stuff that you need as your career progresses and changes. All of that is very helpful in any career.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented May 21 at 16:44
  • 2
    @LudwigV All of that is very helpful in any career - I don't disagree that Studying philosophy will teach you how to absorb complex ideas quickly... But there are many disciplines that can teach such skills, such as law or scientific research, amongst many others. And based on your profile, you have remained in academia throughout your career...
    – Vector
    Commented May 21 at 17:28
  • 1
    Kane B on YouTube is an academic philosopher with lots of very good videos on a load of topics in analytic philosophy.
    – edelex
    Commented May 21 at 18:34
  • 1
    @LudwigV - I didn't mean to attack you personally - just an observation. FYI I was an academic for many years (over 20) - theology/philosophy of religion. IT is a second career for me. Frankly, I got bored of academia and I also had a fairly large family to support So... I don't regret the time I spent in academia - but I do believe that remaining solely an academic is limiting.
    – Vector
    Commented May 21 at 20:23
  • 1
    @Vector You could claim to have seen both sides of the fence. But any choice is limiting because the alternatives are closed. I didn't trudge round the same syllabuses for forty years. On the contrary, every year was different and I was kicked upstairs to management after a while. Money for the family was a problem, but so was the retraining, so we managed without starving. I actually had a pretty wide experience within the institution and I'm glad for that.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented May 22 at 7:55

7 Answers 7

2

When I was in my undergraduate studying computer science, with no background whatsoever in philosophy, I came across books by the (then) editor of Encyclopædia Britannica, Mortimer Adler. His audience is lay people, so his books are easy to read. Many of his books are philosophical introduction to a topic such as God, Religion, Truth, Beauty, Liberty, Equality, Justice, War & Peace, Art, Angel, Intellect, Desires, etc. What helped me a lot as an introduction to philosophy is his 1993 book The Four Dimensions of Philosophy: Metaphysical, Moral, Objective, Categorical and his 1985 book Ten Philosophical Mistakes.

In addition, he edited another product of the company: Great Books of the Western World with a unique 2-volume index to 102 Great Ideas he called Syntopicon which includes 102 essays, one for each Great Idea, followed by an Outline of Topics for each idea and a list of References to the Great Books contained in the following 57 volumes. The essays are later published in a volume as The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought. To me, this serves as a introduction for major philosophical topics along with references to primary philosophical texts since many of those "Great Books" are philosophy. You can read the Syntopicon at archive.org:

But studying philosophy cannot be separated from the philosopher, his/her social circumstances, and the philosophical milieu of his/her contemporary, so it is imperative to read a history of the whole Western philosophy. I recommend the 9 volume Frederick Copleston, S.J. A History of Philosophy, although it is rather dated (the final volume was published in 1974), but it is written for beginners in that the he does lots of compare/contrast of the philosophy being discussed, the motivating factors for why the philosopher developed it, and the significance of each philosophy for the age, so you are not lost in a sea of unrelated abstract concepts. You can also read it at archive.org:

  1. Greece and Rome: From the Pre-Socratics to Plotinus
  2. Medieval Philosophy: From Augustine to Duns Scotus
  3. Late Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy: Ockham, Francis Bacon, and the Beginning of the Modern World
  4. Modern Philosophy: From Descartes to Leibniz
  5. Modern Philosophy: The British Philosophers from Hobbes to Hume
  6. Modern Philosophy: From the French Enlightenment to Kant
  7. Modern Philosophy: From the Post-Kantian Idealists to Marx, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche
  8. Modern Philosophy: Empiricism, Idealism, and Pragmatism in Britain and America
  9. Modern Philosophy: From the French Revolution to Sartre, Camus, and Lévi-Strauss
4

Since you have already done some philosophy, you will likely have a better background than many others.

You might like to follow up any topics discussed at school that appear in your first year philosophy syllabus. (Your teacher would very likely be happy to help.)

You must have read some philosophy texts, so you might like to look at them again - perhaps with a more critical eye than when you first read them. (Any decent philosophy text deserves to be read several times).

If any of your friends were inclined to join you in discussing philosophical topics, that would be wonderful.

Use the internet to find articles about philosophy in mainstream media aimed at the general public. Don't rely on stuff labelled as philosophy on the general platforms. It will very likely include a lot of rubbish. Some of it is good, but you need to know what you are doing to recognize it.

But your tutors will be used to introducing people to philosophy and you can rely on them to be helpful. Don't worry too much about doing lots of preparation work. Just do as much (or as little) as you feel inclined to.

7
  • This is all excellent advice. But it is not only applicable to Philosophy, but to any serious discipline.
    – Vector
    Commented May 21 at 17:37
  • 1
    @Vector Yes, that's the point. Whatever subject you study, if you work with enthusiasm, you will acquire skills that will be useful in your career. So you might as well do what you love. If you love engineering or medicine or law, by all means study them. If you love philosophy, study that.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented May 21 at 19:09
  • No argument, if someone really loves it. (Admittedly, I find it hard to relate to that, but 'it takes all kinds'. :-) )
    – Vector
    Commented May 21 at 20:26
  • 1
    @Vector I don't pretend that "do what you love" is simple. It took me quite a while to decide to make a career of philosophy and even longer before I really came to love it. Fortunately, I didn't have to cope with many students who were mainly there for the beer.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented May 22 at 8:06
  • Fortunately, I didn't have to cope with many students who were mainly there for the beer - LOL . I imagine that would probably be the case with philosophy students. I admire your tenacity. I have been fortunate in finding areas which I love and am reasonably good at. I made a conscious decision to go into IT because it was intuitive and fun for me. The hardest part of that decision was abandoning my previous career, which wasn't planned at all (just was attracted to it and 'fell into it') - taking up the second one was not a difficult decision.
    – Vector
    Commented May 22 at 13:59
4

Congratulations! Here's a few things I would have been more strident about in my undergraduate studies:

1 - Get a book on metaphilosophy, and make it your quest not just to finish the book, but to carry the book through your entire undergraduate studies to reflect on so by the time you earn your bachelors degree, you have learned enough to have your own opinion on what 'philosophy' means to you. I have and enjoyed Overgaard et al's An Introduction to Metaphilosophy (GB). As you go through your courses, you can continually come back to the question of 'what is philosophy?'

2 - Don't just take notes for classes, take notes to build understanding. I use a system, not nearly frequently enough, called Roam. For instance, my notes on Quine's Two Dogmas:

- I. BACKGROUND FOR ANALYTICITY
    - AS divide
        - Foreshadowed by Hume's relation of ideas v. matters of fact
            - Self-evident, conceptual, and necessarily true
            - Learned, sensory, and contingently true
        - Foreshadowed by  Leibniz's truths of reason v. truths of fact
            - Rational, logically derived, and necessary truths in a possible world
            - Empirical, learned, and contingent truths in a possible world
        - Analytic conceptually contained by subject and reqs:
            - subject-predicate analysis
            - metaphor of containment
        - Examples
            - Hesperus and Phosphorous
            - Scott and the author of __Waverly__
            - Analysis of meaning (intension) and naming
        - Affects singular and general terms
            - singular names
            - general does not name
            - the general is understood by the extension of the singular
        - Confusion of
            - (meaning is intension)
            - meaning with extension
            - meaning with naming
 ...

Now, I have an annotated copy of the paper, my notes, links to relevant references when I was researching, etc. Competency in philosophy is having not just the ability to recall the names of philosophers and their arguments, but to have some insight into their lines of reasoning. For me, cognitive synonymy (the term comes from the paper) is a very critical concept, because it bolts down an important distinction in semantics and exposes the use of 'synonymy' as often being polysemous and makes it easy to identify equivocation in informal arguments.

3 - Familiarize yourself with important resources outside of your primary materials and your professor. Just off the top of my head:

Figure out how to use the journals your university gives you access to as well.

4 - Use LLMs, but use them cautiously. Copilot, for instance, will give you responses that are chocked full of vocabulary, but it will also just manufacture falsehoods. If you ask it a question, make sure you investigate the terminology and explore the purported reasoning. (LLMs don't actually reason; they're like massive autocomplete functions that mimic what people on the Internet and various written resources say, sometimes leading to very convincing hallucinations.

5 - Consider using Anki or other flashcard software or committing to Zettelkasten to slowly accumulate a base of facts and commit them to memory. Bloom's taxonomy (vanderbilt.edu) is famous among US educators for segregating education into different activities of varying difficulty. Analyzing and synthesizing are the goal, but you can't move up the hierarchy without a basic command of facts.

6 - Write out mini-explanations in your notes. Joubert is quoted as saying "Teaching is learning twice." It's not good enough to regurgitate. You have to actively construct your knowledge, and attempting to summarize, relate, and explain is part of that process. It's also terrific if you can find some others who are in your zone of proximal development.

7 - Commit yourself to kaizen. The notion of continual improvement should be applied to everything from your time management to your note taking towards your reading. Investigate how to read more quickly. Investigate technologies like speech-to-text for writing. We in the US often use the term life-long learning to encapsulate that education isn't what you do in a classroom, it's a way of living.

Hope some of those pointers help with your philosophical studies, and good luck.

7
  • That's all good advice too - especially the last bit about education being a life-long enterprise. You are much more clued up about internet resources than I am, which is good and much more balanced about AI than some other people.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented May 21 at 19:12
  • 1
    @LudwigV Thanks. I work with NLP and formal semantics so, it's of preeminent interest on how knowledge itself can be digitized and used to enhance human knowledge in the spirit of extended cognition. I hear a lot of misinformed people relegate philosophy to the status of some sort of pseduoscientific ancient wisdom, but in NLP, there's a strong tradition of looking at how metaphysical discourse gets us to our formal systems in the first place. For me in particular, Martin-Löf's dichotomy between set and category has direct philosophical implications about the act of cognition.
    – J D
    Commented May 21 at 19:23
  • @LudwigV That's not a sentence you can go many places to have appreciated, even if opposed, so I think we owe it to all of the future philosophers to give a headstart when they're looking for one.
    – J D
    Commented May 21 at 19:24
  • thank you so much !! i will look into everything you shared. you gave me a lot of good recourses and advices Commented May 21 at 19:43
  • 1
    @JD I think we owe it to all of the future philosophers to give a headstart when they're looking for one Absolutely. However, a career in philosophy is not for everyone, so it is also important not to let them think that any career but philosophy is a failure or allow our teaching to be aimed only at training professionals. It has to be an education for life.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented May 22 at 7:59
2

Philosophy, more than most disciplines, is shaped by the individuals who teach it, so look for a good professor. Even if their interests are not yours, you'll get more out of that than from a bad professor whose interests are a closer match. And take the time to get to know them outside the classroom, if possible.

Other than that, just come prepared to engage deeply with the text, and with an open mind. Ask plenty of questions, and listen to the answers. If you're taking introductory classes, no additional background will be assumed or needed.

Different philosophy courses, even at the same level, are likely to be taught entirely differently depending on the professor, with different sources, methods and emphases. So being overprepared might actually be counterproductive.

1

You can as much become a philosopher by reading a book on philosophy as you can become a musician by reading a book on musicians (or even reading a book on music theory), or become a cyclist reading a book on cycling.

The difficulty is that its clear you can only (possibly) become a musician if you spend time at the keyboard (or equivalent), or a cyclist if you spend time on 2 wheels.

What is the equivalent activity for philosophy??

This is harder to answer clearly. But the negative is clear — philosophizing is not about reading philosophy books, though it can form a part of the process.

For a person your age (I am assuming early 20s) here are some outstanding books that have started many people on a path of philosophy:. But they all need to be combined with your active participation whose details will differ case to case

  • Sophies' World by Jostein Gaardner
  • Illusions by Richard Bach
  • The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  • The Examined Life by Robert Nozick
  • the Heart of Philosophy by Jacob Needleman
  • Breakfast with Socrates by Rowland Smith
  • Gödel Escher Bach by Hofstadter
  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Here are some more which (some here) may look askance at

  • Tao Te Ching
  • Zen Flesh Zen Bones
  • Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
  • Breath – You are Alive! by Thich Nhat Hahn
  • Tertium Organum by Pyotr Ouspensky
  • Who am I? by Ramana Maharshi
  • The Way of the Sufi by Idris Shah
0

I would not advise anyone to go study philosophy - since I have come to consider most of modern, academic philosophy as a sterile exercise in sophistry - but if you have already made up your mind, then I'd advise you to read lesser known philosophers, like Arne Naess (his study of Gandhi for instance, or his exposé about Sextus Empiricus, or his "Communication and Argument").

If your interest in philosophy was awakened by wondering about what personal identity is, and/or how to justify ethical beliefs, I would advise to read Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons - which is a real fun read because of Parfits original thought experiments. Or for a more pluralistic anthology, I would point to Dennett and Hofstadter's "The Mind's I".

0

I offer you the same advice that I give to all philosophy newbies who post here. I recommend Tha Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. Published almost a century ago , the book has held up very well. But for its discussion of philosophers who were active in the 1920’s, The Story of Philosophy could have been written last week.

I have to echo the sentiments of the first comment you received, from Vector. I recommend changing your career path. There are plenty of professions where abstract thought is valued. I was entranced and inspired by The Story of Philosophy when I was 17. However, it became clear immediately that there was no way to earn a decent dollar doing philosophy. I chose law, and at age 75 I am very happy I did so.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .