The study of philosophy is the study of the truths, ideas, and principles surrounding existence and knowledge. You can study philosophy in a formal educational context, but regardless of where you study it, you will need to know how to read, write, and debate philosophical ideas.
Part One: Philosophy Degrees
Get an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree. At the undergraduate level, philosophy majors usually study a mix of different philosophies from the historical and theoretical perspectives.
Two-year associate programs in philosophy are somewhat rare since the study of philosophy can be applied to so many different areas of knowledge. As such, four-year bachelor programs taken at liberal arts institutions are more common.
You will likely study both “continental” philosophy—the work of Greek and European philosophers—and “analytical” philosophy–mathematics, logic, and theoretical physics.
Common areas of study include ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics.
Obtain a master’s degree. If you want to further your education in philosophy after obtaining a bachelor’s degree, you can pursue a Master of Philosophy, also called a “Magister Philosophiae” (M.Phil.) degree.
Master’s programs in philosophy usually take about two years to complete.
For the most part, you will complete the same sort of work expected in a doctorate program. The primary difference is that you will not need to write a dissertation.
Go through a doctorate program. Obtaining a doctorate degree in philosophy can get somewhat complex since many different areas of study are awarded with a “doctorate in philosophy” (Ph.D.). You will need to do a little extra searching to find a doctorate program that focuses only on philosophy and no other subject.
Most Ph.D. programs focused on philosophy are labeled as degrees in “social philosophy” or “applied philosophy.”
Part Two: Reading Philosophical Works
Read through the text multiple times. Most students of philosophy will need to read through philosophical readings several times before they fully understand them. As you advance in your studies, you may work out your own system of reading. At the start, however, it can be helpful to work through a reading four times.
During the first reading, look at the table of contents, key points, and/or glossary, then quickly scan through the passage itself. Move quickly, reading one page in roughly 30 to 60 seconds. Underline terms and ideas that jump out at you in pencil. Mark any unfamiliar terms, as well.
For the second reading, flip through the text at a similar pace, but stop to look up any terms or phrases you do not recognize and cannot define by context. Your focus should still be on identifying key terms and ideas. Check off paragraphs you think you understand in pencil, and mark those you do not understand with a question mark or “x.”
During the third reading, go back to the sections you marked with a question mark or “x” and read them in greater detail. Check them off if you reach an understanding, or mark them with a second question mark or “x” if you do not grasp their meaning.
During the fourth reading, quickly review the text again to remind yourself of the main focus and key arguments. If you’re reading for class, identify the marked passages you had difficulty with so that you can ask questions.
Read as much as possible. The only way to familiarize yourself with philosophy is to immerse yourself in the philosophical works of others. If you do not read philosophy, you will not be able to speak or write it. When studying philosophy for a class or degree program, you should always do the readings assigned to you. Listening to others’ interpretations of those readings in class is not a good substitution. You need to review and grapple with the ideas on your own instead of having others do the work for you.
Reading on your own is also beneficial. As you become more familiar with different branches of philosophy, you can gradually begin selecting your own readings on potential topics of interest.
Consider the context of the work. All philosophy was written within the confines of a certain historical setting and culture. While most lasting works of philosophy offer truths and reasoning that can be used in modern times, each one also has its own cultural biases to take into account. Think about who wrote it, when it was published, where it was published, its original intended audience, and the purposes it was originally developed for. Also ask yourself how it was received in its own time and how it has been received since then.
Determine the theses. Some theses are obvious and explicitly stated, but many are not. You will need to consider the key passages and ideas you spotted during your first and second readings to help you determine the main idea the philosopher is trying to argue.
A thesis can be positive or negative, meaning that it can accept a particular philosophical idea or reject it. Identify the idea being addressed first. Then, use the writer’s statements about that idea to figure out if the thesis is positive or negative.
Look for supporting arguments. Supporting arguments should back up the writer’s thesis. You may already know a few if you had to work backwards to find the thesis, but you should comb through the key ideas of the work again to identify any you may have missed.
Philosophers usually use logical argumentation to support their theses. Ideas and patterns of thought that are clearly sound will be presented and used to support the thesis.
Assess each argument. Not every argument presented will be a valid one. Question the validity of an argument by looking at the premises and inferences it is built upon.
Identify the premises and ask yourself if they are as true as the writer claims. Try to come up with a counter-example that proves the statement wrong.
If the premises are true, ask yourself if the inferences derived from those premises are sound. Apply the pattern of reasoning to a different case and see if it holds up. If it does not remain valid, the inference is not sound.
Evaluate the argument as a whole. Once you have examined all of the premises and inferences surrounding a thesis, you will need to evaluate how successful and true the idea is.
If all of the premises and inferences are sound and you can think of no logical argument against the thesis as a whole, you must formally accept the conclusion, even if you still do not believe it personally.
If any of the premises or inferences are faulty, though, you can reject the conclusion.
Part Three: Researching and Writing Philosophy
Understand the purpose. Every paper you write will have a purpose. If you are writing an essay for a class, the question you need to address may already be provided. When this is not the case, though, you need to identify a single question or idea you want to tackle before you begin writing. Make sure that you have a clear answer to your primary question. This answer will become your thesis.
Your primary question may need to be divided into multiple sub-points, and each of these points will need its own answer. As you plot out these sub-points, the structure of your essay will begin taking shape.
State and support your thesis. As previously noted, your thesis will be derived from the answer you developed to your essay’s central question. This thesis needs to be more than just a statement, though. You will need to show some line of reasoning leading up to it.
Address all sides of an issue. Anticipate counter-arguments to each point you make. Note these counter-arguments in your essay and explain why those objections are not valid or sound.
Only spend a fraction of your paper addressing these objections. The majority of the essay should still focus on explaining your own original ideas.
Organize your ideas. Before you actually write your piece, you should organize the ideas you plan to use. You can do so using any drafting or prewriting technique of choice, but outlines and cluster charts are often among the most helpful.
Identify your thesis at the top of your chart or outline. Each major supporting argument should be given its own box in your chart or heading in your outline. Your secondary boxes or sub-headings should list points that further expand those main arguments—i.e., your premises and inferences.
Write clearly. When writing your essay, you should use concise, concrete language and write in an active voice.
Avoid unnecessary, flowery language meant to sound impressive and focus solely on providing meaningful content.
Leave out anything unnecessary, for that matter. Irrelevant and repetitive material should be left out.
Define your key terms and use them throughout your essay.
Revise your work. After you write your first draft, go back through and double-check your reasoning and your writing.
Weak arguments should be strengthened or cut from your paper.
Poor grammar, disorganized thought processes, and cluttered paragraphs should be rewritten.
Part Four: Engaging in Philosophical Dialogue
Prepare yourself. Making preparations in advance may not be possible when you enter into an expected philosophical dialogue, but usually, philosophical discussions that occur during your studies will be planned in advance. Review the assigned materials for the discussion and draw your own conclusions based on sound reasoning.
For unplanned dialogues, briefly review your knowledge of related concepts before actively entering into the discussion.
Be respectful, but expect conflict. A philosophical dialogue would not be very interesting if everyone had the exact same ideas. There will be disagreements, but you should always be respectful of others and their ideas, even when trying to prove them wrong.
Show respect by listening thoroughly and trying to view opposing points as worthwhile ideas.
When a conversation brings up a significant issue, the exchanges will likely become more passionate, and conflict can occur. You should still try to end the conversation on a positive, respectful note, however.
Provide quality insights. If the ideas being discussed are ones that you do not have strong opinions on or firm knowledge of, spend more time as an active listener than a speaker. Simply speaking is not enough. If the points you contribute are not sound ones, your contribution will not further the dialogue much.
Conversely, if you do have strong arguments to make, speak up. You should not try to override others, but you should definitely make your ideas and support known.
Ask plenty of questions. Insightful questions can be just as important in a discussion as sound arguments.
Ask for clarification on any point another person makes when it seems hazy to you.
If you have a point that no one else has addressed yet, but do not have a firm stance on it, bring that point up as a question.
Sources and Citations
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