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Guide to the Study of Philosophy

Welcome to the study of philosophy; I hope that you will enjoy your pursuit of the discipline and find it rewarding in many ways. In this document, I've gathered some information that may be of assistance to you as you proceed through a formal course of study.

You may also wish to consult the Teaching and Studying Resources page of Episteme Links and the Dictionary of Philosophical Terms and Names.

Also available in a Ukranian translation by Vlad Brown.


Reading Philosophical Texts

The assignments in your course require you to engage in a close reading of significant texts written by the major philosophers of the Western tradition. Since you may have had little experience in dealing with material of this sort, the prospect may be a little daunting at first. Philosophical prose is carefully crafted to achieve its own purposes, and reading it well requires a similar degree of care. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Do the assigned reading
    The philosophical texts simply are the content of the course; if you do not read, you will not learn. Coming to class without having read and listening to the discourse of those who have is no substitute for grappling with the material on your own. You can't develop intellectual independence if you rely for your information on the opinions of other people, even when they happen to be correct.
  • Consider the context
    Philosophical writing, like literature of any genre, arises from a concrete historical setting. Approaching each text, you should keep in mind who wrote it, when and where it was published, for what audience it was originally intended, what purposes it was supposed to achieve, and how it has been received by the philosophical and general communities since its appearance. Introductory matter in your textbooks and the Internet resources accessed through the course syllabus will help you get off to a good start.
  • Take your time
    Careful reading cannot be rushed; you should allow plenty of time for a leisurely perusal of the material assigned each day. Individual learning styles certainly differ: some people function best by reading the same text several times with progressively more detailed attention; others prefer to work through the text patiently and diligently a single time. In either case, encourage yourself to slow down and engage the text at a personal level.
  • Spot crucial passages
    Although philosophers do not deliberately spin out pointlessly excessive verbiage (no, really!), most philosophical texts vary in density from page to page. It isn't always obvious what matters most; philosophers sometimes glide superficially over the very points on which their entire argument depends. But with the practice you'll be getting week by week, you'll soon be able to highlight the most important portions of each assignment.
  • Identify central theses
    Each philosophical text is intended to convince us of the truth of particular propositions. Although these central theses are sometimes stated clearly and explicitly, authors often choose to present them more subtly in the context of the line of reasoning which they are established. Remember that the thesis may be either positive or negative, either the acceptance or the rejection of a philosophical position. At the most general level, you may find it helpful to survey the exam study questions in your course study aids file as you read each assigned text.
  • Locate supportive arguments
    Philosophers do not merely state opinions but also undertake to establish their truth. The methods employed to support philosophical theses can differ widely, but most of them will be expressed one of the forms of logical argumentation. That is, the philosopher will (explicitly or implicitly) offer premises that are clearly true and then claim that a sound inference from these premises leads inexorably to the desired conclusion. Although a disciplined study of the forms of logical reasoning is helpful, you'll probably learn to recognize the most common patterns from early examples in your reading.
  • Assess the arguments
    Arguments are not all of equal cogency; we are obliged to accept the conclusion only if it is supported by correct inference from true premises. Thus, there are two different ways in which to question the legitimacy of a particular argument:
    • Ask whether the premises are true. (Remember that one or more of the premises of the argument may be unstated assumptions.)
    • Ask whether the inference from premises to conclusion is sound. (Here it will be helpful to think of applying the same pattern of reasoning to a more familiar case.)
    If all else fails, you may question the truth of the conclusion directly by proposing a counter-example which seems obviously to contradict it.
  • Look for connections
    Since these texts occur within a tradition, they are often directly related to each other. Within your reading of a particular philosopher, notice the way in which material in one portion of the text links up with material from another. As the semester proceeds, consider the ways in which each philosopher incorporates, appropriates, rejects, or responds to the work of those who have gone before. Finally, make every possible effort to relate this philosophical text to what you already know from courses in other disciplines and from your own life experiences.

Above all else, don't worry! You'll spend most of your class time going over the assigned readings, often in great detail. You'll have plenty of opportunities to learn what other readers have found, to ask questions for clarification of puzzling passages, and to share your own insights with others. As the semester proceeds, you will grow ever more confident in your own capacity to interpret philosophical texts.

Using Electronic Texts

The philosophers' pages here will provide you with convenient access to electronic versions of most of the texts you'll be reading and to other texts by the same or related authors. Please learn to make use of these materials regularly. I think you'll find that e-texts offer a number of advantages for research in philosophy:

  • With a little practice, you'll find the virtual library easy to get around in. Well-designed hypertext files are particularly useful, but even straight text files are often easier to manipulate than physical books.
  • It is much more convenient to compare related texts in electronic than in print form. (The trilingual version of Descartes's Meditations is an excellent example.
  • Using the utilities provided with your browser or word-processing software makes it easy to search the text for key words or phrases and to excerpt crucial passages for further study.

Exciting prospects! As David Hume wrote in a different context, "When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make?" Before committing any of our old print volumes to the flames, however, we might consider a few words of caution:

  • Not every significant text is available in electronic form. Although many worthwhile projects are busy expanding the number of texts on-line, the process of conversion from print media to reliable e-text is time-consuming and labor-intensive. It will be a long time before Internet resources can begin to rival the holdings of even a small research library.
  • Because of copyright restrictions, the electronic texts available on the Internet rarely include the best critical editions or the most recent translations of the work of major philosophers. (For those we must still rely on more costly print or CD-ROM media.) When using e-texts in the preparation of a written assignment, you'll want to refer to the more definitive print versions before quoting directly.
  • Not all of the readily available e-texts are of the highest quality; scanning errors are common, and proof-reading is sometimes spotty. Although I've tried to identify reliable versions, I've certainly not checked every word myself. Again, be sure to double-check against a more standard print version of the text.
  • Finally, in my own experience, at least, for the kind of leisurely, ruminative reading that most philosophical texts require, a physical volume—the kind of thing you can spread out on your lap or mark up with a pencil or even heave across the room—is still hard to beat.

Philosophical Dialogue

Verbal discussion of serious topics is in no way tangential to the practice of philosophy. From Socratic gatherings to the philosophical conventions of today, thinking things through out loud—and in the presence of others—has always been of the essence of the philosophical method. (Most philosophical texts embody this give-and-take, either in explicit use of dialogue form or by a more subtle alteration of proposal, objection, and reply in expository prose.) Your philosophical education demands that you enter into the great conversation of Western thought. A few suggestions may help:

  • Be prepared
    Productive dialogue presupposes informed participants. This means that during every class session, each of us will have read the material assigned for the day, we will pay careful attention to what others have already said, and we will think carefully before speaking. Of course, each of us will often be mistaken, but none of us should ever speak randomly.
  • Respect others
    Joint participants in dialogue show a deep, personal respect for each other. We owe it to each other to listen well and to give each other the benefit of doubt in interpreting charitably what has been said, trying always to see the worthwhile point. Although we will rarely find ourselves in total agreement on the issues at stake, we will never attack or make fun of each other personally.
  • Expect conflict
    Disagreement with an expressed opinion and criticism of its putative support is not disrespectful; it is an acknowledgment that we are taking the matter seriously. The more significant the issue under discussion, the more likely our exchanges will become passionate, even heated. But we must always deal with each other fairly, helping each other to see the light.
  • Quality counts more than quantity
    No discussion will be perfectly balanced among its participants, and each of us will have days on which we are quieter or more vocal. But no one should dominate the conversation, nor should anyone be utterly silent. If you find yourself speaking too much, try to listen more; if you find yourself saying too little, look for opportunities to contribute. But always remember that it is what you say, not the fact of your speaking, that matters.
  • Ask questions
    Not every contribution to the dialogue needs to be the proposal or defence of a thesis. It is always proper to ask for a clarification of the meaning of something that has already been said or for the justification of a claim that has already been made. (Those who are naturally quiet may find that a well-timed question is the most comfortable way to participate in the dialogue.)

Above all, remember that philosophical discussion is a cooperative activity, aiming at a mutual achievement of truth (or, at least, convergence on a shared opinion). It is not a competition in which "points" are to be scored against an opponent. We are working together, and each can learn from all.

The Electronic Forum

Conducting an on-line discussion during the semester enables us to expand our study of philosophy beyond the spatial and temporal boundaries of traditional class meetings. If you've not participated in this way extensively before, it may take a little energy to get started, but you'll soon find this medium a comfortable one for communicating with the entire group. Early in the session, we'll get to know each other and learn to manage our networking tools effectiely.

Here are a few general ground rules for getting started on the electronic forum:

  • Check the discussion space frequently
    Every member of the class will be contributing multiple messages each week—perhaps one or two substantive efforts and several short comments. This means that your list of messages will pile up pretty quickly. You'll want to read it daily, or at least several times a week, so that you have a chance to chime in on a subject before we move on to something else.
  • Avoid lengthy quotes
    When responding to someone else's comments, don't quote the whole message—we've all seen it already. Just mention the person's name, the date of the message, and quote the few crucial lines that provide a context for what you want to say. (Some identification is a good idea, since we'll all be "speaking" at once.)
  • Never be deliberately offensive
    Lacking the visual cues present in face-to-face communication, typed electronic messages can easily seem more harsh than they were intended to be. Even in the passion of a vigorous philosophical exchange, let's try to be considerate of each other on both sides—in writing and in reading—by assuming the best. No "flaming," please.

Remember that this substitute for the more traditional methods of discussion is still unfamiliar for some of us. That's no reason to be timid: let's plunge in, try everything we can think of, learn from our mistakes and from our successes, and enjoy the adventure.

Writing Philosophy

Write to learn. Expressing your thoughts is an excellent way of discovering what they really are. Even when you're the only one who ever sees the results of your explorations, trying to put them down in written form often helps, and when you wish to communicate to others, the ability to write clear, meaningful prose is vital. Here are some suggestions for proceeding:

  • Understand the assignment
    Whether you're completing a specific assignment or developing your own project, it is important to have the aims firmly in mind. Focus on a single question you wish to address, be clear about your own answer to it, and explicitly state a thesis that answers the question. You will often want to divide the central issue into several smaller questions, each with its own answer, and this will naturally lead to a coherent structure for the entire essay.
  • Interpret fairly
    Most of your writing projects will begin with a careful effort to interpret a philosophical text, and this step should never be taken lightly. Your first responsibility is to develop an accurate reading of the original text; then your criticism can begin. Focus primarily on the adequacy of the arguments which support the stated conclusions. If you disagree, you can look for the weaknesses of that support; if you agree, you can defend it against possible attacks.
  • Support your thesis
    Don't just state your own position; make it the conclusion of a line of reasoning. Claim only what you can prove (or are, at least, prepared to defend), and support it with evidence and argument. Philosophy is not just a list of true opinions, but the reasoned effort to provide justification.
  • Consider alternatives
    Be sure to explore arguments on all sides of the issue you address. Of course you will want to emphasize the reasoning that supports your thesis, but it is also important to consider likely objections and to respond with counter-arguments. Be especially carefully in your use of examples: the best positive example can only clarify meaning and lend some evidentiary confirmation, but a single counter-example disproves a general claim completely.
  • Omit the unnecessary
    Include in your written work only what is germane to your topic: after the first draft, mercilessly eliminate from your text anything that does not directly and uniquely support the thesis. Padding with irrelevant or redundant material is never worthwhile. Be particularly careful in your use of material prepared by others: do not plagiarize, paraphrase without attribution, quote directly often or at length, or rely extensively on a single secondary source.
  • Write clearly
    It is your responsibility as writer to express yourself in a way that can be understood. Use specific, concrete language in active voice whenever you can. Define your terms explicitly and use them consistently throughout your paper.

Finally, you may find it helpful to keep an appropriate audience in mind as you write. Don't write just for the instructor and your classmates—that is, don't assume that your audience has professional knowledge of the philosophical texts or total awareness of every conversation that has taken place, inside and outside the classroom. Unless otherwise directed by the details of a particular assignment, think of yourself as presenting the material to a friend, your parents, or a class: intelligent, interested people who are well-informed generally but who lack your knowledge of the philosophical issues. Write to teach.

Paper Submission Guidelines

All written assignments should be submitted in the designated form, and should include a clear indication of the course and assignment number. Be sure to observe the designated due date; work that is turned in late will automatically receive a significantly reduced grade.

It is reasonable to expect any assignment prepared outside class to be written well, with careful attention to grammar, spelling, and usage. Philosophical writing should avoid offensive sexual, racial, ethnic, religious, and material or physical bias.

You may employ any one of the methods of attribution described in The Chicago Manual of Style, but must be consistent in both notes and bibliographies. Direct quotations from the philosophers should be taken from the standard edition of the works or the definitive English translation as listed in Richard T. DeGeorge, The Philosopher's Guide or from the texts you have been asked to read for this course.

If you make significant use of an electronic source, remember that this deserves documentation, too, including the author's name, titles for both the page and the site, a complete Uniform Resource Locator, and the date on which you viewed it on-line. Thus, for example, work on George Berkeley's philosophy might include references to:

  • George Berkeley, A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Section 22. HTML edition by David R. Wilkins. < HumanKnowledge/HumanKnowledge.html#Sect22> Accessed 30 September 1998.
  • "George Berkeley," The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. by James Fieser. <> Accessed 25 April 1999.
  • Garth Kemerling, "Berkeley's Immaterialism," Philosophy Pages. <> Accessed 14 October 2000.
  • Peter B. Lloyd, "Berkeley's Metaphysics," Berkeley Studies. <> Accessed 23 June 1999.
Although you're welcome to use such sources, it is not possible to write an adequate research paper using on-line materials alone. Print resources are far more extensive, detailed, and reliable.

In addition to these formal criteria, please consult the general suggestions for Writing Philosophy above.

Writing Essay Exams

Since a significant portion of your grade for this course will depend upon assessment of your knowledge and skill as reflected in examinations, here are a few suggestions for dealing with essay exams:

  • Be prepared
    Rely heavily upon the study questions distributed at the outset of the course: look over them at the beginning of each unit; use them to guide your reading of the texts and our discussion in class; and review them before the exam. If you have considered these issues fully, nothing on the exam itself can surprise you. Arrive promptly for the exam, and try to be well-rested, and relaxed.
  • Understand the question
    Before beginning to write, read each question carefully and completely; it will ask that you address a specific issue in a particular way. Pay close attention to words (such as "Describe...," "Explain...," "Compare and contrast...," "Assess...," and "Evaluate...") that suggest the appropriate mode of response. If you are uncertain what a question means, ask me for a clarification. Take a moment to organize your thoughts on the subject, and dive in.
  • Stick to the point
    Make sure that your essay is directly relevant to the question asked. Although you will know a great deal more about the philosopher or topic at issue than your answer requires, it will be read only for information and/or argumentation that responds to the specific question. If you believe that additional material is required, indicate clearly and explicitly how it connects with the matter at hand.
  • Use your time wisely
    Although essay exams in philosophy are not meant to be intensely time-pressured, they must be completed within certain limits. You may be asked to write four or five short essays during an exam, allowing fifteen or twenty minutes for each. Don't get so absorbed in one question that you spend much more than its share of the available time; if you have more to say, jot down a note or two, move on to another question, and return to complete your answer if time allows.
  • Make every word count
    Although it is always helpful to write clearly—that is, in complete, grammatically correct sentences—there is no need to craft beautiful prose. Avoid lengthy prefatory, transitional, and summary verbiage. Get the essentials down on paper, and trust the instructor to evaluate your essay by its quality, not its quantity.

For further guidance, please consult the general suggestions for Writing Philosophy above.

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©1997, 2011 Garth Kemerling.
Last modified 12 November 2011.
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