How to Approach a Philosophy Class

This was written in lieu of an in-person introduction in the times of Covid-19

Plato

Philosophy is very much a rational exercise in pursuit of truth. The word “philosophy” is a combination of two words: “philia” – “friend,” “love of,” or “fond of” something and “sophia” which means “wisdom.” So “philosophy” means lover or friend of wisdom. Wisdom is not the same thing as being clever or intelligent. It implies that someone has wise things to say about what matters most in life and lives according to those insights. Wisdom does not mean knowing lots of “information.” “Information” is something available in Wikipedia pages and Wikipedia pages are not “wise.”

Originally, the love of wisdom included all kinds of knowledge and a good philosopher should take an interest in a broad range of subjects. However, these days modern science covers most factual matters discernible through measurement. The word “scientist” has only existed for 200 years. Before that scientists were called “natural philosophers.”  What is left to philosophy are all the most important parts of human life. These are all the things that cannot be measured and thus about which science is silent. They include all the invisible things like value, meaning, purpose, friendship, love, morality, emotion, consciousness and beauty – both inner and outer. Physical beauty is one thing that is actually visible but it cannot be measured and, oftentimes, is just an introduction and lure for more important things. If someone does not find the good and the true beautiful, he will not pursue them.

Every human being is implicitly faced with philosophical questions – the most fundamental, perhaps, being “Why get out of bed in the morning? Why not just lie here until dehydration terminates my existence? Life can be an awful hassle and a bore – why bother?”  Philosophy is the study of what some of the most intelligent and wise people have had to say on that topic.  Philosophical questions are by their nature controversial. A controversial assertion is one about which there is large scale disagreement. Thus, philosophy is not a series of facts to be memorized like some beginning science class.

Rationally, no one should believe a controversial assertion without good evidence being supplied in the form of reasons. And because philosophy can become very unclear and also very abstract, it is important to provide examples of what you claim.  If someone says “fluoride is good for your teeth” no reasons; no evidence, is necessary because almost everyone already knows this. But if he says “atheism and moral realism are not compatible” then reasons will need to be provided before any rational person should believe the assertion.

Reasons given in support of an assertion is called an “argument” in philosophy. In colloquial English an argument means a disagreement where two people contradict each other. In philosophy, it is at least one premise (a reason or evidence) and a conclusion (an assertion.)  The most important thing in philosophy quizzes, exams and classroom lectures and discussions are reasons. Since the conclusions of philosophy will be controversial, it is always necessary to back them up with reasons and examples.  Philosophy has to look outside itself for its subject matter. Its subject matter will include life experience, scientific findings, novels, and religious experience. Philosophy is very much about analysis but it needs something to analyze. It does not supply its own subject matter.

As soon as anyone starts writing about beauty, morality, or God, he is inherently engaging in philosophy. Those are areas in philosophy called aesthetics, ethics, and theology or philosophy of religion. There are some scientists who hate philosophy and want to get rid of it, Stephen Hawking, for instance, but this is a controversial view, and they need to supply reasons why philosophy should be abandoned, and when they do that, they are doing (bad) philosophy. It takes a philosopher to attack philosophy well. In fact, some of the most interesting philosophers have discussed the limits of philosophy, which is a somewhat related idea. Plato was very interested in that, and often modestly expressed humility about what he thought he could possibly understand or explain.

When it comes to reasons, there are two rules: reasons must be true and they must be relevant. Having true and relevant reasons for decisions does not guarantee that an assertion is true, but it makes it more likely that it is right. It is better than having no good reason for beliefs and decisions about how to live.  Being rational can be compared to being the “house” in a casino. It is highly irrational to go to a casino unless you like to lose money because the “house” will always win in the long term. The odds are in favor of the house 52/48. That 4% difference is enough to mean that in the long run, the casino will win and the gamblers will lose. Casinos care not at all if some person wins and beats the odds partly because they put limits on the size of the biggest bets. Being the house is a winning proposition. Likewise, being rational does not mean that every decision that is made will be the right one, but it is likely to swing the odds in your favor in the long term. Hopefully, you will do far better than chance – merely flipping a coin every time an important life event comes along.

Very few positive truths can be known with certainty. However, it is possible to know negative truths, namely, contradictions are never true. If someone catches you in a contradiction then you are wrong. If you say “People should do whatever they want.” And someone asks “What if people want to kill puppies for fun?” Then you should reply “Well, not that of course.” That means your original assertion must be false and you will have to withdraw it. That is called a “reductio ad absurdum” argument. You are showing that one belief “people should do whatever they want” is in conflict with your other belief “people should not murder puppies for fun.” Thus, they cannot both be true. You will have to withdraw your assent from one of them. Hopefully, the second assertion! This kind of argument fails if someone just bites the bullet and says “Right then – killing puppies for fun is just fine!” But whatever you do, according to the rules of rationality and thus philosophy, you cannot maintain both assertions. It is necessary to choose between permitting all actions and forbidding the murder of puppies.

Since philosophy is about being wise and not about being clever, it is extremely important that a philosopher lives by his philosophy, or at least tries to. If a philosophy professor says that he believes in determinism and that no one has free will, and then he gets very angry at the behavior of other people then that professor is a hypocrite and a liar, unless he admits that his anger is irrational and gets angry at himself instead!

There is no point at all in studying philosophy if you have no intention of putting any of it into practice. At most you will become a smart aleck who enjoys winning arguments and making people feel foolish, but you will not qualify as a lover of wisdom.

Philosophers learn to be careful with their words. Do not say “everyone likes the Beatles” when what you mean is “many many people like the Beatles.” First, it is not true that everyone likes the Beatles. Plus, it is extremely easy to prove such extreme claims are wrong because only a single example is necessary to do so. So do not say “everyone” unless you enjoy being wrong; unless you are really sure that is right.

Exactly what philosophy is, is itself a philosophical question, so expect some variation between philosophy professors and philosophy classes. Nearly all of us, however, will emphasize the importance of arguments and the law of non-contradiction. Some professors abhor “vagueness” and want rigid definitions for everything, while others of us think there are plenty of things like “beauty” for instance, that obviously exist, are resolutely important, but admit of no nice, clear definition. In this particular class, you are taking a professor of the latter sort! In fact, one philosopher wrote that philosophy begins with an intuition of the divine, and then the attempt to figure out the implications of that. That was certainly true of the most famous philosopher of them all that in many respects got the ball rolling; Plato. Alfred North Whitehead wrote that Western philosophy is largely footnotes to Plato.

It should be added that some of the best philosophy can be found in fiction and myth. Dostoevsky, for instance, is overtly philosophical, and can turn narrative into evidence for various philosophical ideas. Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles is a notably rich source of philosophical speculation. Writing novels is, in some ways, harder than straight philosophy because a philosopher merely describes, discusses, and theorizes, while a novelist has to prove what he is saying using believable characters and plots. It is one thing to say – “people act in such and such a way” and it is another to prove it by showing imaginary people acting in plausible ways driven by character and circumstance.

5 thoughts on “How to Approach a Philosophy Class

  1. Knowing you, and having had innumerable conversations with you over a period of twenty years, I think that you left one thing out of your summary (of how you teach philosophy): Often, actual philosophy comes in items that are not labeled “philosophy”; there is more philosophy in Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles or Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, for example, than in the entire run of The Logical Positivist Review (1947 – 2021 thus far).

    • @Tom: Just reading the names of those books warms of the cockles of my heart. Academic philosophy is not philosophy but words for the autistic and pedantic.

  2. I noticed one other thing you left out — though you may imply it with “it is extremely important that a philosopher lives by his philosophy,” And that is sincerity. One may be playful in argumentation — for the pursuit of truth is joyful — but one will get nowhere (good) without sincere engagement. Sophists may stumble upon truth because they work dangerously close to its doorways, but their orientation isn’t toward the house of wisdom. They are the pedants you mention, or, worse, manipulating misologues who whore out their rationality for mammon and power. A man who wishes to learn must be earnest and sincere. Blessed are the pure in heart.

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