A picture of a Macbook in a classroom. From Nick Byrd's blog post about philosophy classes.

3 Tips For Your First Philosophy Class

You enrolled in a philosophy class? Cool! You might have heard a few things about philosophy. But — on average — few people know much about academic philosophy. So here’s a quick introduction to your first philosophy class. It’ll cover the basics of what your philosophy teacher cares about and what they probably expect from you.

1.  Forget What You Believe

You believe all sorts of stuff. But what you believe isn’t as important as why you believe. When we’re voting, raising children, deciding how to spend our time/money, etc., the quality of our reasoning matters …a lot. We need to be able to

  • find information.
  • understand information.
  • explain information.
  • evaluate information.

And this is similar to what we will do in a philosophy class. So your grade in a philosophy class is a matter of how well you understand, explain, and evaluate information — where “information” is just the stuff you read and discuss for class.

But that’s not very specific. You probably want to know how to evaluate and explain the information we come across in a philosophy course. For instance, is it enough to say, “I disagree with So-and-so because I believe that _______”? The short answer: no.

In a philosophy class, it doesn’t really matter what we believe. Philosophy is more about whether we should (or should not) believe what we believe. And that comes down to reasons for believing, not beliefs themselves. So how do we determine whether or not we should believe something? Simple! We use the tools of philosophy.

2.  Learn The Tools Of Philosophy

The tools of philosophy help us understand, communicate, and evaluate arguments. But what are arguments?

Arguments

In philosophy, arguments aren’t those heated disputes between friends and family.

An image of Calvin and Susie arguing from Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes.

In philosophy, arguments are a bit like simple math problems. Ya know, these things:

  2     10      2     12
+ 2    - 6    x 2    / 3
  4      4      4      4

In math each line involves just numbers. But in philosophy’s arguments involve claims, not just numbers. For example:

1. If we can prevent great harm without incurring great harm, then we should.
2. We can prevent great harm without incurring great harm. 
_______________
Therefore, we should prevent great harm.

In math problems there are a few lines of math stuff that result in a conclusion. Arguments in philosophy are similar. There are a couple claims that (should) result in a conclusion.

Also, math problems have correct and incorrect conclusions. The same goes for arguments. Here’s an argument with an incorrect conclusion. I call it a fallacy.

1. So-and-so is biased. 
_______________
Therefore, So-and-so is wrong.

So how do we figure out which conclusions are correct and which are incorrect? We learn the tools of philosophy.

Logic

Logic is the main tool in philosophy. Logic outlines the ways in which claims can and cannot be related. If you’ve ever heard of logical fallacies, then you’re already familiar with some of the ways in which claims cannot be related.

Explication

There is more to philosophy than understanding the relationship between the claims of arguments. We also have to agree about the content of the claims in arguments. To do that, we have to carefully communicate and interpret the claims.

For instance, some claims will involve a distinction. And until we identify and understand that distinction, we might not understand the claim or the argument in which it appears. There are lots of important distinctions in philosophy. Here is a list of distinctions that first-time philosophy students might not be familiar with.

3.  Don’t Write Bad Papers

In many classes, we can do well by merely showing up and trying. In philosophy classes, it takes a bit more than this. We also have to learn how to use the tools of philosophy. So how do you learn to use the tools of philosophy? Practice and teamwork. And how do you test your philosophy skills?  By writing a paper. More specifically, by writing a paper that both explains and evaluates an argument.

If you are going to explain an argument, then they you have to understand it — its parts and their relations. For example, you would need to know the the key terms, the meanings of the key terms, the premises (claims) of the argument, and how the premises of the argument lead to its conclusion. Explaining all of this is a large portion of a philosophy paper — roughly half.

If you are going to evaluate an argument, then they need to apply the tools of philosophy to the argument. You need to determine whether the conclusion actually is actually supported by the premises. (And, of course, you might want to consider whether the premises are true. Sometimes, that is easier said than done.)

My Advice

Good philosophy papers are clear, cogent, and concise. Bad philosopher papers aren’t. Here’s a more complete explanation of what this means:

How To Write A Philosophy Paper: Criteria and Tips

There are a handful of common mistakes that make for bad philosophy papers. Here’s a list of these mistakes (and their solutions):

Grading Shorthand: Clear, Consistent and Constructive Feedback

Once you get in the habit of identifying these mistakes, you can avoid them — and thereby avoid writing a bad philosophy paper.

One final thought: Writing good philosophy papers is unnatural. And that’s because clear, cogent, and concise communication is unnatural.  Like I said, it takes lots of practice and teamwork. But if any course can teach you how to do it, it’s a philosophy course. So if you’re enrolled in a philosophy class, then you’re already on the right track!

Next Step

Here are a few 3-minute videos that cover the basics of logic.

 

Teaser

Did you know that philosophy majors make more money, get better test scores, and have better graduate school admission rates than others? Seriously. Find out more in “9 Things About People Who Study Philosophy“.

Published by

Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog