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

3 Tips For Your First Philosophy Class

Did you enroll 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 Already Believe

Good judgment matters in many contexts. It matters when we’re voting, when we’re raising children, and when deciding how to spend our time, etc. In each of these cases, 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. Academic philosophers care more about whether we should (or should not) believe something. And that comes down to the reasons for believing, not the beliefs themselves. This is where the tools of philosophy become relevant.

2.  Learn The Tools Of Philosophy

So what are the tools of philosophy? In short, the tools of philosophy are those that 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.

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

But arguments involve claims, not numbers. For example:

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

Math problems have a few lines of math stuff which results in a conclusion. The same goes for arguments. There are a couple claims that (should) result in a conclusion.

Also, math problems have correct and incorrect conclusions. The same goes for arguments. Given a set of premises, only some (if any) conclusions follow. 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.

But 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 will be useful for first-time philosophy students.

3.  Apply The Tools of Philosophy

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 use the tools of philosophy. And this is harder than most people think. So how do you learn to use the tools of philosophy? Practice and teamwork. And how do you test your philosophy skills?  In most philosophy classes, you explain and evaluate arguments.

Explanation

If you are going to explain an argument, then you have to understand it — its parts and their relations. For example, you would need to know 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.

Evaluation

If you are going to evaluate an argument, then they need to apply the tools of philosophy to the argument. You need to consider whether the conclusion actually follows from the premises. And you might want to consider whether the premises are true. But these are just the basics. At higher levels of philosophy, you might need to make an objection and/or respond to an objection. There are many forms of objection. The basic taxonomy of objections is well-captured in Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement, but many kinds of objection fit into each category in that hierarchy. Learning how each kind of objection works will serve you well in philosophy.

My Advice 

Good philosophy is clear, cogent, and concise. Bad philosophy isn’t. I explain what I mean by that in this post: “How To Write A Philosophy Paper: Criteria and Tips

In my experience, most students’ philosophy mistakes are similar. I list the most common mistakes (and their solutions) in this post: “Grading Shorthand: Clear, Consistent and Constructive Feedback

One final thought: Doing good philosophy is unnatural. It’s not because the tools of philosophy are difficult to learn. Rather, they are difficult to apply. “This argument seems fine, but even bad arguments seem fine at first. So where and how does this argument go wrong? This seems so much easier when the professor analyzes the argument with us.” So if you take away only one piece of advice from this post, take away this: set aside time to practice applying the tools of philosophy to new arguments. Arguments are everywhere. Every day we encounter arguments about how to use our money, time, vote, etc. So practice, practice, practice!

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Nick Byrd

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