Studying Philosophy

University is quite different to high school. The main ways you will spend time with academic staff in a first year philosophy course are the following:

  • Lectures: About three times a week (in a first year course), you will have lectures on course content. The lecturers usually explain philosophical arguments, discuss objections to them, and put the material into a wider context. There is opportunity for discussion in lectures, and philosophy lectures can sometimes turn into lively debates.
  • Tutorials/practicals: Once a week, you will meet in a smaller group, either to work on exercises developing reasoning skills, or to discuss course content.

You’ll also spend time working alone (or with your friends) doing the course readings, and other class work. During the term you will write essays, and sometimes tests. These will assess your knowledge and understanding of the course content, and your ability to defend your own ideas with arguments.

In more senior classes, especially in third year, some classes will be seminars, where students taking the course engage in structured discussion and debate. It is partly through this kind of practice that students get to improve their skills at thinking and arguing.

I’ve heard the following things about philosophy…

Rumour: Philosophy is very difficult.

Reality: In some countries Philosophy is a high school subject, and there’s a growing worldwide movement teaching philosophy to young children. Philosophy is certainly challenging, but in our courses we start with accessible topics, and move carefully. Any student who keeps up with the work should be fine. (Also, if what you’re studying isn’t challenging, then why bother?)

Rumour: In philosophy you can say whatever you want. (It’s all ‘subjective opinion’.)

Reality: Incorrect. In philosophy, we focus on whether positions can be defended. Philosophers are prepared to take quite crazy-seeming positions seriously as long as there’s a reason to do so. But in academic philosophy it’s just not true that anyone can say anything.

This means that subjective opinions aren’t really relevant in philosophy at all. What matters is how powerful the arguments are.

Rumour: Everybody should study philosophy.

Reality: We’re not so sure about this. Not everyone enjoys thinking in a disciplined way. And not everyone finds philosophical questions interesting. You should work out a mixture of courses that suit your interests, and which will help you develop skills that you have decided are important. We hope that the information on this website helps you decide whether philosophy should be a part of that mixture in your case.

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