Sunday, February 22, 2009

Philosophical Training

One of my best students recently asked how he could further improve his philosophical work. It's something I occasionally wonder for myself, too. So I thought I'd throw the question out there for the collective wisdom of the Internets to answer: how should one "train" in philosophy?

Most obviously, one can learn from expert feedback on one's written papers. One's instructor may pick up on the main flaws or possible objections that should be addressed, and suggest potential avenues for further developing and extending the core ideas of the paper, which should eventually help one to develop a "sense" of what makes for good philosophy. However, there may be only limited opportunities for obtaining such formal written feedback (since professors are likely busy with their own work, and perhaps reluctant to do anything that feels like additional "grading"), in which case more general, informal discussions -- e.g. in office hours, or by email -- may be more welcome.

More generally, simply doing philosophy -- writing, and arguing with others -- is presumably always good practice. My advice: start a philosophy blog, and use it to (i) practice clearly summarizing any interesting ideas you come across in readings and lectures; and (ii) test out some of your own arguments and ideas. (At least, I find this invaluable. YMMV.)

Then there's the method of simply exposing oneself to a lot of professional-level philosophy: read - or skim - the top journals, attend departmental talks or 'colloquia' by visiting professors, etc. See if you absorb their philosophical skills by osmosis; or, better yet, combine with the previous suggestion to actively engage with the new ideas and methodologies you encounter.

(These procedural questions aside, there's also the question of what philosophical content to focus on. I would strongly advise undergrads, especially, to obtain a broad familiarity with the various sub-fields and methodologies: from ethics to formal logic, and from armchair analyses to more empirically-minded approaches. Further, I think almost any philosopher can benefit from thinking about the connections between their field and others -- e.g. between ethical and epistemological normativity, or between meta-ethics and meta-metaphysics.)

Have I missed anything important? And how would you balance the various recommendations -- is a marginal hour better spent reading more journal articles or developing more of one's own ideas, say?

[Cf. Getting the Most Out of Grad School]


  1. Reading as widely as possible outside of philosophy is something I think is worthwhile. In my case biology, psychology and linguistics have been good.

    The ideas in other disciplines can offer new ways of thinking, and the structures of different ideas in other disciplines can be applied to philosophical problems.

    Other fields of study outside of philosophy often have philosophical problems within them (as we're all well aware), and these offer fun, and perhaps 'real world', opportunities to practice philosophy. Ethics, philosophy of science and political philosophy are the sub-fields which most commonly need consulting in other disciplines.

  2. I second the recommendation to extensively study things outside philosophy. Large parts of philosophy consist of some of the most general problems, with application to many particular areas. As a result, philosophers often end up saying things about more specialized fields, or using them as examples, in ways that may or may not make sense once you look at the specialized fields in question. Conversely, those in specialized fields will not infrequently do a bit of philosophy, again with a highly mixed record as to how well. There are thus lots of interesting problems to be solved at those points of intersection.

  3. Though I'm only an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to philosophy, as a law student, I find that engaging with the problems of "other" subjects, often raises interesting philosophical issues. Law is replete with questions on linguistics, deduction and induction, epistemology, and or course ethics and normative/practical reasoning. I sometimes joke to my colleagues that I think I've learnt more about philosophy, than about law, in studying law.

  4. I think something that students sometimes almost feel the need for 'permission' to do is to link different ideas from within different areas of philosophy. Many undergraduates lack the confidence to make a direct comparison between the different topics that they are looking at in philosophy.

    We are all aware that most of the best philosophers have working knowledge of many areas of the discipline, but I think that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that this is not immediately obvious to undergraduates, who sometimes regard their different modules as sealed units.

  5. I'm very sympathetic to the idea of getting better by "simply doing philosophy". (That's basically what Josh Dever, one of the most useful people on the UT faculty, told me when I asked him how to become a better philosopher.)

    The social environment of grad school, where I was out at the bar with other philosophers 3 nights a week drinking and talking shop for hours on end, was extremely valuable. Blogging is definitely a good way to do it, especially if you can't find nearby interlocutors, but for me one-on-one verbal communication is the best. When I went to Michigan for a year as a visiting student, I knew that most of what I learned was going to be arguing all night at bars with the grad students of famous people, and that's exactly what happened.

    I also want to second Ethics Girl's point about exploring other areas of philosophy without compunction. In grad school I basically went to every talk I could, even if I had no idea what they were about.

    I sat in on a few sessions of the Formal Epistemology Workshop, for example. I still have no skills in Formal Epistemology, but at least I have a feel for what those people are doing and what their arguments look like. The best part was talking with them afterwards at the bar and having them explain their stuff to me in terms I could understand, and then explaining my stuff to them in terms they could understand.

  6. 1. Read philosophy books and articles as if you had to lecture on them. Try to adopt an active, "problem-solving" mindset that forces you to engage critically with your reading material.

    2. Chose your readings wisely. Resist the urge to read the latest monograph or paper just because of their proximity to the present. Don't read a full article if you can read an abstract; don't read a whole book if you can read a review. Before starting to read something, ask yourself whether there is something else you should be reading instead.

    3. Limit the time you spent surfing on the net. Here, as elsewhere, internal rules are of great help. How many philosophy blogs do you think it’s optimal for you to read on a daily basis? Then make a rule of reading that many, and not more. Yes, rules are rigid, but they are also revisable.

    4. Aim at writing some philosophy every day. However little you write on each occasion, you'll almost invariably end up writing more in the long run than if you wait for the day you have it all figured it out in your head. Such days seldom come.

    5. Teach yourself some science. If you do ethics, try neuroscience or evolutionary psychology; if you do metaphysics, go for cosmology or particle physics. Avoid the popular books; go for the textbooks instead. Learning science is not only important for what it teaches you about the relevant field of study. It is also important for what you’ll learn about the nature of evidence.

  7. 6. Don't waste time spell-checking your blog comments. If you spot a typo later on --say, you realize you wrote 'chose' instead of 'choose'--, just append a brief correction. And laugh about it. Philosophy should be fun.

  8. Lots of good suggestions here, in both post and comments, although there are bound to be variations for different tastes and temperaments (Pablo's #2 would have pretty much killed me before a year was up; and I never read an abstract if I can read the paper, and never read a paper if I can read a book. But I'm topsy-turvy in that way, and have reading habits that mean I can survive that sort of approach).

    I would add another: Get out and away from academia in ways relevant to what you are doing. If you are doing ethics, get out and do ethics-related things -- volunteer for a homeless shelter, participate drives and fundraisers, whatever, but see how it works in real life. If you're interested in mereology, start paying attention to how ordinary things are put together. If you're dealing with philosophy of language, actually work with language -- read great poetry, listen to speeches, have lots of ordinary conversations. If you're doing philosophy of science, actually find someone who can get you into a lab, even if it's doing nothing but doing minor chores. If you're doing philosophy of religion, start getting to know the ways people actually practice their religion and deal with religious topics. And so on through everything else, as far as is practically possible. This sort of thing will not give any automatic insight, but at the very worst you'll have a wider range of examples to use in argument and discussion (everyone recognizes that academic philosophy runs on little treadmills of stylized examples, and that this is a problem, but people only rarely do anything about it), and perhaps you just might learn something important. I cannot tell you the number of discussions I have had with regard to topics in philosophy of religion where people make claims about religion that show that they have no knowledge of Sikhism, or Sufism, or Hopi disenchantment rituals, or any number of other things, because they make generalizations to which those things provide counterexamples. I've talked with utilitarians who make claims that show that they clearly have never been involved in the practical work of organizing projects for improving the lives of others, and virtue theorists who have never to try to get the perspective of people with a reputation for a particular virtue, and philosophers of mind who have never interacted with people with cognitive disabilities, and philosophers of language who would talk at length about metaphors despite obviously never having seriously worked through a poem on their own in their life. Obviously no one can do everything, and there are still good things that can be done by people of limited experience sitting in armchairs; but everyone should be doing something like this. There's a world out there, and it's philosophically interesting.

  9. A friend adds that people should be honest with themselves about their interests, since uninspired philosophers tend to produce uninspired work.

    I gather he especially had in mind one's choice of specialization or dissertation topic, rather than 'sampling' other topics on the side. But it does raise an interesting question in the "non-ideal theory" of advice: what should one do on the supposition that some recommended area of diversification simply leaves one cold? (Perhaps it could be worth trying to overcome the initial aversion, if it's not too deep-rooted. But there are probably enough options out there anyway that one could simply pick another that is more immediately appealing.)

  10. I'd just like to say something against what many commenters here have said. In particular, I do not think that it's true that studying other fields outside of philosophy will best help young philosophers.

    One can overstate this of course, and it's certainly true that broadening one's horizons can at least sometimes help with philosophy. But I cannot name a single undergraduate I've taught whose failures could be put down to a lack of knowledge of physics, or economics, or whatever, rather than a lack of understanding of the philosophical matter at hand.

    (I suspect that the line being pushed stems from the thought that philosophy is somehow continuous with the sciences. So perhaps part of the dispute rests on what we make of that thought.)

    In terms of positive advice, I second Neil's claim that just hanging out with other people interested in the subject, as well as just attending whatever philosophy talks you can, hugely helps you get steeped into the subject. I tend to think of philosophy as having an abnormal learning curve: the more of it you do, the easier it is to further improve.

  11. But surely it wouldn't be a question of their 'failures' being due to a lack of knowledge in a given field, but of whether they would do better with knowledge in that field -- i.e., be able to discuss and argue better on certain subjects, have better stocks of examples to draw from for analogies and cases, be more easily able to avoid certain kinds of potentially misleading errors, &c. The two seem very different. That is, it's really not a matter of avoiding obvious mess-ups in philosophy, which one expects a bright student in philosophy generally to be doing already; but rather of what a bright student in philosophy who generally does well could do to make themselves even better.

  12. To expand on Brandon's comment, utilising knowledge from outside of philosophy is far from expected of undergraduate students, as far as I can tell. (Unless specifically prescribed by the teacher, of course.) But that doesn't mean you shouldn't take opportunities to practice philosophy via other fields. The marks of undergrads also, I'd think, can't be put down to casual(ish) philosophical conversations they have with others interested in the subject, but I'd say this variety of conversation is still something to be encouraged.

  13. My standard suggestion is that they should start marking. Every time they read an article they should give it a mark out of 100 and then write a brief comment to justify that mark.

    The aim here is to get them thinking about what makes an article good or bad, and basically comes from my experience, my writing got so much better after I was marking.

  14. Alex has a great follow-up, "Philosophy is not science", noting that students are often misled into collapsing philosophical questions into scientific ones (or at least mistaking the philosophical relevance of various empirical considerations -- cf. my old post on Brain Damage and Physicalism). Though I guess that's compatible with holding that a broader scientific background, carefully applied, will typically prove helpful.

    More generally, I'm happy to grant that it's always better to know more rather than less, and so a scientific background may come in handy sometimes. But I also hold to the decidedly non-paradoxical expectation that a budding philosopher is typically better served by spending their time studying philosophy rather than non-philosophy.


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