After teaching philosophy to different audiences for years, I have observed that some take more out of their education than others. Those who do well have a certain attitude in common: an open and inquisitive mind, a willingness to engage and to have their mind changed. Those who do less well often are held back because they are intimidated by the complexity of philosophical puzzles, by the (often illusory!) confidence of their classmates or because they are afraid of saying something stupid, or because they think they know the answers already. But adopting the first attitude in favour of the latter is easier said than done. Yet, there are some simple things you can do or avoid to help you adopt a healthy attitude.
When I started studying philosophy as a 19-year-old, I was often the one being intimidated by the other students in my class, whom I thought to be cleverer, better looking, more knowledgeable and more confident than myself. I learned later that this impression may well have been false, and even if it were true, it doesn’t really matter. Socrates, for example, wasn’t particularly clever, nor good looking, nor knowledgeable, but he was a bloody good philosopher! I also often felt overwhelmed by the complexity of philosophical arguments. First Plato convinced me, then Aristotle convinced me equally with the exact opposite view, leaving me confused. If just any philosopher could sway me, then my views must all be false and stupid, I thought. I learned later that if you don’t have exactly that experience, you’re doing it wrong.
What follows applies to any level of philosophy education, whether you’ve just joined your first philosophy evening class or you are working on your PhD. I’d even say that some established philosophers would do well to remind themselves of these things once in a while.
1. Realise that changing your mind often is a sign of growth, not of weakness.
Someone once said to me: if Wittgenstein can change his mind, then surely so can I. Wittgenstein is widely regarded as one of the best philosophers of the twentieth century. He worked long and hard on his Tractatus, and claimed to have answered philosophy’s questions. Then he thought some more and came to the conclusion that he’d had it all wrong, so he wrote his Philosophical Investigations, which says in many ways the polar opposite of what he’d said in the Tractatus. Nobody thinks Wittgenstein is stupid. Most people agree that both books are very interesting, regardless of whether they agree with Wittgenstein. Bottom line: everyone has opinions, you too. Whichever they are, some of them are likely to be mistaken. It’s great if you discover this within your lifetime, so you can change your mind. But if you never articulate any opinions for fear of having to reject them later, you’ll never investigate them and then you won’t learn anything. So just state your opinions and change them if necessary.
2. Ask questions. Particularly the ones you think are stupid. They’re the best.
I once had a student who thought he was stupid, or so he said, and he apologised for interrupting with stupid questions. In fact, he asked pretty darn good questions! He always asked questions like: “But what does idealism mean?” or “I didn’t follow that last bit. Can you repeat it?” I would then ask the rest of the class: “can someone explain what idealism means?” but often the response was silence. That means that someone who thinks he was stupid asked a simple question that the rest of the class was actually thinking but didn’t ask. So when you don’t know what the jargon means, or if you’ve lost the teacher’s narrative, or if you don’t understand something: just ask. More often than not you’ll be doing the class a favour. It allows the teacher to get everybody on board too. I’ve heard better and worse questions, but none of them were really stupid or made the person who asked it look stupid. A genuine question is always worth asking.
3. Charity before criticism. Think along with the argument before you refute it.
When you learn about the argument of a philosopher, it is great if you can identify the weaknesses in that argument and articulate a point of critique. But nourishing your critical thinking is not the same as disagreeing with everything from the outset. On the contrary. For an argument to be interesting, it must be somewhat controversial (platitudes and truisms are boring, they don’t teach us anything new). In order for you to understand what the controversial elements are, you’ll have to understand the argument. For you to understand the argument, you’ll have to give it a good shot. Perhaps the author of the argument has already anticipated and refuted your critique? Perhaps she can justify her controversial stance? Perhaps the answers are already implicit in her argument? A charitable attitude is not the same as uncritically accepting whatever the author says, but simply trying to follow the argument as far as it will go, granting its premises if you can. If you then still disagree, your critique will rest on a stronger foundation.
4. Respond to what your classmates say. Education is a group effort.
Good philosophy teachers make you think. They can give you material to think about in a lecture, and they can ask questions to invite you to make up your own mind. But they can’t do it alone. Neither can you, on your own, dream up all the questions you wish you could ask. The only way to really get some depth in the discussion, is by joint effort of everyone involved. A question asked by another student might spark a further question in your mind. You may think you’ve understood Aristotle, but another student might have understood the text in an entirely different way. The teacher cannot fully anticipate all of these things, nor can you. So learn from your fellow students and contribute your two cents too. You won’t learn very much if you expect to passively consume your education in the back of the class.
5. Realise that everyone can do philosophy. A child is just as good as a professor.
Of course, someone who has spent their working life surrounded full time by philosophy will master certain skills. Just like a flute maker can dissemble a complex instrument and put it back together again, an experienced philosopher can dissemble a complex argument and put it back together again, or amend it, or turn it upside down and inside out. Some people are real masters: articulate, knowledgeable, smart, thoughtful, good writers and speakers, and that’s wonderful. You’ll need those skills if you want to make philosophy your profession, or if you’re working towards a degree. But you don’t need those skills to be able to engage in philosophy per se. A child is naturally inquisitive. It asks questions because it genuinely wonders how things works and why the things are the way they are. If you can remember the questions you asked when you were a kid, you’re basically there. Others may be more or less skilled in the things I mentioned above, but we’re all sort of helpless in the face of the really puzzling questions, and they’re worth asking for everyone. An allegory: I play the flute very poorly. It’s not worth anybody’s time to listen to it, believe me. But it’s worth my time to do it nonetheless. There are excellent flautists in orchestras who are thousands of times better at it than I am. Should my incompetence stop me enjoying my playing the flute in an amateur orchestra? I think not! Should I be embarrassed about my lack of skill? No! Making music is intrinsically valuable for everyone, and so is philosophizing.
6. Don’t get too comfortable.
Imagine the following: you’ve been to a couple of classes, you’ve figured by now that your teacher is a passionate Kantian. Leafing through the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy pages of critics of Kant has not persuaded you that Kant was wrong, so you’ve come to the conclusion that Kant was right. And this has been the best decision you’ve taken so far. Finally, you can leave the confusion behind you, because you are now a Kantian. And it works fabulously. In every discussion, you’ve got a Kantian answer. Your teacher agrees, you sit back and rest comfortably in your new-found Kantianism: a little Kant goes a long way. STOP RIGHT THERE! If you want to make the most of your education, you’ll have to keep challenging your own position, even if you keep returning to it. And I mean seriously challenge it, not just find another objection to cleverly refute for the sport of it whilst you remain comfortable in your Kant armchair. You have to be prepared to wake up every morning and find the argument that will turn all your previously held beliefs upside down and cure you of your Kantianism for once and for all. That is difficult, and many philosophers are, I think, guilty of making themselves too comfortable in their armchair of choice, but if you want to really learn something, you’ll have to resist this temptation.
7. Don’t avoid taking a stance.
I once heard a philosopher scorn another philosopher and accuse him of being “merely an historian of ideas”. Now, there’s nothing wrong with historians of ideas. They do excellent work interpreting historical philosophies, not an easy task. But what this philosopher criticised was his opponent’s refusal to make himself susceptible to critique. He thought his opponent only offered uncontroversial accounts of what other people argued, but never committed to a controversial view himself. From a different angle, Derrida is often criticised for deconstructing everything, but failing to offer an alternative that could survive his own deconstruction. Martha Nussbaum accused Judith Butler of something similar: criticising what others thought without offering any alternative that can be criticised. I’ve had students who put a lot of effort in not having to say: “This is where I stand. I agree with position A, but disagree with position B, and these are my reasons.” Why is it a bad thing to avoid taking a stance? Why do philosophers ridicule each other if they fail to do so? Because such evasive accounts stifle the discussion. Because you’ll only really genuinely consider arguments if you are involved, if the stakes are high, if you have a belief to lose. For teachers, it is important to know where their students stand, whether they are sympathetic to Plato, or critical of his views, or if the class is divided. Teachers need to know this so they can adjust their pitch accordingly. In a class where no student states their view – however tentative – it is very difficult to get a discussion going. So try to take a stance, even if you think you’ll change your mind three times in the course of the lesson (see point 1).
8. Don’t be arrogant, nor be intimidated by arrogant peers.
There’s always one: “But obviously, Plato is fundamentally flawed. Nobody really buys his idealism.” says a clever loudmouth in the front of the class. When I was a 19-year-old and one of my fellow students said such a thing, I thought: wow, they’ve read so much more than I have! They already (1) understand Plato through and through, (2) have discovered not just some weaknesses, but fundamental flaws, (3) know that there isn’t any other philosopher who still buys Plato’s idealism, and (4) I’m clearly lagging behind because this is apparently “obvious” so the others must all know this too! It turns out I was mistaken: they were just as puzzled as I was. Nowadays, phrases like “obviously”, “everyone knows” or “nobody buys that” act like red arrogance flags for me. Hardly anything in philosophy is obvious. Most positions in the history of philosophy have some currency today, albeit in amended forms, so it’s hardly ever true that “nobody buys” a philosophy, or that “fundamental flaws” are so serious that there are no insights to learn. I’ve noticed that some people say such things to appear more confident than they are, or they just want to provoke a polarised debate. What they really mean is: “I’ve heard/read somewhere that Plato’s idealism is controversial.” Or “Plato’s idealism doesn’t really convince me.” Comments of this form are much more reasonable, less intimidating, and more constructive of a good discussion.
9. Don’t think this one historical philosopher you’ve read has all the answers.
There’s always one of these too: his mum gave him Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil for Christmas, he read it, and now Nietzsche has got him under his spell. I understand it. It’s like falling in love. Some philosophers are so persuasive, such powerful writers, that they enchant you. So he is under Nietzsche’s spell, and everything makes sense now. Everything can be explained now he’s looking through Nietzsche glasses. He can find no flaw in anything Nietzsche has said. He dismisses the critiques: these people just haven’t really understood Nietzsche. He attends philosophy classes and then the teacher and his peers have to put up with his love for Nietzsche. All his questions and comments eventually return to Nietzsche, even in the class about Plato. All philosophers are judged by Nietzsche’s merits. All his essays are about Nietzsche. (Or perhaps he fell in love with Sartre. Or Derrida. Or Hegel. Or Wittgenstein. Or Davidson. Or any other philosopher.) What can I say about this? First love is really sweet, but there’s more fish in the sea. You better shop around.
10. Don’t expect learning to always be fun.
Here’s news for you: learning is not always fun. It is difficult. Philosophy can be rewarding: you get to flex your mind, you get to have really deep conversations with other people, you’ll learn a lot about yourself and where you stand, you might learn skills, you’ll learn to be more articulate, you’ll learn to ponder about these really interesting questions, you’ll get to know what fascinating ideas other philosophers had, and lots more. But the process may be confusing and uncomfortable. There’s a certain discomfort in realizing you’re going to have to abandon an assumption or belief you’ve always held dear and that informed your decision making. There’s also a certain discomfort in realizing you are confused, and you may never find the security of trusting in a firm answer the way you did before. These things happen a lot in philosophy. It makes you wiser. It’s just not all fun and games. You may have to plough through some dry stuff before you realise how fascinating it is. It’s all part of it, but don’t give up, it’s worth it.