Thursday, 11 October 2012

What's good about doing a philosophy degree?

If you want to learn to be good at philosophy you need to come at it with two things. Firstly you need self-direction. You need to be curious. To have problems you're interested in. To be willing to think for yourself. Secondly you need to have a very good understanding of philosophy's traditions. You're only ever one of the latest people to learn something, and as that person, you're one of the least well informed.

Both are crucial, but it's easy to prefer one over the other.

It's common to find self-direction scary, and it's common, if you do have self-direction, to sometimes be so sure of your own thoughts that you underestimate the value of very thoroughly learning why traditions can show you up.But if you can learn to have both, the one keeps the other in its toes in just the right way.

For these reasons a philosophy degree CAN be the best thing to do. I say 'can' because it's so easy to screw up at it. You can screw it up by not doing a good combination of these two criteria.


Firstly, it's not school. you're not told what to think. You're teacher is no longer a straight up authority, but just some guy who happens to really be familiar with the papers you're looking at for this philosophy problem. You can challenge him, you can challenge the papers, and you can challenge your fellow classmates. Better still, you're encouraged to do this.

And you get a lot of choice about what you're going to learn. From what university to pick (for instance, I like the University of Manchester because it's very cutting edge), to what units on the degree program, and THEN even what parts of the unit you're interested in (because you can choose which part to do your essay on and which part to bring up in your tutorials).


But it isn't exactly bespoke, as learning as an autodidact would be. It's more like going to the supermarket or ordering from a menu. But that's good, because that's where the second criterion comes in.

Once you know what problems you're most interested in, you'll get given a reading list on that subject, and it's this that turns out to be worth thousands of pounds, believe it or not. Very few people understand the arguments in philosophy well enough to recommend you a good reading list. Very few people have even heard of the philosophers you'll be looking at. The amount of knowledge and understanding of philosophy that goes into those reading lists is huge. But a reading list is nothing by itself, after all, they are actually online.    It's the fact that the entire university experience is dedicated to that reading list. Philosophy is hard, *and* full of  contexts and subtleties that are easy to miss. You don't just need the reading list, you need someone to help you understand the reading list and it's readings (which is what your lectures are for). And then, you need someone to work with to challenge the reading and the reading list (which is what your tutorials are for, in part).

Used right, philosophy degrees are a genius combination of what you need to be good at philosophy.


  1. No system where one person grades another according to the first person's standards, or a system with a curriculum, can do the things you said in the first paragraph of Self-direction. (If you want to discuss this point further, let's take it on the TCS list.)

    Second, I don't think one needs to know the traditions in philosophy. I'd wager it wold actually put them at a disadvantage. Philosophical traditions are, for the most part, worse than common-sense.

    The thing you need isn't philosophical traditions, but outside criticism from people who know good ideas (they can tell you whatever tradition is necessary for understanding a thing).

    Forums(/the good mailing lists -- TCS, BoI, ARR, RP) are, much much better for the thing you mention (helping understanding the reading list). Professors usually do not understand the reading list well, so they will give you bad ideas about how to interpret it.

  2. maybe there is a criticism of grades that'd be worth taking to the TCS list. I have no argument for grades, tho. Nor do I think it has any real relevance to any of the things I said (except that you have to pass to stay there. But you will always pass if you care about what you're doing. And you shouldn't be there if not)

    Philosophy traditions are largely excellent. What are your criticisms that make you think otherwise?

  3. I'm not talking about a criticism of grades, I'm saying that what you said cannot work if there is a system of grades, because at the end of the day you need to learn what the teacher will give you good grades for, not what is true. Ditto curriculum.

    Traditional philosophy has god-awful epistemology, does not understand Popper let alone take on board what he says, and basically doesn't have anything to add because mistaken epistemology is such a far-reaching mistake. (Again, we can discuss more on the TCS list.) For example, you can't do much of value in moral philosophy if you don't understand epistemology. What good is there in the traditions?

  4. The first thing you have to understand about philosophy is that it's criticism based, not preaching based. So there's almost no consensus (tho it happens), and as such there's a lot of different approaches to, say, epistemology. Some are better and some are worse.

    Where philosophy really shines, however, is no one really gets away with anything for long. Especially 20th century and onwards criticism has become incredibly rigorous. So when a solution is put out in epistemology, or wherever, it immediately gets criticised and a new improved theory comes out. The bad gets better, the good gets better. And over all, epistemology is decent split between constantly improving bad and constantly improving good.

    So I'm not sure what your particular problem with epistemology would be.

    But, even if it sucked, of course a lot of good can be done on ethics with bad epistemology. Rand had the worst epistemology since the 1700s XD

    Popper, yeah, they do misunderstand him a bit. Not everyone does, tho! And that's quite a small fault really. Also there are genuinely good criticisms of Popper.