Monday, May 14, 2007

Starting Out as a Philosopher (and A-levels)

Many people (in the UK) find their first taste of studying philosophy to be the AS /A2 Religious Studies courses - most notably the Philosophy & Ethics A Level options....

I thought it would be an interesting post for this site to ask the readers of the blog (many of our students did these qualifications) to tell us about their experiences - and others, how did you encounter philosophy? To summarise - we would love to hear:

  • Tips / Advice for AS/A2 Philosophy & Ethics students
  • Anecdotes about your studies at A-Level (16-18yrs old - for readers abroad!)
  • How did (for all blog readers) you first encounter philosophy as a subject - and what did you make of it?

  • And a question for students: Why are you studying philosophy? How did it happen?



  1. My first contact with Philosophy was through studying Politics at A Level. During our lectures we considered questions such as 'what is justice?', 'what is freedom?', and the like. As I was also studying Economics, I spent a lot of time reading Marx as well.

    I considered seriously a Philosophy degree and read Anthony O'Hear's What Philosophy Is? (the only cheap Penguin introduction in my local bookshop at the time, c. 1990). I hated this book so much that it competely turned me away and I started a degree in another subject. However, halfway through the first year I realized that I did really want to study Philosophy, and so dropped out and started a Philosophy degree the following year. Since then I've gone on to complete a PhD and write a couple of philosophy books.

    I have never forgiven O'Hear for his awful book and for making me waste a year of my life!

  2. Anonymous3:18 pm

    I guess my interest in philosophy came about by two, converging, routes. When I started at medical school I was reading a lot of psychoanalytic theory - Freud, Jung, Lacan, Klein, Laing - and began reading around the area. Both philosophers whom the analysts cited but also 'existential psychotherapy'. The other route, and occured at the same time, was by contact with friends in the Arts Faculty. These were mainly English students, but also philosophy students who were disaffected with anglo-american philosphy. This exposed me to French 20th century philosophy. The combined effect of all this was that by the second year of my medical degree I had read quite a bit of Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, and Plato.

  3. Lawrence3:39 pm

    From what I remember, the best advice i can say for As/A2 philosophy is not to give your own opinion too much. I was always told that the markers are more interested in the fact you can give a good detailed argument, not just opinions.
    Your opinion is valid, but back it up with philosopher's arguments.

  4. Aside from pre-pubescent vacillations over the Argument from Illusion, I became rather interested in contemporary art theory as a teenager (somewhat motivated, no doubt, by a strong desire to transfer my enthusiasm to an older, and rather more sceptical generation).

    In my early 20s a certain disillusion - the source of which I now find hard to locate - turned me to consider more mundane (and pressing) things: the monthly need to pay the rent. After several years, a chance encounter with a student's bookshelf - notably a copy of Kymlicka's 'Contemporary Political Philosophy', which (unnoticed by the student) did not remain on its shelf for long - combined with the reintroduction of the bursary, reawakened in me the desire for a formal philosophical education.

    No philosophy A-Level, no religious motivations (even broadly construed), only perhaps the leaving remarks of an ever serious geography teacher: "remember, always question" ... presumably he meant to follow this by a remark about sedimentary layers or some-such, but it slipped his mind (and thankfully, for I might now be doing fieldwork instead).

    What do I make of it? I love it. But, as in any honest relationship, there are traits in my partner that cause concern; though as discretion (and time) demands, on this occasion I'll decline to comment further. (a clue: my mind still wanders from time to time to an old flame - art theory. It's the seductive european accent I find hard to forget... )

    The geography teacher did have one more piece of parting advice: "buy land on the South Downs and grow grapes."

  5. My first contact with Philosophy, as a discipline, was when I began my Economics and Philosophy degree at the University of Nottingham. I am now at Nottingham finishing my MA in Aesthetics.

    I did not have the advantage of experience of different styles of philosophical arguments that those with an A-Level in Philosophy had so I found it quite difficult at first - it was alot of 'stuff', I was easily persuaded and I couldn't think fast enough to see all the elements of people's arguments when they were speaking.

    I started to get the hang of breaking written arguments into sections and then into propositions and conclusions. Only then could I see different elements and think of arguments for and against them. The more I practiced, the better (and faster) I got! Studying a module in elementary logic helped too.

    I agree with an earlier comment that what you think about an argument is important in Philosophy (and it is perfectly acceptable to refer to your own intuitions about things) but these must always come with reasons and arguments - it's no good just saying that someone is wrong or that you think such-and-such without saying why. In my experience, the more times you ask yourself why, the further you'll get.

  6. After seventeen years surveying in the UK, West Africa and the oil patch of Western Canada, I returned to school at a local college to study sociology. I couldn't wait to get the mud off my boots. I enrolled in an introductory philsophy course on a mere whim simply to fill a hole in my timetable.

    There were only a handful of students in the class and it ran as an evening seminar for a year, covering the usual range of topics.

    I found philosophy fascinating but difficult (and still do). But I was lucky enough to have as an instructor an energetic and compellingly lucid graduate philosophy student who informed me after only a few weeks that he was confident I would obtain a PhD in the discipline. I was incredulous and embarrassed, but took this seriously. A few years later, I did obtain my doctorate and am now teaching at the same college where I first encountered philosophy.

    That intro course still marks much of how I think and teach.

  7. Anonymous11:03 pm

    I was always interested in why people were so attached to their opinions, and why they seemed to defend themselves so badly at times. A hotheaded, stubborn person is always infuriating! When I was young I found myself not just annoyed by bad arguments, but strangely curious. Swamped in pride, I was sure I could see where each of my friends went wrong. But when I tried to think out my own opinions clearly, I was disappointed to find that EVEN I got tied in knots. I found more sophisticated arguments in theological discussions, but got a taste of what I was really looking for when I read Brian Magee's half autobiography/half tale of his interest in philosophy. Philosophy finally seemed the way to go for clear thinking. If anyone is thinking of taking up philosophy they may be interested in Magee's book "Confessions of a Philosopher". It's particularly refreshing to hear of his frustrations, as a child, with adults and their dismissals of his questions! It's also a good intro into the basic areas of philosophy

  8. At age 6 I had a vision. When I was age 13, I read a paperback entitled The Way of Zen and very cleary had the impression this best described what it was I experienced.

    Since, I have practiced the teachings of the Buddha and find him to be my favorite philosopher. Less stress is best; the Buddha's simple map for how to realize that seems quite efficacious (I.E., good).

    I also enjoy various phenomenologists, perhaps for similar reasons of personal temperament as well as verifiability to my own experience.

    I might add I came to this blog at the invitation by David Webster to members of the Buddha-L listserv.

    Gary Gach

  9. Emily Ryall9:50 am

    My parents have told me that I never grew out of that 'why?' stage that all children go through - I've always been philosophical I suppose. I remember walking home from primary school wondering about colour perception and how I could be sure that other people saw the same colour as me when we both applied the same word - little did I know as a nine year old that philosophers have been pondering the same thing for years!
    Another reason I chose philosophy at degree level was that I hated having to rely on and trust other people's facts and figures.
    Finally, I think I ultimately chose philosophy because I want to make sense of my life and come to terms with the fact that I am a conscious, reflective being that is unable to resist the urge to do so.

  10. A comment sent by e-mail (thanks Richard):

    My very first experience with philosophy was a course taught by the chair of the philosophy department at a small and pretty highly acclaimed liberal arts
    college in the United States. The professor, a crusty eccentric in his 70s who had a degree in botany but none in philosophy, believed (and preached)1) that no philosophical question can't be either answered by scientific method or shown to be an inherently unanswerable pseudo-problem; 2) that all religions are systems of superstition that have been superseded by science and common sense, 3) that no women are capable of serious intellectual work and should therefore not be admitted to colleges and universities, 4) that no people of African or Asian descent are capable of the sort of objectivity
    needed to do proper science, and 5) that all left-handed people are
    congenitally disabled and too mentally retarded to do serious intellectual work. (These last three beliefs were empirically verified by the fact that no
    woman, African, Asian, African American, Asian American, Asian African or left-handed person ever got higher than a D in his courses.) Absolutely nobody took this guy seriously; almost everybody took one course from him
    just to see him in operation. To my horror, he took a liking to me and thought I had promise as a philosopher, as a result of which I studiously avoided reading any philosophical literature for the next five years.

    Richard P. Hayes
    Department of Philosophy
    University of New Mexico

  11. Barbara Woolner11:19 am

    Hi David,
    Long time since I participated.

    Like Emily, the question 'why' and its supplementary question 'is it true' were the bane of my teachers since child hood.

    I 'proved' a scary maths teacher wrong in front of a class when 11: at 13 I queried a science teacher into explaining her assertion that 'all energy came from the sun' by using the example of the action of hydrochloric acid on marble chips. Though I can now answer the question for myself, at that time the teacher was not able to answer - she had obviously not thought through her affirmation.

    Later, not that much later, I slipped into solipsist mode - though I did not know its name at that time - and wondered how it was that other people/reality existed independent of my knowing such was the case. I conveyed this thought to a whole group of fifth year students via 'Waiting for Godot'. The thought was so successful that in the school review they created a sketch, supposedly representative of me, in which I was portrayed teaching in an empty classroom - the comment made within the sketch was 'That's all right, she thinks she is teaching us!' [a deep philosophical thought, on reflection!]

    Much later I went to university, intent on studying English, especially drama and metaphysical poetry. However, in the first year we were obliged to cover a range of courses, one of which was philosophy - my choice. Within two minutes I was hooked, partly by the enthusiasm of the lecturer [now a professor] and partly by the nature of the topic.

    A big question for me was always 'why are our ethical/moral choices so important', so much so that some of us continue to affirm them though everyone else says you are wrong? I can now answer this, and can also reach beyond the solipsism of 'I' [which is untenable] into the necessity of 'we' - the 'we' of our intersubjectivity of knowing, self-reflective beings.

    To this day I am a practicing philosopher, though I do not think I can progress further in the realms of academe simply because I have rejected the analytic tradition as being barren and non-sensical.


  12. Sue Chetwynd12:25 pm

    I came to philosophy at the age of 36, because I needed to do a course in anything to get into practice - I was going back to university after having had children. At the time we were based at Cornell University for 6 months (my husband was on study leave) and I did a course in the Philosophy of Religion run by Norman Kretzmann,'cos the time was convenient and it sounded fun. It was fascinating, and, encouraged by Norman, I went back home and changed my degree to one in philosophy, and never looked back.

  13. I was a student of maths and physics at Cape Town in the 1950s. Somehow I started attending invited talks at the student christian association, despite being an atheist. I found the talks full of passion and prejudice, and usually empty of argument, so I tried to point out flaws and present counter-arguments. A philosophy research student who was a christian made friends with me and introduced me to Bertrand Russell's 'History of Western Philosophy', which gave me an excellent overview. In my final year I became interested in philosophical questions about science and mathematics, but found no answers in my courses.

    After graduating I went to Oxford intending to do research in mathematics, but gradually discovered that I was more interested in philosophy, and got permission to switch, finishing a D.Phil in 1962 on Kant's philosophy of mathematics (recently made available online).

    Later, around 1971, as a young lecturer in philosophy I became convinced that designing a working mind (or parts of one) was the best way to address many old philosophical problems, and learnt to do AI as a way of doing philosophy -- and wrote The computer revolution in philosophy.

    I've gone on expanding my philosophical vision by learning about biology, neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, computer science,...

    My advice to budding philosophers: if you study only philosophy your philosophy risks being empty of real content. Combine it with at least one other discipline studied in depth, preferably a scientific discipline with deep theoretical content so that you learn about other ways of expanding knowledge and challenging theories than sitting in your armchair spouting what comes to mind.

  14. Having reached my anecdotage at 81, I can't resist running on about my experiences with philosophy. As I recall it, my first contact with (academmic) philosophy occurred when I was 10 or 12 years old, and took out from our small-town library a copy of Will Durant's "The Story of Philosophy". I was quite taken with it (by it?). I especially remember being inspired by Durant's description of Hegel's Zeitgeist, and all that. Later, in high school, I won 2nd prize in an essay contest for an essay based on Hegel as I understood him (not very well).

    After I got out of the US Navy after WW2, I went to university, proposing to study nuclear physics. However, what with one thing and another, I ended up getting a backelor's degree with a major in mathematics, and a minor in philosophy. About all I remember now about my philosophy courses there is that I was thoroughly puzzled by a certain instructor's presentation of Whitehead's thought.

    I went on (eventually) to get a PhD in mathematics. After a little spin at mathematics research, I turned to studying and writing about history of science. My initial impulse for this came from my desire to understand how the topic of my dissertation in topology ever arose. It turned out to be an abstration based on certain work by Henri Poincare in celestial mechanics.

    From there, during my career as a mathematics teacher, i taught courses and wrote articles on history of science, especially physics, and gradually became interested and taught a couple of courses in philosophy of science, of a Carnap and Popper variety.

    After that, I commuted from where I was teaching mathematics to study computer science, and taught some courses in that. After that, I retired as a professor emeritus pf mathematics and computer science.

    During my retirement, I turned again to philosophy, to see if I could do any better at figuring out what 'it' was all about than I did the first time. For the past couple of years, I have been taking courses by e-mail in the Pathways to Philosophy program run by Geoffrey Klempner, of the University of Sheffield.

    Somewhere Plato says something to the effect that it would be better if old men studied philosophy rather than playing checkers (draughts, whatever). No deep truths (or falsities, or probabilities, etc.) have been revealed to me, but studying philosophy at my advanced age is fun, and keeps me our of worse mischief.

    Gordon Fisher

  15. This is my second posting. I promise not to spout anymore after this. I belately realized that I had left out a prominent part of my philosophical experiences, apparently because I was concentrating on my academic contacts with the discipline.

    When I got out of the US Navy in 1945, I was 21 years old. I had had a quite hectic childhood -- I'll spare you the details. When I was in my teens, I was much taken with psychoanalysis, and read gobs of Freud, Jung, Alexander, etc. I was looking for the elusive meaning of life. After the war, I took up with existentialism. I read gobs of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger, etc., and their academic interpreters. At one point, when I was working on a PhD in mathematics, I became rather notorious among literature and philosophy students for being what some called the only known existentialist mathematician.

    I met my wife to be during my mathematical studies, as a fellow student. She had majored in French Literature and philosophy as an undergraduate, and became a rather dedicated logical positivist under the influence of such people as Alfred Ayer (visiting US) and Sidney Hook. In fact, she became so dedicated to that point of view that she gave up on philosophy, and took up graduate studies in mathematics.

    I will leave you to imagine some of the philosophical discussions we had. We both thought a lot of Bertrand Russell and others of his sort, but we disagreed about people like Freud and Sartre. She had concluded that metaphysics and that sort of thing was full of meaninglessness, whereas I still found such things meaningful and attractive.

    We have now been married for 53 years, and she has come around more to my point of view, and I have come around more to her point of view. I don't know what this means, but I can say this. If you are young and starting to study philosophy, it might do you good to try to fing a companion or mate who is also studying philosophy, but who has opinions different from yours -- but not too different.

    Gordon Fisher

  16. The first course I took in Philosophy--Introduction to Philosophy: Reality and Knowledge--was at a local US community college. It was the summer after my sophomore year in high school. That class got me hooked like nothing else in my life. The basic philosophical ideas were so unconventional and fascinating. I was enthralled while listening to my teacher lecture and while reading the textbook--The Experience of Philosophy by Daniel Kolak and Raymond Martin, a really great book for introductory philosophy. Before my high school graduation, I’ve taken all of the offered philosophy courses in that college with a truly great and inspiring teacher, including Critical Thinking, Human Nature, Ethics, and Logic courses, all of which I enjoyed and which proved to be of great value to me.
    The biggest advice I can give for Philosophy and Ethics students is shop for professors ( is a great site), pick the one that suits your desired level of difficulty and clarity, and one which has most positive responses. It is paramount that the professor is passionate about teaching and that he/she connects with students. Also, try to learn and understand as much material as you can in your courses so that you will find out what interests you most.
    I first enrolled in philosophy to make sense of the world around me, to get some answers. Instead, I got something even better—lots of questions. I found out about things which I haven’t considered ever before, both the abstract and the practical. Philosophy is where the greatest minds that ever lived share their views on the nature of this world and us. It is the most relevant field of study that you can take. In all, one of the greatest lessons of philosophy is to have humility. The more we learn, the more humble we should become from understanding just how little we know.

  17. Great questions, Dave!

    Among students of philosophy, I expect I am not alone in having an interest in philosophic questions before formal introduction to philosophy. My high school days, which would have been happy and exciting had I been a saner person, were instead mired with burdensome questions such as "What is the good?" Like Barbara (above), I went through a solipsist mode bofore any formal introduction to philosophy and like Barbara (again!) I intended to major in English. But by the time I entered college, the only company I could keep was with other truly and deeply crazy people. So I majored in philosophy.

    All joking aside, I had an excellent experience in Introduction to Philosophy at a small university here in the US. Before that semester started, I was actually pretty terrified by the prospect of taking a philosophy class. I remember buying my books--Plato and Descartes among them--thinking there was no way I was smart enough to pass the class. I didn't realize the questions that captivated me most--and kept me up all hours of the night--were philosophy questions.

    My professor in Intro was great. Over the semester I chatted with him in his office, not only about topics in that course, but also about every other problem that haunted me--political theory, determinism, etc. He discussed problems with me and referred me to thinkers who and books that dealt with the problems I came to him with. He gave me a copy of Anarchy, State and Utopia, as a matter of fact. And I still have it.

    During that introductory course I had a fairly good idea I wanted to major in philosophy. But I couldn't let myself declare such a major on the basis of one course--an introductory course, too boot. So the following semester I enrolled in two other higher level philosophy courses. After that, I declared philosophy as my second major (psychology being the other one).

    I have kept company with fellow nutters ever since! I am now a philosophy grad student and, sadly, just as insane as I was in high school.



  18. Wonderful question.

    My first encounter was reading the Cold War political text Suicide of the West by James Burnham. He analysed the political landscape of the time in light of philosophy. Brilliant book.

    Tom Bryant
    Clemson University-Religious Studies
    (former Philosophy student at the University of North Florida)

  19. This is really a great post Dave. One of the questions I get the most as a Philosophy Major is: why Philosophy? I guess there is a stigma around the subject as simply being difficult, high-minded and useless. Maybe it's more of a stereotype than a stigma...

    At any rate, my first exposure to philosophy came from my interest in world religions. I read the Tao te Ching and parts of the Upanishads. From there I started reading some early-modern and post-modern western Philosophy and took Intro to Philosophy my Freshman year at UNF.
    My interest just kind of broadened and grew from there.

    Thanks for the post!


  20. In short, from a young age I found myself asking many metaphysical questions that those around me could not answer.
    As I got older, and my intellect grew, so did my sense of 'not-knowing' so I emabarked on a personal study into what others considered the anbswers to my questions. Religions were the first disciplines to offer answers, but ultimately answers that didnt satisfy me - hence I now study philosophy.

  21. My first serious contact with philosopy was Epictetus' Stoicism in Chicago's Great Books series. Questions such as "what is the good" and "what is knowledge" had no hold on me, and I subsequently found academic (analytical) introductions to Plato, Aristotle, and Hume deeply boring. I was not able to bridge this gap between "philosophy as a way of life" and "merely" academic philosophy until various readings in philosophy, psychotherapy, and the natural sciences (my specialization until my third year in university) gave me the framework to begin to find traditional epistemological and meta-ethical questions interesting. I think I fit approximately into that group which Richard Rorty describes as "merely amused" by the attempts of Plato and Kant to transcend contingency. I can't really say how I became the sort of person who IS now interested in these questions!

  22. G. Roche4:35 am

    I started Stage I Architecture at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and enrolled in Stage I Metaphysics and Theory of Knowledge for the hell of it, without any real idea of what philosophy was. Almost every class bored me to tears- Descartes' Cogito, Xeno's Paradoxes, and so on. But the very last two classes were taught by Julian Young, a Nietzsche and Schopenhauer specialist. I was transfixed. His account of Schopenhauer was so frightfully compelling that a girl in front of me in the lecture theatre started to cry. "That's the job for me!" I thought.
    For the next few years I read all the Schopenhauer and Nietzsche I could find, got good grades, but eventually realized that important aspects of Nietzsche's thought were simply omitted from both the lecture room and the literature, in particular the whole "it's okay to rape and murder" thing (read Genealogy of Morals" and you'll see what I mean) and what I eventually decided was a highly simplistic account of Jewish and Christian morality. This led me on to the Adorno and Horkheimer thesis that Nietzsche is of a piece with Sade and Hitler, which became the impetus of my PhD thesis (philosophy and Sade). So the second half of my academic training was the systematic destruction of my first idols. Such is the labyrinth of philosophy.

    I and am currently working at two different schools in Tokyo, teaching ethics and political philosophy.It's just adjunct work, though. I can't believe my luck actually- all of my current philosophy work was found through personal connections. I wouldn't use my own case as just grounds for thinking that anyone else will have the same luck.
    Someone else on this page said something I think that's important: you have to find a partner that gets where you're coming from, preferably another philosophical person. But something else has only really just dawned on me: trying out for an academic career in any discipline is a huge risk in terms of economics and career certainty. But (unless you're mildly autistic, or a genius) the personal costs are very high as well. I have absolutely no idea whether I will ever get a real tenured philosophy teaching job, or where it will be. This makes merely thinking of settling down with someone an impossible luxury, unless I just throw in the towel and get a conventional job. Even if you find a partner with a similar intellectual bent, you may have to decide which of you gets to keep the academic job. I've heard of acquaintances doing this, and it doesn't always work out. Bottom line: an interesting life entails risks.

    With philosophy as a life- choice, I would suggest several things:

    a). given the job market, it is a risk. Simply because philosophy is such an intellectually demanding area (in theory), it simply doesn't follow that trying to be a philosopher is a smart move.
    b). Try to do a PhD thesis that is marketable on its own merits, either for an employer or a publisher, in case the career doesn't come together.
    c). If you can't secure funding for a PhD thesis, forget it.

    G. Roche

  23. Claire8:37 am

    My first contact with Philosophy was when a drama teacher of mine, sick of my constant questions and observations (who likes a precocious child?) told me with some asperity to read Russell's 'The Problems of Philosophy'. Once I had I started telling everyone that one day I would have a PhD in Philosophy (I was 14). Well after a few false starts I'm about to begin said doctorate with E J Lowe this October.

    My advice to students is to keep asking questions, and never to take things for granted. Read lots of philosophy texts because even if an argument seems irredeemable there's always something to learn from it.

  24. Weird, I cannot remember how I first came into contact with Philosophy. I suspect it started from a passion for Greek myths when I was young, migrated to fascination that ancient Greeks came up with basic atomic theory and thence onto the Greek philosophers. I did Physics & Maths at uni and migrated into an IT career. But I've always read philosophy books and that burgeoned into a deep desire to study philosophy about 10 years ago with phil of mind and consciousness studies. I finally did the OU MA in Philosophy, finishing it last year - best thing I ever did, study-wise. All I need now is a studentship when I retire in two years and my philosophy career can take off :)