How to do Philosophy

As an undergrad, I did philosophy by reading the material, trying to get an understanding of them, and then answer various questions in class.  In grad school, I did philosophy by trying to get a broader understanding of the philosophers and try to have a sense of responding to them, either by agreeing with them or not.  However, I’ve realized that that isn’t doing philosophy, I was just simply reading about it, or writing about it.

Doing philosophy is something different.  In order to do philosophy, you must always challenge your beliefs.  So for example, if you’re pro-choice on the abortion debate, you must purposely find a good book or article that argues for a pro-life position.  If you believe in God, you must find a good philosophical book that talks about atheism (and none of that atheistic trash like Christopher Hitchens).  If you believe in Communism, you must find a good book on libertarianism (and not just Ron Paul, I mean a really good philosophical position).  Why do this?

  1. It keeps you on your toes.  By reading materials you don’t believe in, you are already on the defense, but you’re willing to listen.  Indeed, reading something that you don’t agree with forces you to listen so that you can argue back or perhaps modify your beliefs.
  2. It makes you not dogmatic with your beliefs.  This deals with the first premise but Bertrand Russell has said that when you have a belief, always make sure you have a question mark hanging over that position.  By reading or listening to something that you don’t agree with, it forces you to have that question mark over your head.
  3. It makes you more aware of your beliefs.  Foucault has called for a genealogy of your beliefs.  Although he argues that everything comes down to power, I suggest that by looking at things that you don’t agree with, you are more aware of where your beliefs come from, why you have them, and it makes you have a better outlook on your beliefs by giving better justification for your answers.  With this, you can get a better understanding of your beliefs without relying on the lame answers such as, “that’s how I was raised” or “it just is.”
  4. You realize who are good thinkers.  I come across philosophers that I don’t agree with, but when I read them, I have this internal dialogue where they can always reply back to my responses.  I play the devil’s advocate, but at the same time, I’m trying to defend my views to these philosophers.  Likewise, it forces you to know the philosopher’s responses.

I call for you to find something, on purpose, that disagrees with your beliefs.  Read it seriously.  It will help you develop critical thinking skills and to bring about an awareness of your beliefs that you’ve never thought out before.  Read it as if the other philosopher is a formidable opponent instead of a blowhard.  (This is why I’ll never read anything by Sean Hannity.  Sorry, but I can’t consider him a formidable opponent.)

To give an example, I used to be extremely liberal on the abortion debate, but then I forced myself to listen to Peter Kreeft on his stance on the pro-life position and now I’m on the fence.  I think it’s actually good.  Kreeft has made me realize that the belief I have could be mistaken and so it’s better to have a true belief than a false one.

On the other side, I have read books talking about religion, and this has actually modified my views on religion which resulted in a paper that I wrote about.  I hope to develop this skill and by doing philosophy, I’ll have a more developed life and a more developed philosophy.  Nietzsche has said that philosophy is a shift of your perspectives.  That’s how one does philosophy instead of just thinking about philosophy.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with books that you do agree with, but there’s no challenge in that.  If you want to do good philosophy, find something that you purposely disagree with and listen to it seriously.  Treat it as if it was a friend you disagree with actually, and then discuss it.  Philosophy books aren’t just books, they are like your friends and you must reply in a serious manner.  After all, if you don’t know your opponent’s views, you truly don’t know your own.

Along with this, I find that philosophers are like friends.  There are those that you’d want to visit often.  There are those that you rarely visit.  And there are times where if you have some philosophical problem, you know which philosopher to go to.  For me?  I usually go back to Sartre.  I find that he’s the “friend” that I can go back to.  (Of course in real life, I doubt we could ever be friends, but that’s another story.)

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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2 Responses to How to do Philosophy

  1. aubreycierra says:

    Very sound advice ^.^

  2. Pingback: What I’ve Learned this Past Year — 2009 Edition « Shaun Miller’s Weblog

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