So, I am attempting learn philosophy on my own. To be specific, I want to know what you can tell me about learning to understand philosophical thinking and philosophical texts. How do I learn the language and the process of analyzing philosophical arguments and also crafting such arguments?
Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones
I guess, Navid, the question I’d ask you is, Why? Why learn philosophy on your own? what are you afraid of? being confused by the opinions of others? being made to look foolish? There will always be cleverer students than you, and a lot more who are less clever.
Sure, you can learn a lot by yourself, reading classic philosophical texts and trying to grapple with them. That would be one way. (You can start by looking at Section 3 of the Pathways Introductory Book List.)
But how can you tell whether you’re making headway, when you only have yourself to judge your progress? You may think you’ve ‘cracked’ Hume, say, or Plato, but maybe you were just making up your own idiosyncratic interpretation as you went along.
Yet some do it – successfully. Read the classic text first, then test your initial interpretation against the editor’s or translator’s Introduction, or modern secondary texts. (A big error students make is reading the secondary material first, so they never get to first base learning how to grapple with a text because it’s all laid out for them.)
Maybe, when you’ve been doing this for a while, you will begin to feel a strong urge to discuss your ideas with others. There are lots of philosophy forums out there. I’m not saying it’s an easy task deciding which ones are worth joining. You have to use your best judgement. But you were doing that anyway, deciding what to read, forming a view of what you’ve read. Discovering who is your ‘favourite philosopher’ maybe.
There’s a term you may have heard before, ‘autodidact’. It means that you taught (didact) yourself (auto). It can be done. Forums can help. The biggest stumbling block, however, is writing. Who is going to read what you write? Other autodidacts? That’s one of the main reasons why one takes a university or college course – to have the opportunity to have your work assessed by persons qualified to judge.
Something I haven’t mentioned: you will discover that there is no single agreed standard for the ‘language and process of analyzing philosophical arguments’. It all depends whether you study, say, at the University of London, or the University of the Sorbonne – or the University of Tehran.
Maybe, after you’ve done a bit of reading, you will have a better idea of how you want to take things to the next stage. You could do worse than join our own school, Pathways to Philosophy.