People usually groan when I tell them that I took an introductory philosophy course. They ask why I would take a course like that – and by asking that, they usually mean they want to know why I’m, “wasting my time.” Honestly? Not to slam the course, but, for a while there, I wondered why I was taking philosophy.
Because the fact is, Plato won’t help me get a job, and Descartes won’t help me (eventually) pay taxes. Knowing what exactly ‘The Greats’ of philosophy-past thought about the world is not really something that applies to my life. And maybe that’s different for some of you, but the lack of practicality can be difficult for me to grapple with.
The first few months of that course (it’s a year course, so we’re talking back in September/October) felt kind of frustrating. I’d go to class twice and week, sit there, and wonder if I’d made a mistake. I thought: maybe all those people telling me I’d wasted my time were right.
(Pretty much the entire discipline of Philosophy)
But then on one November day, while arguing with someone about…you guessed it… Trump, I figured it out! I finally had a reason to take that one, single, first year philosophy course. It wasn’t about learning about the greats and their ideas, and it wasn’t about trying to find some sort of higher truth, oh no.
Taking first year philosophy? It was about learning how to argue. Or, conversely, learning how not to argue.
Let me explain: as I see it, philosophy is a whole discipline based on people having discussions that continuously go back and forth on various topics. Whether it be about the actual existence of a physical world, the definition of piety, or the meaning of ‘self,’ it’s about people making and refuting arguments.
So, naturally, argument types is something they’re going to teach you about in first year philosophy. Lesson #1: learning that there are different kinds of arguments. That includes what it means to have something valid and strong. And with that, what it means to have something invalid and weak. Learning how to argue a point well is critical to succeeding in philosophy.
And as I have recently realized, that can help you succeed in other subject areas too – learning different ways to frame a point for an essay helps in pretty much any other essay-writing discipline just as much as it does in philosophy.
Then, you go another step further;
Lesson #2: how not to argue. because, after all, there are mistakes that can be made. Whether they be logical errors, where conclusions don’t follow from the points leading up to them, or other mistakes – they call them fallacies in philosophy – this course opened me up to things I was doing wrong.
Because when I used to argue, I realized, I made a lot of these formal mistakes without thinking, and I never would have known. What if one of those fallacies had ended up in one of my assignments? Suddenly a project is flawed just because I didn’t think about an argument that might discredit me? Not an appealing thought.
Learning how not to argue changed the way that I did make arguments and changed the way I listened to other people’s arguments. So much so that, one day while debating about Trump (again), I could say to the person I was debating, “Hey, that argument has a logical flaw.”
I meant that in the kindest of ways, of course, and in the end? Recognizing logical fallacies can make any argument in a debate tighter and more interesting. Same goes for essays, for papers, for lab reports. If they can be made stronger with the techniques of philosophy, then why not take a chance and learn them?
This is where I make my call to action to all you: if ever you need another elective, need to fill a humanities credit, or are just curious (as I was), then take an introductory philosophy course. It’s not likely to have a heavy workload, the assignments are not incredibly difficult, and you’ll learn some really helpful skills. Like me, you might learn that there’s more to philosophy than talking about philosophers.
And, maybe unlike me, you won’t have to soul search for a few months to find the point of it all.