Studying Philosophy A level
Taking philosophy A level can be a very daunting task as it is unlike learning any other subject. It is a hugely broad topic with many branches and a mind-boggling history of ideas to catch up on. However, learning philosophy will help support your understanding of other subjects, even if you don’t plan to become a specialist philosopher.
Therefore the benefits of taking philosophy A level make it worth persevering with. Bearing this in mind, I will offer three core academic skills to help you navigate the complex world of philosophy. These skills can help with any subject, though in philosophy you will find them invaluable.
It’ll be very difficult to study philosophy A level without needing to read some texts, and a lot of the texts you’ll need to read will be challenging. So, firstly, learn to read. I don’t mean literally, as I am assuming you can read – you are reading this right now. But, you won’t successfully cut through a philosophy text like you might with a novel, or skim series of philosophical sentences like you might on Twitter.
Philosophy takes time, so learning to read it correctly is a key skill. Most texts, most paragraphs even, will be tricky to grasp with one reading. It’s key that you engage with the text as you go, and then (if anything isn’t fully picked up) don’t be afraid to re-read a paragraph before moving on. Don’t feel ashamed of not understanding it initially – this stuff is complicated.
Philosophy is rewarding
This might make it seem like philosophy is slow and boring because a lot of it will need more mental work before it is really understood – but actually it makes philosophy all the more rewarding when you do grasp it. This will be less intense at A-level as you’ll be able to get by without needing to read anything too long on your own.
However it’s a great skill to pick up early so that you’re able to grasp a philosophy text and break down the core ideas. Even one of the most famous philosophers, Immanuel Kant, recounts a time when it was a second reading of a book by David Hume that the penny dropped and pushed his ideas forward. Take your time, make some notes, and pick out the key points as you go.
Understanding the Context
The second core skill: try to understand the context. Philosophy has many branches and works that span over 3000 years of history. It isn’t going to be straight forward – one of the biggest mistakes a philosopher could make would be to assume it all follows a single continuity, or that only a certain era of history matters. It is all important and there is a lot of it.
As a result, context is one of the most important things you can use in philosophy A level and most other subjects. There are multiple things to look for, but it seriously helps you understand, categorise, and organise a subject in your head. So, understanding some of the context of what you’re about to learn is a huge boon to figuring out what the actual content involves. When you encounter a new philosopher, think: when did they write their work? What was it like where they lived? Is it practical philosophy or do we learn it for the historical value? Who is the work in response to, or who responded to it?
There are many other questions – but understanding any two or three of these will sky-rocket your understanding of the work as a whole. The more relevant background you have, the more the ideas will make sense. Rene Descartes’ work, for example, makes more sense when you realise the religious circumstances that surrounded him.
Keeping the Question in Mind
The third core skill I will suggest is to learn to keep questions in mind. This seems like something we might do naturally – but it’s definitely something we can all learn to do more. Think of it like this – philosophers you learn about have more authority on their subject than you do, so you will be more inclined to agree with them. You will never feel like you understand more about a subject than when you only just read one source. Then that all falls down when you read any other perspective. Now, it’s unlikely you’ll have any original thoughts about older works.
However, by trying to find questions to have about it, you’re not only understanding the topic better, but you are also pre-emptively thinking of what the responses might be. You’ll be able to distance your own feelings and try to understand all sides. It’s from that position that you’ll best understand what the whole discussion is about, and then maybe pick a side that makes the most logical sense. It’ll probably be the side that the rest of history fell on, too, but that’s okay – it’s nice to be right about things.
Bringing it all together
With these three tips in mind, you should have a much easier time navigating the ever-shifting halls of academic philosophy. Even if philosophy isn’t your main subject, these kinds of things should help elsewhere – so give them a practice and see.
Related: Study tips from Top Tutor Jessica