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February 2016

8 tips for A-Level Philosophy


If you’re anything like me, you probably chose Philosophy and Ethics A Level because it’s something new and it sounds pretty interesting. It was my favourite A Level by a mile but the transition in the first few months was quite tricky. The fact of the matter is that Philosophy and Ethics is totally different to all the other humanities subjects. It requires you to develop new skills and a pretty unique approach to learning, but as soon as you get these things down it’s smooth sailing. Here’s a few tips that I wish I’d had at the start of the year!

 

Check for common themes in the syllabus

At the start of the year, take 15 minutes to have a look at what you’re going to be covering. You don’t need to pay too much attention to the actual content at this stage, just the general structure and outline of each topic. You’ll probably notice that all the topics are structured in exactly the same way. Every topic in every syllabus requires you to know and understand the following:

  • Key definitions and vocabulary
  • Key philosophers/practitioners
  • Their arguments
  • Criticisms/Counters of their arguments
  • Contextual references/examples

It’s a very simple structure but I cannot emphasise enough how important it is: it’s the basic structure of most philosophy and ethics courses, even at university. Think of it like a recipe: If you miss out one of those ingredients, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem, all of your effort might go to waste. Every question you are going to answer over the next two years requires you to address every one of those points.

 

Don’t worry if you don’t get it at first

You’ll find at certain points there are things you can’t quite grasp. Don’t beat yourself up. Philosophy and Ethics can be pretty complex and this happens to everyone. It’s important that you accept this and don’t get stuck in a rut where you say to yourself ‘I’m never going to understand it’. You have to ask your teachers questions and you will have to read things more than once.

One of my best mates got a first in Philosophy at uni and he said he had to read everything at least three times. The first time he’d read it without stopping to see if he could understand the basics (usually he couldn’t). The second time he’d stop at points he was getting lost until he understood the basic premise, and the third time he’d focus in on specific details and consolidate his understanding.

 

 

The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (SEP)

This is the philosopher’s Wikipedia. It’s free and has a page written by a leading academic on every topic, argument and philosopher you are going to be covering.

It’s excellent for finding clear and concise definitions to use in essays, specific counter arguments and the background and context of theories and arguments. Initially my advice would be to avoid reading primary philosophical texts, such as a 300 year old book by Emmanuel Kant, because SEP goes into the same amount of detail in a vastly more approachable way.

SEP will also provide you with a brilliant introduction to academic writing and help you to write with the ‘flair’ that examiners love. Create a word document at the start of the year and copy and paste all the good words and phrases you see. Start using them in your essays and before long you’ll be using them without even thinking about it.

 

Clearly define important terms

A lot of very able students lose a ton of marks because they fail to lay the foundations for their essay. Defining your terms is essential in order to make a good first impression on the examiner. If at the beginning of your essay your definitions aren’t clear you’re setting yourself up for a fall. The key is to make no assumptions. Don’t assume that the examiner knows anything about the teleological argument, evil and suffering, utilitarianism, euthanasia etc. When you’re covering topics in lessons or taking notes, write a clear and concise definition of all of the terms before you move on to look at arguments and examples. Learn these definitions word for word and use them in the introduction of every answer you write for a question on that topic.

 

Look for weaknesses in every argument

This sounds simple but doing it well is a real skill. Like every skill, good practice makes perfect. No matter how convincing an argument may be to you, it will have major cracks in it. There is no definitive right or wrong answer in Philosophy and Ethics and you have to be able to acknowledge the criticism of an argument and respond to it. The best way to develop this skill is debating. Argue with your classmates, parents, teachers, siblings, strangers, whoever! If they criticise your argument and you can then respond convincingly to that criticism, that’s great essay material.

 

Find arguments and examples that interest you

In my opinion, this is the best thing about Philosophy and Ethics at A Level. As long as it’s relevant to the topic, you have a free reign to talk about whatever you want. Realistically in a 45 minute essay you aren’t going to be able to discuss more than 3 or 4 arguments effectively, so home in on the ones that interest you. It’s easier than any other subject to go beyond the textbook to find great arguments, and if you are genuinely interested in something, you’ll find it easier to remember and understand.

 

Avoid using ‘I’

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but in most cases it’s best to avoid using phrases such as ‘I think’, ‘I believe’ or ‘in my opinion’. Substitute them for phrases such as ‘on the one hand’, ‘x’s argument suggests’ or ‘it is arguable/debatable.’ In other subjects you can get away with it, but it’s a bit different in Philosophy and Ethics. The reason for this is that the questions will never be asking for your opinion, they will be asking for a balanced discussion based on the facts. The examiner wants to see that you can appreciate and apply both sides of an argument and using the word ‘I’ suggests that your conclusion is formed from a personal opinion as opposed to an objectively balanced discussion.

 

Condense and consolidate learning

In Philosophy and Ethics there are loads of complex arguments that can take ages to relearn and memorise.

Try to keep on top of your revision notes and review them as much as possible. When you finish a topic, condense all of the information onto a page or two and then answer a couple of practice questions without timing yourself and with your notes in front of you. Do a proper essay question because it’s the only way to develop your writing skills. Philosophy and Ethics questions require a totally different style of writing to any other subject you’ll be studying, so get the practice in as early as possible.

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