Devising a study plan
Choose a philosopher
How does one go about choosing topics for study? The scope of philosophy may seem at first enormous, but the arrangement of problem areas is relatively orderly and intelligible. To begin with, you can either concentrate your interest on the work of an individual philosopher, or study a particular problem area. However, this division is less important than it might first seem. Philosophy is unique amongst academic subjects in that investigating the history of philosophy is a valid way of approaching the problems of philosophy. For one's interest is never merely historical. Engaging in an imaginary dialogue with a historical philosopher sharpens our understanding of the questions that they were seeking to answer, and which remain relevant to us today. While some problems do change over time, many remain perennial, and the techniques of philosophical argument are as valid when used to defend or criticise a historical philosopher as when they are applied in contemporary debate.
You may find yourself taking an interest in a philosopher after coming across them is a book on the history of philosophy, such as Bertrand Russell's. (While Russell's History of Western Philosophy deservedly remains the most popular, despite its many idiosyncrasies, there are a number of good histories by contemporary philosophers to choose from, e.g. David Hamlyn's sober and accurate Pelican History of Western Philosophy, or D.J. O'Connor A Critical History of Western Philosophy, which is a compilation of the work of historians of philosophy, each an acknowledged expert on one particular philosopher.) Alternatively, you may have simply picked up a book on, or by a certain philosopher from the library shelf or a second-hand book shop. Do not turn your nose up at such chance encounters. They can change the direction of your life.
Choose a topic
The rule of chance encounters applies as much to books on the problems of philosophy. On the other hand, you may have already cultivated an interest in a subject area that has philosophical aspects to it. Art, Psychology, Language, History, Religion, War, Science, Physics, Biology, Mathematics, Logic can all have 'Philosophy of...' tacked onto them. There is Political Philosophy and Moral Philosophy. You may come across books on Philosophy and Literature, or Philosophy and the Environment, or Philosophy and Psychoanalysis. What is so surprising and illuminating when you begin to explore the different fields is the way that certain kinds of problem or argument appear and reappear in areas that seem at first greatly separated.
Apart from this wide-ranging, critical application of philosophy, there remains a closely knit group of philosophical problems concerning the nature of reality and the scope and limits of human knowledge in general: or 'Metaphysics and Epistemology'. Metaphysics can justifiably claim to be the original core of philosophy, and remains to this day one of the most exciting and controversial fields, with battle lines drawn over its very legitimacy as a source of rational knowledge. Epistemology, which has strong links with the critique of different areas of human knowledge, is concerned with such problems as the nature of justification, reason versus sense experience as sources of knowledge, and, most famously, Descartes' notorious question of how one would defend our claim to know things against the arguments of the determined sceptic.
The first rule, then, for getting started is simply this: Begin with whatever topic most grips you, most excites your interest. You do not need to worry over 'whether I need to study X before I can study Y'. Questions of priority can come later.
If you have done mathematics and are fascinated by the question of the existence of numbers, then start with that. If you like painting or music, then aesthetics may be your way into philosophy. Or you may have been led to philosophy by thinking about arguments for or against the existence of God. Or your starting point might be that book from the library or second-hand book shop that you find yourself struggling to understand, but which for some reason you just cannot put down. (In my case, the book was Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.) The best way to get started with philosophy is your way, just because it is yours. That is the seed from which your love for philosophy will grow.
When it comes to developing a program for study, the most important idea is that of networking. Once you have found your way into philosophy, look at topics that connect with one another and lead into one another, rather than just picking more topics at random. To a considerable extent, you will find yourself responding to a perceived sense of necessity. For example, questioning the existence of numbers or the nature of mathematical truth will lead you back to the general metaphysical questions of the nature of truth and existence. The problem of justifying standards of aesthetic criticism will lead you to the question of the objectivity of value judgements in general, and the relation between aesthetics and ethics. The philosophy of religion could point you in the direction of epistemology, or metaphysics, or indeed ethics. As you follow the leads back and forth, you will find that they begin to form multiple inter-connections. You have constructed a network.
If you follow this simple recipe, you will find, as your interests develop, that your most difficult problem with putting a proposal together for your essay portfolio is deciding what to exclude! But remember that any proposal is only provisional. Go out and explore the world of philosophy and trust your sense of direction. You will be surprised and possibly amazed by the treasures you bring back.
© Geoffrey Klempner 2002–2017