By Jeremy Khoo (14A01B)
There are many misconceptions about the study of philosophy. It is not intellectual masturbation, completely irrelevant to the real world (its only mostly irrelevant, a distinction insisted upon by most eminent philosophers) or the devil’s work, though if you believed any of the above Reflects is probably not for you.
The issue of the relevance of philosophy is actually a hotly-contested one. Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps the preeminent philosopher of the 20th century, had many things to say about the academic philosophy of his time overreaching itself to arrive at conclusions philosophers had no epistemic right to because they were confused by their own use of language, thus creating philosophical castles in the air. Today, whenever a debate over the importance of philosophy erupts, philosophy is always defended by someone who points to philosophy of science and political theory (in other words, the obviously useful stuff) and who seems willing to jettison quite a lot of present academic philosophy. I am personally dubious about how knowing whether the A or B Theory of Time is true would really change my life. (That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be intellectually interested in knowing the answer.)
Anyway, if you’re a philosophically-minded person in this context, you might wonder if studying philosophy is a viable option. Well, no philosophy lesson or course is going to be able to answer that question, but Raffles Reflects will give you some idea of what you might be getting into and whether you feel its worth the comfortable life you might have had as a successful white-collar worker. As you know, a career in philosophy involves living in hovels with six other fellow hovel-ees, all of whom have more advanced philosophy degrees than you, and subsisting on a diet of pure thought and the occasional packet of crackers.
Raffles Reflects is more or less intended to allow students to explore the most important philosophical issues at an introductory (i.e. first-year undergraduate) level. It is, of course, just a taste of what one might experience reading philosophy at university, but does involve more in-depth study than the RP Philosophy course. Four main areas of philosophy are covered in the year’s work — ethics, politics, epistemology and the philosophy of mind.
In each area, the course aims to broadly sketch out the most influential ideas of the last few hundred years. For example, in the Ethics module, the three major theories of normative ethics — deontology, consequentialism and virtue ethics — are given focus. At the end of the year, each student writes an extended essay on either a set topic or (if they so choose) a topic of their own devising of 1500 words or more.
Readings for each lesson are given out the week before. In order to follow the lesson, it is more or less necessary to do this work diligently. The work is not usually dumbed down, which is a plus point because you will be engaging with actual philosophy rather than ‘introductory texts’ most of the time. The tutors will then spend the session working through the article and facilitating discussion on the key points.
On the whole, Reflects will probably be a suitable introduction to the basics of academic philosophy for any philosophically-minded person. As opposed to Knowledge and Inquiry (KI), which is about ‘the nature and construction of knowledge’ (maybe the most-repeated phrase in the SEAB syllabus) and engages with specifically epistemic concerns in both philosophical and non-philosophical fields, Reflects focuses more on the central areas of interest to modern academic philosophers. Students already taking KI should not find that the content overlaps, while students interested in philosophy who elected not to take KI may consider this a (nongraded) substitute. Its also worth noting that a background in philosophy can serve as good grounding for any career where critical thinking skills are important. Studying philosophy to improve your critical thinking without any actual interest in philosophical issues is probably not the best of ideas, though.
The selection process is fairly simple: you will have to write a 1000-word response to a question on a basic philosophical issue, most likely a comment on an influential philosophical analogy / thought experiment or an important bit of theory. No philosophical background is presumed and citations are both unnecessary and impossible to submit through the online enrichment registration portal.
For the reference of anyone interested, links to online versions of several articles covered last year are included below.
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