Philosophy is a rigorous discipline that demands precision, accuracy, and careful thought. Contrary to popular belief, philosophy isn’t merely about airing one's opinions. In a word, philosophy is about arguments. By arguments, we mean a logically structured set of statements or propositions that, when put together, entail some sort of conclusion. For example, the following is an argument:
(1) All C.U. students are brilliant.
(2) Jill is a C.U. student.
Therefore,(C) Jill is brilliant.
Here, the truth of premises (1) and (2) make the conclusion, (C), true, i.e., it could not fail to be true if the premises are true. Premises are simply statements offered for consideration.
Philosophy revolves around giving arguments for various positions one might take on the nature of reality (metaphysics), the nature of knowledge (epistemology), the nature of morality (ethics) or the nature of a particular subject like aesthetics or science.
There are two important distinctions that should be with respect to arguments like the one above. First, arguments are either valid or invalid. Though we often use the word "valid" in our common everyday language to label a person's point as good or strong, the term as it is used in philosophy is a technical term that refers to the nature of a deductive argument. If a deductive argument is valid, the truth of the premises guarantees the truth of the conclusion. That is to say, if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. An invalid argument is an argument whose premises do not entail the conclusion. That is to say, even if the premises are true, the conclusion may not be true.
The second distinction with respect to arguments in philosophy lies between sound and unsound arguments. If an argument is sound, then it is not only valid, but its premises are indeed true. An unsound argument is an argument in which one or more of the premises are false. Note that an argument can be valid, but unsound.
Here is your first test in philosophy: First, is the above argument concerning the brilliance of C.U. students valid?
If your answer is no, there are no more comments to make, for if an argument is not valid, there is little sense in discussing it beyond making this determination.
But, if our answer is yes, we can ask the further question as to whether the above argument is sound, i.e., are the premises true? Well, what do you think, are they true? Premise (1) is of course the controversial premise; premise (2) we will assume, is a given. Well, premise (1) is probably false, if we mean by "brilliant," incredibly intelligent. Unfortunately, there are most likely at least a few C.U. students that do not fall into this category of brilliance. The good news is that life is not just about being intelligent.
Now that we have the two basic concepts of validity and soundness under our belts, we can begin to do philosophy. To do philosophy well, you will have to think in terms of arguments all the time. This thought process can be a bit daunting for the neophyte, but after a while it becomes second nature. Along with this process of thinking in terms of arguments, you will also have to put your thinking cap on; philosophy, by its very nature, requires you to think hard, to make fine distinctions, and to be extremely careful with how you use words. Often, philosophers use common everyday words in uncommon ways. For example, the word "necessarily" is a word loaded with meaning for the philosopher, though not for the person on the street.
Reading philosophy for the beginner can also be a daunting task. Because philosophers use language so carefully, one can often find their first reading of a philosophy article quite dense, slow and laborious. Philosophers like to condense their ideas into the fewest words possible needed to express them, so reading philosophy can be akin to untying a shoelace which has several knots in it. Unlike reading fiction or the newspaper, reading philosophy is often a grueling process. Adequately understanding what a particular philosopher is arguing may require re-reading the article several times. As with many sorts of texts there are values in reading the text quickly and slowly. If you know that you are going to read a text more the once, it is sometimes profitable to read through it the first time quickly, not getting bogged down too much with sections that are not readily clear to you. On the second time through you can slow down and digest the more difficult parts of the reading. The quick read-through often gives you context such that when you read through the article a second time, you already know what will later be said in the article, thus helping you to understand the difficult passages found earlier in the article. Above all, reading philosophy takes patience. Even if you read an article through several times, there may be portions of the text that are still unclear. Philosophy often leaves one with more questions than answers; hence, if you have in mind that you will develop a bulletproof personal philosophy at the end of one class, give that idea up now. Philosophers study for decades and often never reach a firm conclusion on some matters. Lastly, you will almost certainly come across words that you are not familiar with. Though it is easy to just skip these words, you will gain greater understanding and pleasure from your reading if you look unknown words up. You may have even come across unknown words on this web page like "neophyte." A great tool for the college student is an electronic dictionary, which can be purchased on CD-Rom and then transferred to your hard drive (if you have enough room). Good, unabridged dictionaries on CD-Rom can be purchased for about $25. This tool helps you to look words up quickly (if you're near your computer).
As you can imagine, writing philosophy involves the skills of doing philosophy and reading philosophy. To write philosophy, you must learn to use your own language well. You must learn to use language precisely; you must master syntax (which includes spelling) and grammar. You must also learn to write stylistically, and not in the manner that you speak on a daily basis. Philosophy requires a formal writing style. You must learn to be well-organized in the presentation of your ideas. You must learn to present an argument, and then evaluate it, i.e., give your own argument for why you think the argument under question is a good or bad one. Philosophers are picky, anal, and fastidious when they write, and so must you be if you are to succeed as a nascent philosopher.