How to make the most of Philosophy seminars

As anyone studying Philosophy will likely tell you, discussion is one of the most fruitful ways of philosophising. And seminars often provide great mediums for discussion. So here’s some tips for how to make the best of them.

Do the reading

This is essential. When you come to uni, you’ll meet lecturers who’ll spend a lot of time telling you how important it is to do the reading. And if you’re like some hard-to-calculate-but-nonetheless-consistent number of first years, you probably won’t believe them – at least at first. As, if you don’t take their advice initially, you probably will when you find yourself in your first seminar having no idea what anyone’s talking about because you haven’t read the material. This is an embarrassing situation (and you don’t want to be in it!)

… And if you haven’t, be honest!

Seminar tutors may ask if everyone’s done that week’s reading. Or they might just ask people what they thought of it. But if you find yourself in either of these cases, having not done the reading, be honest! While it might seem a little shameful, it’s far better than the alternative (which you may be unlucky enough to witness at some point during your degree). That is, you pretend you have done it, then concoct a vaguely incoherent sentence or two on what you thought the reading might have been about. Some students are naïve enough to think the tutor doesn’t notice the deception. They do. And frankly it’s embarrassing for everyone involved, and stops the conversation from progressing.

If you have something to say, say it!

Some people can find the prospect of speaking up in seminars daunting, feeling as though all eyes are on them. The fact is, though, that most of the fear you might have is imagined rather than real. When we put things off, we can make them seem far more monumental than they actually are. But, if you allow yourself to say what’s on your mind, you may find it’s easier than you thought! The more you do it, the less of a big deal it will seem.

Particularly in my first term at uni, I noticed a general reluctance to be the first person to talk in a seminar group. So I’d often make a point of speaking up first, casually sharing my thoughts on the material. I found this often broke the ice, allowing others to do the same.

It’s also important to remember that a half-baked idea is better than persistent silence. Thus, while you might doubt whether you know every word of what you’re about to say, it can be worth speaking up anyway. (In my experience the best seminar tutors can take the seed of whatever idea they detected in my sometimes-incoherent utterances, and turn them into properly valid, interesting points… allowing me to pretend I meant that all along!)

Nothing to say? Don’t worry

While you should come to seminars with at least a couple of points/areas of confusion you want to discuss, don’t feel like you always need to have something to say on every topic. Many seminars are tangential, and will go in many different directions – some of which you’ll have a lot to say about, some not. So don’t feel pressured to fabricate an opinion simply to look like you’re engaged (seminar tutors can usually tell who is and who isn’t).

Challenge and be challenged

Illustration of a strawman argument. From

It is perhaps intrinsic to Philosophy that you’ll at some point discuss controversial topics, and pretty much everything will be up for debate. This means that, if you disagree with something someone says, it’s OK(!) to challenge them on it. Also, expect others to return the favour.

Of course, one very valuable skill to be learned from seminars is how to do this in as civil a way as possible. One thing I’ve found is how important it is to listen to whatever your potential opponent is saying. This has the benefit of 1) making them feel listened to and fostering a friendly atmosphere; 2) you will actually get a better idea of what they think. This helps you avoid ‘strawman-ing’ – a term in Philosophy for when you caricature the position of your opponent and then argue against that, failing to engage with what they actually believe. Philosophically, this is deeply unfashionable.

Ideas are not people

If things get heated in discussion, it can be useful to remember one thing: ideas are not people. That is, in seminars, you’re discussing ideas, not trying to evaluate one another’s character (see Ad Hominem cartoon below). Thus, you might think a fellow student is wrong (deeply, deeply wrong), however you should take this as a reason to engage and persuade them, not view them as a ‘bad person’.

Illustration of an Ad Hominem argument. From https://theupturnedmicroscope
Illustration of an Ad Hominem argument. From https://theupturnedmicroscope

Likewise, if someone challenges you on something, know that they are only challenging your idea (not the value of your existence!) Also, if you’re convinced by their arguments, say so! Few things are as admirable as someone who can justify their beliefs, but one thing that is is someone who, when shown they’re wrong, can simply concede without embarrassment. This is a very magnanimous attitude and will serve you well throughout life.

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Hi, I'm George! I'm a second year currently studying philosophy. I enjoy playing guitar and am the current president of meditation soc at York, where I help run weekly sessions teaching people how to meditate. I'm interested in potentially entering a few different fields from counseling to charity work to being on an ethics committee (I'm also considering doing an MA in philosophy to delay making the decision to do any of that!).