Understanding Philosophy and the Humanities
The smart way to study for Section I and II
Shabeer Zacky | Master GAMSAT Tutor | 90plusgamsat |
A note from Michael: Hello team, we are lucky today to have a guest post by my very own GAMSAT tutor, and Fraser’s GAMSAT’s very first employee. He’s been teaching GAMSAT for 9 years and has degrees in both philosophy and education. Over and above that, he’s the smartest guy I know, so we’re very lucky to have him contributing. The topic? How to situate ideas from the humanities into an epistemic landscape that allows you to interact with Section I, and respond to Section II, with depth and richness – and ultimately score higher and get into med school as a result.
Over to Shabeer!
How will knowing the humanities help my Section I and II?
Ultimate success in Section 2 requires background knowledge as GAMSAT is 50% humanities and social sciences. Knowledge of the humanities is knowledge of the world, of the human being, knowledge of us. The universe is full of strange things, from subatomic quarks to spiraling galaxies, there is an endless display of cosmic marvels to wonder at. And yet, more so strange a thing in this drama of reality than the observed is this little thing called ‘I’ doing all the observing. The human world made up of these myriad “I’s” all brought together under the common umbrella of humanity is a microcosm unto itself. Here we have peoples, nations, civilizations with all their ideas and ideologies playing out the great story of humanity on this little sphere of water and rock tucked away in the galactic habitable zone of a vast and beautiful cosmos. The natural sciences are a tremendous achievement. As fascinating as it may be to wonder what compels an electron to stay in its orbit, how to answer the question: what compels, motivates, drives you, a human being, to do anything is an infinitely complex and more fascinating question.
Section 2 then, is the human place, the place to be human in all our myriad subtleties and complexities. It is a place to reflect on the perennial issues that constitute the human condition and the specific particularities of our own times and places, the text to ask the ‘whys’ ‘where tos’ and ‘what fors?’. Fundamentally, we ask ourselves what does it mean to be the rational, emotional, and laughing animal? In order to do this well, we need to know what is the human being, we need to know what it means to be human? Enter the humanities.
Let’s turn our attention to one of the many disciplines of the humanities, an old favourite.
Why philosophy versus any other epistemic discipline?
Philosophy gets at the heart of the ideas that make up any problem.
Due to the rigorous nature of the analysis involved philosophy, it is the perfect discipline to enhance one’s critical skills with which one engages in systematic and careful critique of an argument to determine:
(1) what exactly is being said,
(2) how well argued are the points that make up the argument,
(3) what are the beliefs being taken for granted for the sake of the argument (the assumptions)
(4) what relevantly related issues, if any, are being overlooked, and,
(5) what are the implications, what follows from the argument just made?
A little bit of thought on these five points will reveal their immediate relevance to the sort of essays that characterise S2: a brief yet intelligent set of reflections on a theme of human and societal significance, one which enables the examiner to enter your mindspace and come out with a psychometric profile of you as a thinking person.
How does this psychometric profile correspond to the five points made above?
(1) The examiner is not only going to be interested in what you are saying, but also why you have chosen to say something about this particular topic that you’ve’ chosen, rather than something else that you could just as well have chosen about that topic. What evaluative principals were operative in your mind at the time of your choosing and why?
(2) Dialectics, which is the art of investigating and discussing the truth of opinions, is central to the philosophical discipline. A 30-min essay will constrain the limits of your inquiry, so how do you decide, in relation to what you have chosen to write on, the points worth arguing and the extent, method, and style to and with which you will argue them?
(3) Assumptions are an indispensable part of almost all arguments. None of us are going to argue a point ‘all the way down’, which means there are certain things, certain starting points we are taking for granted. These are the axioms of our discourse and assumptions of the argument. Now not all assumptions are created equal. Some of them your reader may be willing to give you, for the sake of the argument, and perhaps because there’s a degree of plausibility to it, others will need to be argued for. Knowing where and when to draw the line in an argument’s starting points, and how to be sensitive to the psychometrics adopted by ACER, is one step closer to the latitudinal thinking which the best reflective work comprises.
(4) What are we overlooking – there’s too much to cover about any topic in a 30 minute essay. Naturally then there will be some hard choices being made as to what to keep and what to remove in your essay, the decision being made on the basis of the usefulness of the statements to the ultimate purpose of your essay. It is important that you develop the ability to do this well while preventing ‘semantic leakage’: the loss of meaning in between the lines of your text due to not qualifying statements appropriately thereby failing to limit their scope and extent.
(5) Developing the analytic capacity to accurately infer, to see what follows logically from something else, is a key skill for the communicative contexts of something like a S2 essay. This is especially true when we consider how short the essays must be, a point not lost on those who set the timing: ACER. Trying to do too much will compromise the metacognition and introspection required to score highly in this psychometrically validated essay.
There are other things to be said about the systematic, personal, and evaluative aspects that critical philosophical analysis can aid us with; we will cover these in future posts.
These are some brief points on how philosophy as a domain of inquiry into the fundamental conceptual aspects of matters can facilitate our writing, both in content and expression, in the S2 space.
Is it hard to learn? What are the main things in the way of it?
Abstraction and impracticality are often associated with philosophy. ‘When have philosophers ever changed anything?’ goes the retort, and yet philosophers are changing things all the time, changing the most important thing: your mind. The internal battle for the hearts and minds of a people is really a battle for history; whoever wins this, wins the material world and becomes the true director of its affairs from beyond the thin veil of matter. Due to the timeworn age of this venerable discipline, a whole host of theories and technicalities has grown around it – often making it daunting at least, and impossible at worst, for those wishing to enter it with limited time and much ground to cover.
The good news is that the concepts that lie at the heart of the sort of philosophical investigation we are concerned with, are in and of themselves not that difficult. Take a concept like freedom for example. We all have an intuitive understanding of the concept, afterall we use the word in our day to day. Starting from these intuitions is usually a good place as it helps you to see how the task of analyzing a concept (conceptual analysis) can be done and replicated in other contexts. So, let’s start with an intuitive understanding of freedom as say ‘the ability to do whatever I want to do’, I am free when I can do what I want. Okay, how can we critique and refine this definition? Well, we can begin by asking whether it is a true definition? Are you only free when you can do whatever you want to do? So if you couldn’t fly to a distant star, would that mean you are not free and can never say of yourself that you are free? That doesn’t sound right. Clearly that thought-experiment indicates a limit to your freedom. You do not have the freedom to do things that go beyond the capacity of your bio-physical constitution – and so your freedom, whatever it may be, has constraints. You are not absolutely free then, but have constraints to your freedom. What other kinds of constraints to your freedom could play into this picture? We could think about economic, social, historical, and political constraints, such as those enacted by law. You are not free to murder, that is to say you cannot murder without there being consequences to you and your freedom. Yet despite all these constraints we are still content with speaking about some people and societies as being more ‘free’ than others, so in relation what exactly is this notion of ‘freedom’ defined? And that’s another topic and another way to go if you would like from here.
This little unpacking of the notion of our freedom from our intuitions to a more detailed discussion of freedom in the sphere of law, politics and so on is to demonstrate that behind all the claims one could make in their essay:
(1) “Western liberal democratic societies represent political arrangements of historically unprecedented freedom for all the constituent members of these societies,”
(2) “Freedom is the most important value we can choose to live our lives by if we are to be truly authentic to ourselves,” and,
(3) “To be free is to be free to do what we want and free from external constraint, to the maximal possible degree”, or the like, there are easily accessible methods to critiquing and refining our own concepts so as to ensure we are not parroting superficialities nor trading in platitudes.
10 versatile philosophic ideas you can start using right now
- The Good Life
- Ethics and the Golden Mean
- Pleonexia and the conundrum of capitalistic greed.
- Liberalism and the inner tensions of the Harm Principle
- John Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance
- Heidegger and The Dasein
- Nietzsche the problem of modern ‘morality’
- Aristotle’s Metaphysics and the question of Being
- Action Theory: Autonomy and culpable action.
- Individualism and The Cult of the Self.
These ideas and more can be explored in a preliminary manner in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Over the next few weeks, we will cover how other disciplines in the humanities combined with the social sciences can be utilised to great effect in your essay, as well as help you to improve your section 1 score.
If you would like to learn more about the humanities in video form see Shabeer and Michael’s video on the key ideas that characterise contemporary Western life. Understanding these will help you locate your ideas into the context of a broader epistemic landscape in a way that engages the task in a richer and deeper way, and to ultimately score more highly as a result.