Jan 22, 2014

About preparing for the Olympiad

Team India for IPO 2014 (Lithuania) has been finalized and the training begins. Ms. Aparna Mishra (Bokaro) and Mr. Abhishek Dedhe (Pune) have agreed to join the team and take the efforts needed. Mr. Previous international participants - Ms. Pooja Bilimogga (MSc - I, Physics) and Mr. Abhinav Menon (IB - DP finals) - have agreed to help with the training of this team. 
I gather that both participants are avid readers and have read many books passed on in the markets as philosophical. (namely Chetan Bhagat or Paulo Coelho) They have also pondered over issues / questions of being and existence and "why things are the way they are". I believe that they are somewhat familiar with the traditional Hindu philosophy of Gita. and other related mythologies.
I find this to be the condition of most Indian students who are interested in doing philosophy, but have not yet been initiated into it by proper discourse. The fact that these students intentionally ponder over questions of life and "what it is" or "who they are" or "why things ..." is a proof that they have the curiosity needed to philosophize. However, in the absence of proper initiation, books such as self-help books or Chetan Bhagat, etc. provide the fodder for their thoughts. I think that the damage that these books (or similar philosophies touted by mystics or other "thinkers" who have not published any peer-reviewed essays, the latter being the way of a scientific pursuit) cause is 
  1. oversimplification of critical thought leading to wrong concepts
  2. "analysis" based on presumptions and usually with a weak or no argument, which nullifies the readers capacity to analyse
  3. unverified and usually unverifiable statements, which leave the reader to either take on faith or discard without thought, either of which is not the manner of the philosopher
I am not discussing this here to demean the literary value of these books or to in any way demean the efforts taken by Aparna or Abhishek or many others who are similarly interested. I am rather stating the problem that there are few resources (books, sites, etc) which can properly initiate a young mind into philosophical thought and engage him/her long enough so that he/she can produce an essay of intellectual value. (I do not count courses in philosophy, since they are usually very academic in nature and presume that the taker is already sufficiently motivated)
I do not pretend to be able to resolve this problem in an easy way. However, the course through which I have had good results in the past and course in which I intend to take this team is broadly as follows:
  1. Overview of the subject (1/2 week): Philosophy is a vast subject (if we may call it "a" subject) and consists of many branches. I ask the beginner to first have a quick glimpse of the issues in these branches so as to familiarize with the scope of philosophy. Wikipedia portal on philosophy and some specific pages like http://atheism.about.com/od/aboutphilosoph1/a/branches.htm could be good for starters. Discuss any doubts at the FB group.
  2. Tools of the subject (1 week): The most important thing to learn before learning or doing philosophy is logic and different terms like arguments, validity, fallacy, etc. See Jim Pryor's quick review of these issues. Wikipedia is also a good source for this, e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syllogism, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies,  or you may find such other pages - http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/fallacies/. We can discuss some assignments like making arguments or finding flaws in them via the blog / FB, once students have read the material.
  3. Getting Perspectives (1 week):  It is now time to go deeper. Philosophy is different from science in that since it deals with many issues which have some un-observable phenomena at their base, hence different schools of thought crop up to explain issues from different viewpoints or to make different assumptions and solve the problems in their own way. These eventually end up as "-isms" such as realism, objectivism, mysiticism, idealism, etc. Look up wikipedia again for a quick review. These viewpoints are sometimes also known as different philosophies. We will discuss some simple issues from different isms to get a familiarity.
  4. Diving deeper (3-4 weeks per branch): Next step is to go deeper into a branch of philosophy - say Ethics. We choose the branch depending upon the interests of the students involved in this training. Ethics, Metaphysics or Praxeology are favorites at the IPO only because these contain issues that the pre-university learner can possibly handle, since you have come across these topics somewhere or the other in your humanities curricula or through general awareness. However other branches are given due justice once in a while and those can form some of the most interesting quotes to deal with at the IPO. We study the overview of the branch and then some pertinent issues from different points of view. We hone our argument making skills. We write some essays along the way.
  5. Forming opinions (3 weeks vigorous): Here's where we begin to perfect our essays. We take random issues from different branches or mixed stuff and discuss the arguments possible for or against. We brainstorm this online or in a classroom and hence learn how to explore the topic from every possible point of view, thereby making a complete argument. This goes on till the day of the competition.
All along this process students are encouraged to read up a few books which cover the overview of the subject and also familiarize the student with the work of specific philosophers and the language in which to put ones thoughts. One such thinker whose books are widely available is Bertrand Russell. Problems of philosophy is an excellent start. Another book you could read is Sophie's World by Josie Gaarder, which is a thorough introduction to the history of ideas (another name for development of philosophy) although in a very casual way through a novel-like approach.
Another author whose approach and language is very direct and convincing is Ayn Rand. Novels like Atlas Shrugged or the Fountainhead are more philosophically oriented than those of the other novelists I mentioned above. However the most important and direct philosophical works by Ms Rand in promoting her philosophy of Objectivism are For the New Intellectual and The Romantic Manifesto. Although Ms. Rand is not considered as a philosopher by the general community of philosophers, I personally find her thoughts eye-opening and her arguments lucid and usually without flaws. I find her solutions (that is generally rare in philosophy) to be very applicable. Hence I urge the students to read some of her work before they make up their minds about her. The minimum you would gain from reading Ayn Rand is a good grasp on verbal reasoning.
Thus we begin with Act I, Scene I - Overview. I expect some comments / queries / thoughts on the Facebook group before the end of January. The sooner we deal with the first three stages (say 2-3 weeks), the faster we can proceed.

p.s. Anyone is welcome to join these sessions.