Boethius. 'Consolation of philosophy' 1485 Gent Early printed book with hand-painted illustrationsPhilosophy is a controversial subject which deals with the most fundamental aspects of reality and value. Every area of inquiry and endeavour - from physics and mathematics through to art and history - generates philosophical problems. Philosophers will debate the meaning of life and the meaning of adverbs, the analysis of Divine foreknowledge and the analysis of colour, the nature of mathematics and the nature of nuclear deterrence. Hardly any philosophical question has a 'correct' answer agreed on by all the qualified experts, but this does not mean that in philosophy anything goes. There are some very good answers as well as some quite incompetent ones, and many in between.

A good philosophical answer is one that is backed up by well-ordered and clear arguments indeed an answer without supporting argument is worthless and sometimes barely intelligible. Moreover an answer must be informed must take account of the arguments advanced and of the criticisms and distinctions made by others who have thought deeply about the same questions. These others need not be philosophers; philosophical discussion is at its best when it is informed by the insights and anxieties of other disciplines as well as the resources of its own tradition.

In learning philosophy you have to learn to argue for or against philosophical opinions and to understand and assess philosophical visions and you have to become familiar with some of the arguments and outlooks that have been advanced on certain topics in the past. The latter, however, involves no great effort of memorizing: the difficulty is one of understanding rather than of remembering. Broadly speaking, you learn in lectures what are the traditional and contemporary arguments and theories that have been advanced on a certain topic. This can involve attention to some important period in the over two-thousand-year-long history of the subject or a study of more recent debates; and in tutorials and written work you acquire by practice the skill of advancing cogent and informed arguments of your own.

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