How to Learn Philosophy

Lincoln-Douglas Debate, traditionally referred to as “Value Debate” is meant to be debated in the abstract, with most resolutions featuring words like “ought,” “just” or “moral” (all of these words imply a general obligation to do or not do something). In debating this way, many debaters take to using arguments based upon generic philosophies or even more specific applications of a philosopher’s teachings (such as Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative, John Locke’s Social Contract, or John Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance). While it is not required that arguments be specific enough to relate to any one of these individuals to win the round, many traditional L-D judges will respond favorably to them. Regardless of how one structures their arguments, debaters are going to need to know the basics of what most of these people argue. That way one can efficiently respond to them in a round if an opponent pulls one of them out. I will always remember my first tournament in my freshman year when my opponent talked about “Kant’s Categorical Imperative,” and for the entire round I thought that he had said “Cons-Categorical Imperative.” Competing at a local circuit, a debater might do fine if they just have one piece of evidence to “block out” each philosopher from a debate handbook of some sort. However, at more advanced competitions--for those who plan on doing well at Districts, State, or Nationals--the better one understands these great men, the better one is able to analyze them quickly in and out of a round.

Chris Langan, often cited as the smartest man in America (his IQ is around 200), once said about knowledge that, “I always feel that the closer you get to the original sources, the better off you are.” This sentence literally defines how I viewed Lincoln-Douglas Debate. People who have a great thirst for learning philosophy or understanding the ways people or governments make decisions will always find L-D research less boring than the opposite. Obviously, it is quite impractical to just open up some philosophical book from the 18th Century and start reading. Chances are that it will not make for easy reading at first. A smart L-D Debater, who is focusing on the big picture, will try to pick up knowledge about people as he goes, constantly learning about new philosophers and their new teachings. A good starting place might be to read through a simple outline of different philosophies. I personally used the Baylor Brief’s Value Debate Handbook and SE Frost’s Basic Teachings of the Great Philosophers. If those seem too dry, a debater could even try starting with a book that makes philosophy fun, such as Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar. Do not focus on memorizing whatever is read. The trick is to try to open the mind to new ways of thinking--beliefs, ideals, paradigms held by other societies in the past. Philosophy is about letting oneself think (and part of it is learning the vocabulary). While progressing in understanding, read more and more challenging works. The best of the best have often read excerpts or even whole works of the great philosophers.

Philosophy will be frustrating, I can promise. There will be philosophers a debater will hate. In my case, basically everybody except Immanuel Kant, John Locke, and René Descartes. There will be those who seem to talk in circles (most of them). There will definitely be parts that confuse (highlight, underline, tab to help yourself). If having a lot of trouble with a specific book, try doing something else to keep from going crazy. When I was preparing for NFL Nationals, I went back and forth between reading philosophy and cutting practical evidence for use in rounds. If that does not seem to work, spend some time thinking about what one has read. Philosophy is different than most reading. In most circumstances, a book will present ideas and that is what is learned. However, here debaters find a world where 90% of the new information is discovered through intellectual discussion and thought. Debaters find that they have feelings about the way things should be that had never even been thought of before that piece of philosophy was read. Try finding an L-D buddy to discuss concepts with. I literally once had an hour long discussion with my friend over whether or not Immanuel Kant’s theories would make fictitious books or the story of Santa Claus immoral. That did not relate to our topic at all. But know what? That same friend and I were the last two undefeated debaters in our NFL District of close to 60 people. There is something to be said for expanding the mind and thinking processes.

Interestingly enough, debaters will find (even at NFL Nationals) that the vast majority of people who have philosophy in their case have NO IDEA about philosophy beyond what they have just basically prepared to read. Debaters will find people who grossly abuse philosophers, twist what they say (often from their own ignorance, not necessarily purposefully), or take quotes out of context. I know more than one debater who did that and still placed at L-D Nationals. Why? There are not enough people to call them out on it. L-D Debate is slowly making the shift into one-man Policy and that leaves the people who understand philosophy fewer and fewer each year. (Though, there are many who still do, and those people continue to do excellent at all levels of competition.) For example, a great situation emerged for me in the round that would qualify the winner to the Missouri State Tournament. My opponent’s entire case was based upon John Stuart Mill. His argument was that liberty is absolute and that we cannot take away a person’s liberty just to benefit society. Then, he gave a few quotes from Mill’s book, On Liberty, which basically just said how others canot dwarf people.

Now, most debaters would have heard this and just gone straight to attacking John Stuart Mill or attacking his philosophy. One could win that way but it might be a close round. What did I do? I pulled out the actual copy of Mill’s book On Liberty. I opened it to a page where Mill notes that liberty encompasses everything that does not affect society one way or the other, so the argument that liberty is more important than benefits to society does not make sense because of how Mill defines that term. Then I read the quote that my opponent had read but also read the part around it that said that this was only applied to educational policies of government (that is a commonly read quote in brief packets--that is how I knew where to find it), and then I read a section that said that the greatest good for society is the best value one can have. That was not a close round.

While that story sounds like 1 in a 1,000,000, it happens much more frequently than one would think. In a few years of L-D debate, seeing people make the same mistakes over and over and over again… eventually, a debater can develop a pretty solid base of knowledge over philosophy that can allow one to defeat almost anything encountered with ease.

P.S. Key philosophers to know: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Rawls, Mill, Bentham, Kant, Aquinas, Aristotle AT LEAST; there are countless more including present day ones like Foucalt or Zizek.