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Philosophy as an Optional in UPSC

Philosophy as an optional subject has become very popular in UPSC. Philosophy has one of the shortest syllabus, so it can be prepared within minimum time with reasonable effort. Generally students think that Philosophy is an abstract subject and has no practical relevence but this is not true. Philosophy is very analytical and speculative that makes it very interesting and highly scoring.


Strategy to Prepare Philosophy in Mains

Paper I

Paper I deals with Indian Philosophy and Western Philosophy. Here we have to attempt 5 questions out of 8. 2 questions are compulsory which are generally on specific topics. The compulsory question of Indian philosophy is generally on epistemology or it can be a short note. In Western Philosophy the compulsory question is mostly a short note. The first paper is highly scoring because all the questions are predictable. We have to critically examine the questions and give as many comments as possible. The questions are generally direct like refutation of inference given by Charvakay Syatvada and Anekantavada in Jainism, Pratitya Samutpada and Kshan Bhangvada in Early Buddhism, Shunyavada and Vigyanvada in Later Buddhism, Purush prakriti and Theory of Evolution from Samkhya, categories and atomism from Vaisheshika, Brahma and Maya from Sankara, Qualified non-dualism and refutation of Mayaism from Ramayanya. These are the common questions on Indian Philosophy which are generally asked in UPSC. In Western philosophy, theories of ideas of Plato, substance and form of Aristotle, 'Cogito ergo sum' of Descartes, substance or pantheism of Spinoza, monadology of Leibnitz, Esse est percipi of Berkeley, Scepticism of Hume, Synthetic a priori judgement of Kant, Truth is rational and rational is truth of Hegel, appearance and reality of Bradley, Radical empiricism of James, Common sense philosophy and refutation of idealism of Moore, Logical atomism and Theory of Description of Rusell, Eliminaation of metaphysics and verification theory of Ayer, Picture theory and language game of Wittgenstein, Category mistake of Ryle Nothingness of Heidegger, Existence precedes essence and man is condemned to be free of Sartre— all the common questions of Western philosophy.

Paper II

Paper II has 2 sections and there are also 2 compulsory questions in each sections (one from each section). Philosophy of religion and Socio-political philosophy are the 2 sections of Paper II. Philosophy of religion is very short. There are only 7 topics in the whole syllabus and always 1 question from each topic. If certain specific topics are covoered, philosophy of religion can be covered easily. In the section of socio- political philosophy there are 11 topics given inour syllabus. There are some topics which are invariably asked like Sarvodaya, Gandhism, comparison between Marxism and Gandhism and sort notes are always on political ideals (equality, liberty, sovereignity and justice).


PHILOSOPHY PREPARATION STRATEGY by DR. AMBUJ SRIVASTAVA

As a mentor, I would suggest the aspirants to follow the RRW method of studying.

RRW: Read - Revise - Write

PCS: Planning, Commitment and Strategy

To get through the CS Examinations, the necessary pre requisite is PCS: Planning, Commitment and Strategy, absence of which would surely bring failure. Strategy can make your battle very simple and can be a game changer if you are new to this subject with no academic background in the same. And since, this is the case with most of the students the strategy suggested by an experienced mentor will be like the key to the golden door…

Like any other optional philosophy too has two papers in main examinations which are further divided into two subsections. The first paper is related with philosophical theories which cover Western and Indian thinkers under it, and the second paper is related with philosophical problems under which come the socio-political philosophy and the philosophy of religion.


Paper I

Since the portion of Western is supposed to be the toughest among the students so I am sharing here the strategy for preparing this section in 35 days only.

For this, you firstly need to understand the syllabus.

You, collectively, have to prepare the history of Western Philosophy which approximately covers a span of 2500 years. Out of almost 20 thinkers included in your syllabus, 2 are Greek philosophers: Plato and Aristotle. The target should be to prepare them in 5 days.

Then there is a jump of 1800 years and you directly arrive on to the philosophy of 17th – 18th century which is the Modern Western Philosophy. There are 8 thinkers included in this portion of your syllabus among them three are rationalists, mathematicians (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz). The next three are British Empiricists (Locke, Berkeley and Hume) and the critical Philosophy of Kant. From 19th century, that is the Post Modern Period, only one thinker has been included in your syllabus, Hegel, basically to bridge the philosophy of Kant and Moore. This whole section should be prepared in 14 days

Then comes the philosophy of 20th century, which is the Contemporary Western Philosophy. In this section, there are 10 thinkers in your syllabus whom you have to prepare in 4 parts. In first part, you can include Moore, Russell, Wittgenstein and logical positivism mainly supported by A. J. Ayer. In the second part you can prepare the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. Third part is Existentialism, including thinkers like Kierkegaard, Sartre and Heidegger. Finally in the fourth part thinkers like Quine and Strawson can be included. This section is to be prepared in 16 days.

Although these thinkers may be appearing in different blocks but actually whole Western Philosophy is like a wire, “If you vibrate one end of wire other end will vibrate”. This is the strategic interlinking of Western Philosophy on which many questions are asked.

An important note for the students,

Along with the topics mentioned directly in your syllabus, you need to be aware about the periphery of the syllabus.

For example-

In unit 1, there are written only two words, ideas and substance from Plato, but actually you have to cover topics like, Plato as a perfect Greek, what are ideas, realism of idea, characteristic of ideas, pyramidal structure of system of ideas, example of cave, Plato’s epistemology as criticism of Sophists, example of vertical line, theory of soul and god, Plato’s criticism by Aristotle and it evaluation.

The important reference books for the section of Western Philosophy are:

  • History of Western Philosophy by Frank Thilly
  • Critical History of Western Philosophy by Y. Masih
  • Contemporary Philosophy by D. M. Dutta
  • The voyage of Discovery by William F. Lawhead
  • Fundamentals of Philosophy by H. Gene Blocker and David Stewart

Similarly, you can plan and prepare other sections of philosophy. For reference and preparation purpose I have enclosed an outline of strategy which would be helpful to you.

For strategic preparation of Indian Philosophy section (in 29 days), divide the 9 schools of Indian Philosophy in two parts – heterodox and orthodox. In heterodox category, Carvaka , Jainism ad Buddhism are included which can be covered in 9 days (5days on Buddhism and 2 each on Carvaka and Jainism). While in orthodox category, 6 schools of Indian Philosophy are included. This can be classified into 3 parallel groups, each consisting of two schools.Samkhya Yoga : 4 days,Nyaya Vaisheshika : 7 days,Mimamsa vedanta including Aurobindo : 9 days.

Reference sources are recommended as:

  • Introduction to Indian Philosophy : Dutta and Chatterjee
  • A critical survey of Indian Philosophy : C. D. Sharma
  • Indian Philosophy by M. Hiriyanna
  • Indian Philosophy (II volumes) : Dr. S. Radhakrishnan
  • Indian Philosophy by P. T. Raju

Paper II

Generally this paper is least focused by the students which is a wrong strategy as this paper also consists of 250 marks.

Socio-Political Philosophy: This section is neither Philosophy nor political science, and is also not in General Studies, although topics look alike. Here your content may be from sociology or political science but the way of presentation should be philosophical that is based on arguments. This is the applied and dynamic part of your syllabus. So along with recommended books it is better to keep yourself in touch with newspaper, magazines and article on certain topics. Prepare it in 15 days.

Recommended readings:

  • Indian Philosophy (II volumes) : Dr. S. Radhakrishnan
  • Indian Philosophy by P. T. Raju

Philosophy of Religion: In this section mostly students are confused and treat this section as simply religion. But in reality, Philosophy and Religion are antonyms because the former is based on logic while later is based on faith. So, Philosophy of Religion becomes a rational enquiry of religious theories. Here aspirants have to do the deep analysis of structure of argument and counter argument as well regarding the metaphysical problems like God, soul, liberation, epistemological problems like religious knowledge and language and applied problems like religion and morality, religion pluralism and absolute truth. Majority treats this as the easiest section, but according to me this is the most difficult section and you would find the trickiest brain teasers from this section. Consider it my very personal advice and don’t take this section lightly.

Recommended Readings:

Introduction to Religious Philosophy : Y. Masih

Philosophy of Religion : John Hick


Study until the things get internalized within you so that subject becomes a part of your life and you start enjoying its company the most.

Plan well, prepare well and do well!

Wishing you luck for your civil services examination!

DR. AMBUJ SRIVASTAVA
(Ph.D. PHILOSOPHY)
MENTOR, VVR IAS