How To Fail Philosophy Exams

How To Fail Philosophy Exams


Bob Hargrave was, I am told, a much-loved lecturer in philosophy at Oxford University (he died in 2012). Among his pedagogical contributions is a document he prepared called “Rodin’s Thinker, or How To Fail Philosophy Exams.” It was written for Oxford students, but much of it is applicable to philosophy exams (and some writing assignments) given anywhere.

One great part is a section in which the exam grader, Jeopardy-style, tries to guess the question the student actually answered in his or her exam. For example:

  • Write down all you can remember about Locke on Personal Identity, in no particular order. Abandon any attempt at accuracy or rigour. Above all, do not draw any conclusions.
  • Think up a really stupid view on Personal Identity, which no philosopher has ever held, and blame it on Hume. Remember to end your essay in the middle of a sentence.
  • Compose a brief piece on Personal Identity parodying the style of Readers’ Digest, and beginning with the phrase “Ever since the dawn of time…”.
  • Confuse Hume with Berkeley. If you have never heard of Berkeley, just confuse Hume.

I encourage readers to provide their own examples of this in the comments.

Apart from the humor, there really is some good advice about how a student should prepare and practice for an exam, what to concentrate on, how to structure one’s answers, when to mention Hitler, and so on. Another choice excerpt:

All candidates would have done better if they had concentrated on clearly explaining simple points which they did understand, and which were under their command, rather than gesturing vaguely at more complex or sophisticated considerations which they did not understand, and which were not under their command.

I learned of this via William MacAskill, who has put a version of it here. There is also a version here. MacAskill tells me that these versions are incomplete. If anyone out there has an unabridged version, please send it in. And if you have other advice about how to fail (or not) philosophy exams, feel free to share it.

(Photo of Bob Hargrave by Dominic Minghella)

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