A complete strategy to Philosophy for UPSC

Philosophy as an Optional

In UPSC Civil service exam Optional plays an important role in your final selection. However, when you decide to prepare for UPSC CSE the biggest dilemma you will come across is which optional subject to choose from the list of optional subjects given in UPSC CSE notification. To help you overcome this dilemma and to make a rational choice, we have come up with a complete guide to various popular optional.

In this article, we will be talking about Philosophy and will try to analyze the various aspects of Philosophy from UPSC CSE point of view. We will comprehensively cover the headings mentioned below. This will help you decide whether to opt for Philosophy or not and if you decide to choose the subject, how you can approach the subject to prepare well for the exam. 

  • Why is philosophy popular among students?
  • Overlap with General Studies
  • Timeline for preparation of Philosophy optional
  • Subject performance over the years - Success ratio
  • Topic Wise Trend of Philosophy Over the Years
  • Section wise strategy for Philosophy Optional
  • Role of current affairs in Philosophy Optional
  • Answer Writing for Philosophy
  • Challenges of Philosophy optional
  • Syllabus and Booklist for Philosophy 

A complete strategy to philosophy

Why is philosophy popular among students?

  • Short syllabus, the short syllabus of the subject helps in completing the subject in a relatively smaller time period and once understood you can revise the subject matter multiple times.
  • Availability of good coaching centres and study materials in both Hindi as well as English medium.
  • The second paper is relatively open-ended and so there can be various interpretation of the questions and the answer can be written uniquely.
  • It involves topics which can be answered in the exam even with general knowledge/awareness.
  • GS paper IV (Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude) has strong roots in philosophy and once you complete your philosophy optional, 60% - 70% of your GS IV paper is already covered.
  • The subject matter of Philosophy is constant and It need not be updated with any current developments as it is required in other subjects.
  • It has immense applicability in essay paper and every year topics related to philosopher thinkers comes in the mains exam.

Athar Aamir (AIR 2) - Preparation Strategy and Tips for Philosophy Optional

Overlap with General Studies

GS paper IV (Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude) has strong roots in philosophy. A candidate with Philosophy optional has an inherent advantage with the GS Paper IV as the subject matter of GS paper IV is only a subset of Philosophy.

Good score in essay paper is a prerequisite to UPSC Success. A Philosophy optional student has a clear advantage in this paper as there is always one topic in essay paper from Philosophers quote and sometimes there are multiple topics in the same year. For example

  • With greater power comes greater responsibility. -2014
  • Words are sharper than the two-edged sword. -2014
  • Be the change you want to see in others (Gandhi)-2013
  • Lending hands to someone is better than giving a dole.-2015
  • Quick but steady wins the race.-2015
  • Character of an institution is reflected in its leader.-2015

In other general studies paper, though the subject matter of Philosophy does not help directly the analytical abilities developed while reading the subject helps in understanding the demand of the questions particularly the polity and governance in GS II, Indian Society in GS I.

UPSC Mains GS Papers Preparation Strategies 

Timeline for preparation of Philosophy optional

As the syllabus of Philosophy optional is short and constant. The subject can be thoroughly covered in 3 to 4 months even if you study Philosophy 12-15 hours per week. One thing to keep in mind while reading the subject is that you must develop a clear understanding of a thinkers ideas, its impact and fallouts, the interlinkages between the ideas etc. Merely finishing the topic should not be your target.

Topics Time Duration
Western Philosophy 45 - 50
Indian Philosophy 35 - 40
Social-Political Philosophy 20 - 25
Religious Philosophy 15 - 20
IAS Topper - Athar Amir (AIR 2, UPSC 2015) - Philosophy Preparation Strategy -  Learn More!

Subject performance over the years - Success ratio

In the Annual Report 2014-15 of UPSC (available on the Website of UPSC), the Success Rate of Philosophy is mentioned as 7.9 %, which is higher than History (7.7%), Public Administration (6.2%), Political Science & International Relations (6.1 %) and Geography (5.6%).

In the Annual Report 2015-16 of UPSC, the Success Rate of Philosophy is 7.0 %, which is higher than History (6.5 %), Political Science & International Relations (6.3 %) and Public Administration (5.3 %). Thus, the Success Rate of Philosophy is consistently high as compared to other Optional Subjects.

Year 2013 2014 2015 2016
Optional Paper I (Marks) 153 140 134 141
Optional Paper II (Marks) 160 168 124 151
Total Marks 313 308 258 292
All India Rank 45 06 02 94

Topic Wise Trend of Philosophy Over the Years

A complete strategy to philosophy


A complete strategy to philosophy


A complete strategy to philosophy


A complete strategy to philosophy

Philosophy Optional Courses for UPSC

Section wise strategy for Philosophy Optional

Western Philosophy

A complete strategy to Philosophy for UPSC

The syllabus of western philosophy deals with the philosophical thinkers of the west such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant Hegel and the concepts of rationalism, empiricism, Logical positivism etc. The topics are logical and need an in-depth understanding of the views of each thinker, the criticism of their work. The topics can ideally be covered in 45 50 days. This is the most fundamental part of the syllabus so you must read and understand the concepts of one thinker before moving to the other thinkers. Also, try to note important ideas and quotes at a place as you have to verbatim the same in your answer paper.

Indian Philosophy

A complete strategy to philosophy

The syllabus in Indian philosophy talks about the various school of Indian Philosophy such as Carvaka, Jainism, Buddhism, Samkhya, Yoga etc. The topic covered in Indian philosophy is logical in nature and require an understanding of the concept rather than cramming the study material. The syllabus of Indian philosophy is short and can be completed in 40 days. Indian Philosophy can be covered from Introduction of Indian Philosophy: Dutta & Chatterjee, Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy C D Sharma and Contemporary Indian Philosophy B K Lal.

Social-Political Philosophy

A complete strategy to philosophy

Social-Political Philosophy tries to understand the relation of an Individual to the social and political aspect of the society. The syllabus covers the social and political ideals, the concept of sovereignty, forms of government, political ideologies, development and social progress, caste and gender discriminations. The topic can be covered from An Introduction to Political Theory by O P Gauba and Social-Political Philosophy by O P Gauba. The topic can be covered in 20 25 days.

Philosophy of Religion

A complete strategy to philosophy

Philosophy of religion is the analysis of the central themes and concepts involved in religious traditions. The UPSC syllabus covers various aspect of religion such as the philosophical concepts in Eastern and Western part of the world related to God, soul, Religious symbols, Morality, religious symbol and languages. It involves all the main areas of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics and value theory. The topic can be covered from Introduction to Religion Philosophy: Y Masih and Philosophy of Religion: John H. Hick. Philosophy of religion is a small part of the syllabus and can be finished in 15-20 days. Understanding of the concepts in Paper I is essential to master this part of the syllabus, so you must have finished Paper I before reading this section. 

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Role of current affairs in Philosophy Optional

The syllabus of Philosophy is mostly static in nature and can be covered by standard books and study material. However, the social and political part of the syllabus has topics of contemporary relevance. The questions involving democracy, sovereignty, gender and caste discrimination can always be supported by current events to add to the quality of your answer. In this context, you can make a note of important social and political issues undergoing in the country. The best resource for this is The Hindu and the Internet.

Answer Writing for Philosophy

  • Answer writing in philosophy requires good introduction and conclusion. Another aspect is the comparative analysis of one thinker with another.
  • Read from the same sources a number of times, rather than go for new books. It takes 5-6 readings to understand one topic in Philosophy. Go for depth, not for breadth.
  • Prepare your own notes from the mentioned sources, for each topic. So, from the exam point of view, Make 40 sets for the 40 chapters (Thinker) of Paper 1 + Paper 2.
  • Every chapter has many layers and needs many revisions and subsequent readings. Ultimately, before the exam, only read your notes. This will improve your confidence manifold.

Though the optional has defined and short syllabus, but it is stuffed with technical terms, and it requires an in-depth understanding, as well as ability to connect one concept with another.

For this reason, multiple revisions (10-20) is required and in each revision, you should try to see how concepts link with other concepts. This is especially relevant for Paper 2.

Cramming content is only the first step. Making mind maps for how one concept relates to others is crucial for writing good answers.

Important Points for Paper 1

  • Read the question, understand the demand of the question, and answer accordingly. Philosophy is all about articulating effectively.
  • Remember the Sanskrit/Pail terms in Indian Philosophy and use them.
  • Link Indian Philosophy with western concepts wherever possible.
  • DO NOT try to remember the whole idea of a Philosopher. Try to remember only the core argument of each philosopher and write about each aspect in 1-2 lines. You will be able to reconstruct the whole answer in the exam

Important Points for Paper 2

Most Important points (especially for Paper 2) is the Understanding meaning of keywords and framing your answers accordingly.

As we see the question, the first instinct is to list down the arguments and explain them. Then perhaps a few criticisms, and then we move on to the next question.

Read the question, based on what is asked, the content has to be delivered. Then, focus on the keywords, elaborate upon them with the help of thinkers, then, connect all the keywords together, and finally, draw a conclusion.

Challenges of Philosophy optional

  • Increasing competition. Since more students are opting for the subject these days, you need to present innovative and genuine answers in the paper to outshine others.
  • Paper 2 scores have been really dismal in the recent years. The checking has become really tough.
  • Since the syllabus itself is short, UPSC is coming up with peculiar and tough questions to test the candidates.

Syllabus and Booklist for Philosophy

Philosophy Syllabus Refrence Books
Western PhilosophyPlato and Aristotle: Ideas; Substance; Form and Matter; Causation; Actuality and Potentiality.Rationalism (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz): Cartesian Method and Certain Knowledge; Substance; God; Mind-Body Dualism; Determinism and Freedom.Empiricism (Locke, Berkeley, Hume): Theory of Knowledge; Substance and Qualities; Self and God; Scepticism.Kant: Possibility of Synthetic a priori Judgments; Space and Time; Categories; Ideas of Reason; Antinomies; Critique of Proofs for the Existence of GodHegel: Dialectical Method; Absolute IdealismMoore, Russell and Early Wittgenstein: Defence of Commonsense; Refutation of Idealism; Logical Atomism; Logical Constructions; Incomplete Symbols; Picture Theory of Meaning; Saying and Showing.Logical Positivism: Verification Theory of Meaning; Rejection of Metaphysics; Linguistic Theory of Necessary Propositions.Later Wittgenstein: Meaning and Use; Language- games; Critique of Private Language.Phenomenology (Husserl): Method; Theory of Essences; Avoidance of Psychologism. Existentialism (Kierkegaard, Sartre, Heidegger): Existence and Essence; Choice, Responsibility and Authentic Existence; Being-in-the world and Temporality.Quine and Strawson: Critique of Empiricism; Theory of Basic Particulars and Persons. Western Philosophy: A history of Philosophy: Frank ThillyCritical History Of Western Philosophy by Y. MasihA Hundred Years of Philosophy - John Passmore
Indian PhilosophyCarvaka : Theory of Knowledge; Rejection of Transcendent Entities.Jainism: Theory of Reality; Saptabhao ginaya; Bondage and Liberation.Schools of Buddhism: Prati tyasamutpada; Ksanikavada, NairatmyavadaNyaya- Vaiu esika: Theory of Categories; Theory of Appearance; Theory of Pramana; Self, Liberation; God; Proofs for the Existence of God; Theory of Causation; Atomistic Theory of Creation.Samkhya: Prakrti; Purusa; Causation; LiberationYoga: Citta; Cittavrtti; Klesas; Samadhi; Kaivalya.Mimamsa: Theory of KnowledgeSchools of Vedanta: Brahman; I u vara; Atman; Jiva; Jagat; Maya; Avidya; Adhyasa; Moksa; Aprthaksiddhi; PancavidhabhedaAurobindo: Evolution, Involution; Integral Yoga. Introduction of Indian Philosophy: Dutta & ChaterjeeCritical Survey of Indian Philosophy C D SharmaContemporary Indian Philosophy B K Lal
Socio-Political Philosophy:Social and Political Ideals: Equality, Justice, Liberty.Sovereignty: Austin, Bodin, Laski, Kautilya.Individual and State: Rights; Duties and AccountabilityForms of Government: Monarchy; Theocracy and Democracy.Political Ideologies: Anarchism; Marxism and SocialismHumanism; Secularism; Multiculturalism.Crime and Punishment: Corruption, Mass Violence, Genocide, Capital Punishment.Development and Social Progress.Gender Discrimination: Female Foeticide, Land and Property Rights; Empowernment.Caste Discrimination: Gandhi and Ambedkar Philosophy of Religion: Religion Philosophy: Y MasihPhilosophy of Religion : John H. Hick
Philosophy of Religion:Notions of God: Attributes; Relation to Man and the World. (Indian and Western).Proofs for the Existence of God and their Critique (Indian and Western).Problem of Evil.Soul: Immortality; Rebirth and Liberation.Reason, Revelation and Faith.Religious Experience: Nature and Object (Indian and Western).Religion without God.Religion and Morality.Religious Pluralism and the Problem of Absolute Truth.Nature of Religious Language: Analogical and Symbolic; Cognitivist and Noncognitive. An Introduction To Political Theory - O P GaubaSocial Political Philosophy: Political Theory: O P Gauba

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