Strategy for Philosophy Optional for UPSC

Philosophy is an optional that is gaining popularity among UPSC aspirants. It has the reputation of having the shortest syllabus out of all the optional subjects offered by the UPSC. Also, candidates from literally any background can opt for it and fare well provided the right effort is put in. Read on to know more about the philosophy optional in the civil services mains exam – strategy for preparation, books to refer, syllabus, toppers and subject performance in the IAS exam.

How many take Philosophy optional?

Philosophy is a popular optional subject and in general, between 800 and 1000 candidates select this subject as their optional. There have been toppers who have had philosophy as their optional, the most famous being Athar Aamir Ul Shafi Khan, who secured the second rank in the 2015 UPSC CSE.

Take a look at the table below, it gives the number of people who opt for philosophy optional and clear it.

Philosophy optional success rate

Year No. of candidates appeared No. of candidates cleared Success rate (%)
2015 847 47 5.5
2014 908 64 7
2013 736 58 7.9
2012 1116 99 8.9
2011 900 74 8.2
2010 1866 80 4.3

Philosophy optional toppers

Name Year Rank
Juhi Jalota 2017 122
Garima Agrawal 2017 241
Hemant K. Singh 2017 359
M U Sri Rama Vinay 2016 410
Athar Aamir Ul Shafi Khan 2015 2
Jatin Lal 2015 42
Kumar Harsh 2015 43
Sudhanshu Dhama 2015 115
Sameer Shaikh 2015 135
Ambarish V L Vemuri 2015 150
Sanskriti Jain 2014 11
Mihir Patel 2014 27
Amrutesh Aurangabadkar 2011 10

Philosophy optional pros and cons

The philosophy optional has many advantages for candidates which explains its popularity. There are also a few pitfalls associated with it. In this section, we list the pros and cons of the philosophy optional. If you are unable to decide about your optional subject, you should analyse these pros and cons and also evaluate your own strengths and weaknesses. After conducting a SWOT analysis, you should come to a decision about your optional.

Philosophy optional pros

  • It has the shortest syllabus out of all the optional syllabi for the IAS mains exam. The syllabus can be easily covered in 2 months. The syllabus is also well-defined and compact.
  • The syllabus for philosophy is almost entirely static. There is no current affairs segment that needs to be updated.
  • Many topics that you read in philosophy would be useful for other subjects like the Ethics and the Essay paper. You can also use some of the concepts in philosophy in the other general studies papers. With philosophy, you will get ample material for topics like democracy, humanism, religion, morality, secularism, women empowerment and the like. The study of philosophy can equip candidates to tackle the unique nature of the Ethics paper (GS – IV). You can develop a critical outlook on life and get more insightful and original points.
  • Philosophy can unleash original thinking in candidates. It can also improve the writing skills of students which will prove fruitful in all papers of the IAS mains. Philosophy is also a very logical subject.
  • Another great advantage of philosophy is that candidates with just about any academic background can opt for this optional. Philosophy is an elementary subject and it does not require any prior knowledge. Some of the concepts are very general in nature.

Philosophy optional cons

  • In order to counter the short length of the syllabus, the UPSC is asking rather indirect and tougher questions in this subject.
  • You need good writing skills to score well in this subject.

Philosophy optional syllabus

Let us take a look at the syllabus for Philosophy for the UPSC mains exam.

There are two optional papers in the UPSC exam pattern. Both the papers are for a total of 250 marks making the total optional marks to 500.

UPSC Philosophy Syllabus PDF:-Download Syllabus PDF

Philosophy optional strategy

Before we discuss the section-wise strategy for philosophy optional, certain things must be kept in mind. It is utmost important to have adequate test practice. This will help you with time management. Apart from that, it will also acclimatise you to the mains exam setting. You will understand how much time you take to choose the answers you would be attempting, and which section you are better at, so on and so forth. So, enrolling in a good test series for optionals would be very effective. You should also practice previous years’ question papers because, in a static subject like philosophy, there is a high probability of getting repeated questions. Finally, revision plays a huge role in your performance. Revise periodically so that you do not forget what you have learnt.

Paper I Strategy

Philosophy paper I can basically be divided into two sections – Indian Philosophy and Western Philosophy.

Indian Philosophy

First, we give you a table containing the marks allocated to the various subtopics in this section from 2013 to 2017.

Topic Marks
2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Aurobindo 10 15 15 20 15
Schools of Vedanta 50 30 30 15 15
Mimamsa 25 25 20 15 20
Yoga 12.5 15 20 0 10
Samkhya 22.5 50 25 10 15
Nyaya Vaisheshika 35 20 30 20 0
Buddhism 0 0 35 25 40
Jainism 10 15 35 45 15
Carvaka 0 10 15 15 0
  • You can refer to ‘A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy’ by CD Sharma for this section. It is a very good book for Indian philosophy and covers everything well enough. You can also use ‘An Introduction to Indian Philosophy’ by Datta and Chatterjee.
  • In addition, you can also refer to former President Dr. S Radhakrishnan’s two volumes on Indian Philosophy. This will give you additional points to impress the examiner with.
  • When you answer questions on Indian philosophy, you should be able to produce correctly the Sanskrit terms in philosophy and use them.
  • You should also try to relate Indian philosophical concepts with western thoughts in your answers. For example, you can relate the concept of Abhava and Bertrand Russell’s negative fact. You can draw parallels between the debate on Abhava between Prabhakara and Kumarila Bhatta and the negative fact debate between Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Example questions:

  1. How do the Madhyamika Buddhists apply the notion of Pratityasamutpada to establish their doctrine of Sunyata? (10 marks, 2018)
  2. What are the arguments of the Buddhists to establish Ksanikavada? Do they necessarily lead to krtanasa and akrtabhyupagama? (15 marks, 2017)

Contemporary Western Philosophy

First, we give you a table containing the marks allocated to the various subtopics in this section from 2013 to 2017.

Topic Marks
2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Quine and Strawson 0 10 15 20 0
Existentialism 12.5 20 0 0 0
Phenomenology 0 10 10 0 15
Later Wittgenstein 10 20 0 10 10
Logical Positivism 10 20 0 10 10
Moore, Russell 12.5 0 0 0 10
Hegel 12.5 0 0 0 10
Kant 22.5 10 20 35 40
Empiricism 0 0 10 0 20
Rationalism 12.5 0 15 15 15
Plato and Aristotle 10 15 10 20 10
  • For this section, you can refer to either ‘A Critical History of Western Philosophy’ by Y Masih or ‘A History of Philosophy’ by Frank Thilly.
  • You can also read ‘Introduction to Western Philosophy’ by Donald Palmer for developing an understanding of the subject and the various philosophers. You can also use the internet for these topics as there is abundant material available in the form of articles and videos which would make this topic easy to understand.
  • This is the most fundamental part of the syllabus, and as such, a deep understanding of the thinkers are required.

Example questions:

  1. Explain the significance of the Kantium dictum, ‘Understanding makes Nature’. How far do you agree that Hegel’s Absolutism is the culmination of the Kantian Dualism? Discuss. Give reasons in support of your answer. (15 marks, 2018)
  2. Elaborate Kant’s theory of space and time. How does this theory enable him to explain how mathematical propositions can be both synthetic and a priori? (20 marks, 2017)

Paper II Strategy

In this paper, there are two sections – Socio-Political Philosophy and Philosophy of Religion.

Socio-Political Philosophy

First, we give you a table containing the marks allocated to the various subtopics in this section from 2013 to 2017.

Topic Marks
2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Caste Discrimination 10 25 35 20 10
Gender Discrimination 50 15 30 10 15
Development and Social Progress 0 15 10 0 15
Crime and Punishment 10 50 0 30 0
Humanism, Secularism 10 50 0 20 30
Political Ideologies 0 35 50 10 30
Forms of Government 50 15 35 10 20
Individual and State 10 20 10 0 10
Sovereignty 0 10 10 20 25
Social and Political Ideals 50 15 25 10 15
  • For this section, you can read ‘Social and Political Philosophy’ by OP Gauba. This is a good book which will help you even in the essay paper.
  • In this section, most of the topics are pretty generic and even overlapping. While answering questions, understand what is precisely asked and then start penning down your answer.
  • A good method to follow while answering would be to start creating your answer based on important terms given in the question and then associating them with relevant philosophers.

Example questions:

  1. Do you subscribe to the political ideology of Anarchists? Justify your answer. (15 marks, 2018)
  2. Does Marxism curb individual freedom in the name of protecting social justice? Discuss. (20 marks, 2017)

Philosophy of Religion

First, we give you a table containing the marks allocated to the various subtopics in this section from 2013 to 2017.

Topic Marks
2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Nature of Religious Language 50 20 15 15 20
Religious Pluralism 0 30 0 10 30
Religion and Morality 50 15 15 0 0
Religion without God 0 0 0 15 0
Religious Experience 10 15 25 0 10
Reason, Revelation and Faith 10 35 35 20 25
Soul 10 35 35 15 45
Problem of Evil 10 20 25 0 35
Proofs for the Existence of God 50 15 45 15 15
Notions of God 10 20 10 20 0
  • For this section, you can refer to ‘Introduction to Religious Philosophy’ by Y Masih or ‘Philosophy of Religion’ by John Hick.

Example questions:

  1. Can you justify religion without God? Support your answer. (10 marks, 2018)
  2. Is God necessary for religion? Justify your answer. (10 marks, 2017)

Framework for writing answers in philosophy optional

In the mains exam, there is a constraint of space and time. You have to present the answer in the best possible manner within a limited window of space and time. So, it helps if you have a structure or framework in mind to write answers. We have given an example framework that you can take as a guide while preparing notes for philosophy optional. Please note, this is a generic framework and you should tweak it as necessary.

  • Start with an introduction to the doctrine asked in the question. Write briefly about what it means.
  • After that, you should discuss each aspect of the theory in detail.
  • Then, you should talk about the interconnection this particular theory or doctrine has with other theories.
  • In this step, write a fair criticism of the theory.
  • Then, you can compare the theory with other theories/philosophers. If possible and applicable, draw a parallel with a western theory also.
  • In conclusion, you should talk about the significance or utility of the theory.

Philosophy optional books

  • A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy by CD Sharma
  • An Introduction to Indian Philosophy by Datta and Chatterjee
  • A Critical History of Western Philosophy by Y Masih
  • A History of Philosophy by Frank Thilly
  • Introduction to Western Philosophy by Donald Palmer
  • Social and Political Philosophy by OP Gauba
  • Introduction to Religious Philosophy by Y Masih
  • Philosophy of Religion by John Hick

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