by Vajiram & Ravi

Philosophy literally means "the love of wisdom" [philo (love) and sophia (wisdom)]. The optimum audience for philosophy optional subject is aspirants with a curiosity for knowledge and the world. Since all other disciplines have their roots in philosophy, this field has been given the moniker "the parent of all disciplines."

The UPSC Philosophy syllabus is nearly one-third the size of the syllabi for the other optional subjects. Furthermore, the syllabus is not only succinct and clearly laid out, but the concepts of Paper I and Paper II are put together in such a way as to form a continuum. In parallel with a comprehensive study of Paper I, Paper II receives an integrated coverage. Consequently, the full curriculum can be covered in a short amount of time.

The benefits of studying philosophy extend beyond the 500 marks allotted for it; instead, they might be realised in the General Studies Paper IV: Ethics, Integrity & Aptitude, and especially the Essay Paper, as it has recently begun to see a trend on reflective and philosophical issues. When tackling the difficulties of an Ethics Paper, Philosophy can help one develop a critical outlook on life and help them become more perceptive, independent, and creative.

The main themes of Paper II of Philosophy are generally the same as those of the Essay Paper, which include issues of democracy, justice, the environment, corruption, gender, religion, caste, etc. Philosophy Optional can assist an aspirant in acquiring the proper perspective on life, which will help them respond to interview questions more perceptively and intelligently. As a result, philosophy has the power to transform an aspirant into a competent administrator.

Is Philosophy a good Optional Subject for UPSC?

The freedom to choose an optional subject can significantly impact the course of the preparation as well as the final selection. Hence, one must not decide Optional through the bandwagon effect; rather, make an informed choice and choose the Optional Subject sagaciously. Thus, the aspirant should act as an autonomous agent and select the Optional Subject, not through imitation but through introspection. In this regard, Philosophy needs a special mention since Philosophy can pave the path towards success in more ways than one.

Advantages of taking UPSC Philosophy Optional

The syllabus of Philosophy Optional is the shortest of all. Moreover, the syllabus is very precise, and it does not require constant updation. Hence, Philosophy can be prepared comprehensively in a very short time span without much ado.

  • To opt for Philosophy Optional, one does not require any prior background in the subject. Philosophy has the epithet of being the parent of every discipline since every other academic subject has originated from it.
  • The prevalent misconception is that only students with good writing abilities can do well in Philosophy. But the truth is that Philosophy can bring about a remarkable improvement in the thinking and writing of the students. Philosophy can inculcate a critical outlook and can enable one to become more insightful, self-reliant and original. Thus, ‘Good-writing’ is not a prerequisite to studying Philosophy; in fact ‘Good-writing’ is an outcome of studying Philosophy.
  • The dividends of studying Philosophy go beyond the confines of the designated 500 Marks of the Optional Subject, in fact, one can reap the benefits in the CSAT, General Studies Papers (Prelims and Mains), especially Ethics, Essay, as well as the Personality Test.
  • Ethics is one of the principal branches of Philosophy. Accordingly, as a student of Philosophy, one would be better endowed to deal with the challenges of Ethics paper.
  • Invariably, the questions of the Essay hover around Philosophical themes, such as issues of Being, Democracy, Justice, Environment, Corruption, Gender, Religion, Caste, etc., and all of these are also the principal themes of Philosophy.
  • Philosophy, Darshan-shastra, can impart the right orientation towards life and, thereby, can enable an aspirant to answer questions of the Interview more intelligently and with profound insights.
  • The Success Rate of Philosophy Optional is consistently very high as compared to other Optional Subjects.

Philosophy: A Panoramic Introduction

Plato states that ‘Philosophy begins in wonder’, that is, a philosophical person is curious, inquisitive and has an ignited mind. One asks pertinent questions about the various aspects of life and seeks answers with reason, logic and scientific temper. Hence, Philosophical enquiry is, also, termed as Jigyasa and Aanvikshiki. For systematic and rigorous enquiry, the questions have been classified under various branches of Philosophy. Some of the principal branches are Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, Logic, Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Religion and Social & Political Philosophy.

Some of the principal questions of Philosophy that are being examined in the various branches of Philosophy are as follows:

  • What is the ultimate Entity/Substance out of which this world is created?
  • What is it to be Real? What is Truthful Existence?
  • Who am I? A Physical Being? A Spiritual Being? A unity of both Physical and spiritual Beings?
  • What is Knowledge? What is the source of knowledge- sense experience or reason or both?
  • What is it to be a Good Human Being? What is the purpose of Life? How ought I to live?
  • What is Justice, Equality and liberty? What is Monarchy, Theocracy & Democracy?
  • What is Sovereignty? What relation holds between Individual & State?
  • What is Anarchism, Marxism & Socialism? What is Humanism, Secularism & Multiculturalism?
  • What is Corruption? Why shall there be Punishment? Is Capital Punishment just?
  • What is Development? What is Gender Discrimination? What is Caste Discrimination?
  • Can we prove the existence of God? What is Religion? Can there be Religion without God?

All these & many more questions are discussed and debated by the most erudite thinkers and in the ancient traditions of India & the world. The pearls of wisdom that they will share with us will empower us to pursue knowledge in the best possible manner as self-reliant aspirants and thereby create a life of Meaning, Substance and contentment for Humanity (Vasudhaiva kutumbakam).

Is Philosophy Optional Subject related to Psychology?

As Optional Subjects, Philosophy and Psychology are independent and exclusive of each other. But they do have someparallels, inter-connections, a few common thinkers, thematic continuity and points of convergence. Philosophy has the epithet of being the mother of all subjects, it is the fountainhead of all academic enquiries. Accordingly, Psychology as a subject also has its roots in Philosophy.

However, while Psychology is a positive and descriptive science, Philosophy is not merely a descriptive science, Philosophy is a normative science as well. Thus, Psychology is a science of the actual, while Philosophy is a science of the ideal. Psychology, as a positive science, studies all mental processes for the sake of theoretical knowledge. But Philosophy, as a normative science, strives to explain the facts of life by reference to the ideal in accordance with which we ought to live. Psychology examines mental facts without being evaluative. Thus, Psychology is the science of the Is. But Philosophy is also the science of the Ought.

Psychology coincides with the Philosophy of Mind. Accordingly, the roots of Psychology can be traced to the writings of Pre-eminent Philosophers, like Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hobbes, Hume and Kant. Aristotle’s text De Anima can be regarded as the first formal treatise on Psychology. Gradually, Psychology emerged as a self-standing separate discipline. The year 1879 is regarded as the era when Psychology emancipated from Philosophy, Wilhelm Wundt establishes the first Psychological Laboratory at the University of Leipzig. Wundt is regarded as the founder of Experimental Psychology. Psychology relies on empirical investigation. Early psychologists wear their philosophical commitments on their sleeves. Nowadays psychologists are less aware of their philosophical roots and are not willing to acknowledge their philosophical inspirations. Psychologists often look over their shoulders at Philosophers and Philosophers often offer advice to Psychologists.

‘Psychology’ comes from the ancient Greek psyche, meaning ‘soul’ or ‘mind’, and logia, a ‘study’ or ‘account’. Thus, Psychology is the science of mind, behaviour and cognitive processes. Philosophy is concerned with thoughts and ideas, Psychology studies how we come to have them and what they tell us about the workings of our minds. All the sciences have evolved from Philosophy. Thus, while Psychology has been established as a scientific discipline in its own right in the late 19th century,Philosophy has been an integral part of human life from time immemorial. Philosophy is a way of thinking and thinking is human’s natural endowment. So, philosophy is as ancient as the human mind.

In some universities of the USA, Psychology departments started out as branches of the Philosophy departments. In some of the Universities of India, The Department of Psychology was separated from The Department of Philosophy in the 1960s.

Is Philosophy a scoring subject in UPSC?

As an Optional Subject, Philosophy is very scoring. Every now and then, students have secured the highest ranks with Philosophy as an optional. As a matter of fact, Philosophy has remained one of the highest-scoring subjects from the very beginning. Moreover, the nature of the subject is such that it, also, enables the students to score in the highest brackets in Ethics, Essay and Personality Test.

First of all, the students should understand that the primary prerequisite to score high in the optional subject, is to develop an in-depth understanding, with complete consolidation, of the topics that are prescribed by the syllabus. And to accomplish this feat, one needs to invest substantial time. But TIME is a resource in scarce, especially for a civil services aspirant. However,the prescribed syllabus of Philosophy Optional is the shortest, on the one hand, in comparison with all other optional subjects and, on the other, the nature of the subject matter is static, it does not require constant updating. Hence, students can easily cover the entire syllabus of Philosophy Optional holistically and with precision in the shortest time span, and once it is prepared, it is prepared forever.

After the acquisition of right-knowledge, the aspirant has to cultivate the art of execution, whereby one is able to answer the specific intent of the question, and not answer the question superficially. Thus, the high scoring answer is not dependent on the choice of optional subject, but whether the candidate has critical thinking, art of assimilation, balance of judgment, logical consistency and intellectual integrity.

As a student of Philosophy, one can cultivate the fore-mentioned qualities in the best possible manner since philosophy is thinking about thinking. Philosophy fosters the art of reflection, contemplation and introspection.Philosophy will empower the students to compose more profound essays on topics like:

  1. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world (2022)
  2. History is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man. (2022)
  3. A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ship is for. (2022)
  4. The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining. (2022)
  5. You cannot step twice in the same river. (2022)
  6. A smile is the chosen vehicle for all ambiguities. (2022)
  7. Just because you have a choice, it does not mean that any of them has to be right. (2022)
  8. Philosophy of wantlessness is Utopian, while materialism is a chimera. (2021)
  9. The real is rational and the rational is real. (2021)
  10.  Hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. (2021)

Again, Philosophy will empower the students to compose more insightful answers of the following questions from the Ethics Paper:

2013: Q1: What do you understand by ‘Values’ & ‘Ethics’? In what way is it important to be ethical along with being professionally competent?

2013: Q3: Some people feel that values keep changing with time and situation, while others strongly believe that there are certain universal & eternal human values. Give your perception in this regard with due justification.

2013: Q6: Bring out what this quotation means to you in the present context:

(a): “There is enough on this earth for every one’s need but for no one’s greed.” – Gandhi

2013: Q8: It is often said that ‘politics’ and ‘ethics’ do not go together. What is your opinion in this regard? Justify your answer with illustrations.

2019: Q 6: Bring out what this quotation means to you in the present context:

(b): “A man is but a product of his thoughts. What he thinks he becomes.” -M.K. Gandhi

2020: Q 6: Bring out what this quotation means to you in the present context:

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” – Mahatma Gandhi

2015: Q2: Bring out what this quotation means to you in the present context:

(a) “The weak can never forgive, forgiveness is the attribute of the strong”.

(b) “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark, the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light”.

2017: Q7 (a): The crisis of ethical values in modern times is traced to a narrow perception of the good life. Discuss.

2019: Q 6: Bring out what this quotation means to you in the present context: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates (150 words).

Hence, Philosophy can bring about a remarkable improvement in the thinking, writing and speaking of the students. Accordingly, one can end up scoring high marks in all the other Mains-Papers, including the Personality Test.

Most importantly, Philosophy not only enables the aspirant to clear the exam by scoring high marks, but at the same time, it can metamorphose an aspirant into an able Civil Servant. It can inspire an aspirant to uphold integrity & probity in all the spheres of life. Accordingly, the significance of studying Philosophy is not only confined to the exams, rather, it goes beyond the selection. Civil Services can not merely be regarded as a profession. Primarily, it shall be pursued as a way of life. A Civil Servant shall consistently strive to create a life of well-being for ‘We the People.’ The Constitution of India is, essentially, a Philosophical Text, Dharma-shastra. As a student of Philosophy, one becomes a student of Life. Hence, one would earnestly strive to understand the true import of the Constitution and uphold the ideal ‘Seva Paramo Dharmah’ in the best possible manner.

Preparation Strategy for UPSC Philosophy Optional

The strategy for UPSC Philosophy Optional can be devised in accordance with:

  1. The student who joins the Philosophy Optional Course at the Institute.
  2. The student who opts for self-preparation.

The student who joins the Philosophy Optional Course at the Institute:

  • The Philosophy-Optional Course is designed as a One Stop Solution. The student does not have to read any book, either before the course or after the course. The Institute provides the complete Study material in the form of class notes as well as printed material.
  • The length of the entire Philosophy Course is of 85- 90 days. Apart from earnestly attending the Class Room discourse, a student is not required to invest substantial time at home. Thus, the Course allows the students to invest sufficient time on the Compulsory Papers on a regular basis. Thus, a student with Philosophy as the Optional-subject has higher chances of success at both the stages- Prelims & Mains.
  • The Course introduces the subject to the students in the most elementary manner, so that whether a student has a formal background in Philosophy or not, one understands the subject with complete clarity and conviction. The student is advised to participate sincerely & actively in the class-room deliverances, and to clarify doubts, if there are any, without inhibitions. 
  • Through various Pedagogical Exercises & Thought Experiments,all the dimensions, issues & nuances of each and every concept, are properly introduced & explained to the students so that they understand the topic comprehensively and meaningfully. The students are supposed to listen actively and take down notes carefully.
  • The students are trained to create Synoptic-notes, whereby they reduce all aspects of a topic on a single sheet of paper. The Synoptic-notes enable the students to visit & revisit the entire topic, very efficiently, in a cyclical manner within a few minutes and thereby further consolidate their understanding.
  • After the completion of every topic, all the questions from Previous Years’ Mains Examinations are discussed. And the students are trained to answer all the questions on their own by referring to their Synoptic-notes.
  • The Course enables the students to cultivate critical thinking, scientific temper, analytical skills, art of assimilation and Dialectical Method of Reasoning. Such academic virtues not only help them score high marks in Philosophy but, at the same time, impart intellectual credentials to their writings in other papers and sharpen their oratory skills. Thus, students should attempt to extend the acquired philosophical skills and insights to the writings of Essay and Ethics questions. For instance:
    • Through regular home-work and class-work, including impromptu writing sessions and planned tests, the Course inculcates a sense of self-reliance in the students. They are nurtured to compose answers coherently and to formulate progressive responses to issues of contemporary relevance.
    • After the completion of the Course, the students can write answers of the Previous Years’ Exams, by investing about one hour on a daily basis. And through this piece-meal intervention, the students can maintain parity between the preparation of the optional-subject and the General Studies Papers.

The student who opts for self-preparation:

Books to Prepare UPSC Philosophy Optional

A student who wants to prepare Philosophy through self-study, is advised to refer to the following Recommended Books:

Paper I

  1. W. T. Stace: A Critical History of Greek Philosophy (Plato and Aristotle).
  2. Copleston: A History of Philosophy (Relevant Chapters from volume I, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX & XI).
  3. Anthony Kenny: A New History of Western Philosophy. OUP Oxford.
  4. Datta & Chatterjee: An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. Rupa Publishing.
  5. C. D. Sharma: A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy. MLBD.
  6. Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.
  7. Bertrand Russell: A History Of Western Philosophy

Paper II

  1. John Hick: Philosophy of Religion.
  2. Michael B. Wilkinson: Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction.
  3. O. P. Gauba: Social & Political Philosophy.
  4. Political Theory, An Introduction. Edited By Rajeev Bhargava & Ashok Acharya.
  5. Oxford Dictionary of Politics.
  • Students can also refer to online journals and encyclopaedias, since some of the topics may not be covered adequately from a few books.
  • A student who opts for self-study, may have to invest a substantial amount of time to prepare the syllabus holistically, and this may not always allow the students to maintain parity between the optional-subject and the General Studies.

Syllabus of UPSC Philosophy Optional


  • Plato 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 God.
  • Hegel: Dialectical Method; Absolute Idealism.
  • Moore, Russell and Early Wittgenstein: Defence of Commonsense; Refutation of Idealism; Logical Atomism; Logical Constructions; Incomplete Symbols; Picture Theory of Meaning; Saying and Showing.
  • Later Wittgenstein: Meaning and Use; Language-games; Critique of Private Language.
  • Logical Positivism: Verification Theory of Meaning; Rejection of Metaphysics; Linguistic Theory of Necessary Propositions.
  • Quine: Critique of Empiricism.
  • 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.
  • Strawson: Theory of Basic Particulars and Persons.
  • Cārvāka: Theory of Knowledge; Rejection of Transcendent Entities.
  • Jainism: Theory of Reality, Saptabhanginaya; Bondage and Liberation.
  • Schools of Buddhism: Pratityasamutpāda; Kṣanikvāda; Nairātmyavāda.
  • Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika: Theory of Categories; Theory of Appearance; Theory of Pramāna; Self; Liberation; God; Proofs for the Existence of God; Theory of Causation; Atomistic Theory of Creation.
  • Sāṁkhya: Prakṛti; Puruṣa; Causation; Liberation
  • Yoga: Cittavṛtti; Kleśas; Samādhi; Kaivalya
  • Mimāṁsā: Theory of Knowledge
  • Schools of Vedānta: Brahman; Iśvara; Ātman; Jiva; Jagat; Māyā; Avidyā; Adhyāsa; Mokṣa; Apṛthaksiddhi; Pancavidhabheda
  • Aurobindo: Evolution, Involution; Integral Yoga


Socio-Political Philosophy

  1. Social and Political Ideals: Equality, Justice, Liberty.
  2. Sovereignty: Austin, Bodin, Laski, Kautilya.
  3. Individual and State: Rights; Duties and Accountability.
  4. Forms of Government: Monarchy; Theocracy and Democracy.
  5. Political Ideologies: Anarchism; Marxism and Socialism.
  6. Humanism; Secularism; Multiculturalism.
  7. Crime and Punishment: Corruption, Mass Violence, Genocide, Capital Punishment.
  8. Development and Social Progress.
  9. Gender Discrimination: Female Foeticide, Land and Property Rights; Empowerment.
  10. Caste Discrimination: Gandhi and Ambedkar.

Philosophy of Religion

  1. Notions of God: Attributes; Relations to Man and the World (Indian and Western).
  2. Proofs for the Existence of God and their Critique (Indian and Western)
  3. Problem of Evil.
  4. Soul: Immortality; Rebirth and Liberation.
  5. Reason, Revelation and Faith
  6. Religious Experience: Nature and Object (Indian and Western).
  7. Religion without God.
  8. Religion and Morality.
  9. Religious Pluralism and the Problem of Absolute Truth.
  10. Nature of Religious Language: Analogical and Symbolic; Cognitivist and Non-cognitive.


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