Márton Vida, a Senior student of Milestone Institute received an “Honorable Mention” as one of the two representatives of Hungary at the International Philosophy Olympiad (IPO). I had the opportunity to talk to him, and his teacher, László Kőszeghy.
How did the preparation for the IPO go at Milestone?
László Kőszeghy: We had Philosophy Olympiad Learning Labs running in two consecutive trimesters, with the primary purpose of preparing for the competition. Around 6-8 students were participating in each course, which made interactive teaching possible. I was delighted to see that the second Learning Lab in spring could start as a result of students being enthusiastic about continuing their work. An amazing team was formed.
What does an international philosophy competition consist of?
L.K.: The IPO is essentially a critical thinking competition. The competitors are given four interesting and provocative quotes to choose from, on which they are required to write an argumentative essay in four hours. It does not matter whether they agree with the author of the quote, and nor is it a requirement that they can cite figures in the history of philosophy. What is relevant, is that the student can grasp the philosophical issue underlying the quote, what is at stake in the question, and to eventually present their opinion through coherent and persuasive arguments.
What are the effective methods of preparing for this competition?
L.K.: Even if we were preparing for a given competition, it did not require us to write actual sample tests, for the IPO only measures the ability to think clearly and analytically. Therefore, the preparation was the improvement of fundamental thinking and writing skills, due to which I believe none of our time was wasted.
Through examining some important essays of the history of philosophy, we could hold discussions on a wide range of philosophical topics, on which students were also required to form their own opinions via written papers. While they were producing their essays, I was constantly giving them detailed feedback through personal tutoring classes, based on which they ultimately had to rewrite their works. Besides, they were also required to share their essays with each other, so that to provide comments and discuss the essays of their fellow students.
How can students profit from this preparation for the long term?
L.K.: These tasks improve skills – critical thinking, logic, reasoning methods, editorial sense, etc. – which students can well utilise during their further studies, in any academic field, or in a broader sense, even while writing an important email.
How did the competition go amid the current pandemic?
Márton Vida: From each country, two students can qualify for the IPO. Usually, there are thirty-forty participating countries each year, however, due to the current pandemic, this year’s IPO took place in a unique way. Originally, the 2020 competition would have been organised by Portugal, but they cancelled the event as a result of the travel restrictions. Fortunately, a few weeks before the event the Slovenians announced that they are willing to save the IPO by organising it online, and as a result, Hungary could also register its two OKTV (National Competition for Secondary School Students) winners – in absence of the usual qualifiers. I only received the news of taking part in the IPO a week before the event, and therefore I was delighted that I could still receive an “Honorable Mention”. It would be amazing if I could qualify for next year’s IPO as well, so that by more preparation I could aim for getting a medal.
What kind of quote did you choose for your essay?
M.V.: This year’s quotes were mainly excerpts from the works of contemporary philosophers, which – based on my understanding – have more than one possible interpretations. Therefore, while writing the essay I also had to pay attention not only to interpreting the quote, but also of justifying my interpretation. This competition is especially hard, because students have to understand the quote, put it into context, identify the main questions raised and ultimately provide well-supported answers. My chosen quote was about the fragility of socially constructed truths. I have examined the topic by holding its main consequential issue to be moral relativism: to what extent can we hold our normative values to be relative? If we accept that morality is relative, the legitimacy of ethics can be questioned.
Based on your experience, what is the best strategy to write the essay?
M.V.: Having read some winning essays, I think one has to closely think through the questions raised by the quote and attempt to provide answers to them. I have also used this strategy. Besides, I also hold it to be important that one chooses a topic, the weight of which she understands, as such can be felt while reading the essays.
Did you find your chosen topic important?
M.V.: Yes, the nature of morality, metaethics is my main interest within philosophy, as I believe that debates on the nature of morality are of greater relevance in our current time, than debates on given moral dilemmas within a single ethical system.
Do you study philosophy in your secondary school?
M.V.: Sadly, there are no compulsory philosophy classes in Hungary, and therefore I could only study philosophy via a study group, where one of my teachers also helped me prepare (István Lakatos, Eötvös József High School, Budapest-Ed-). Teaching philosophy is not taken seriously in our secondary education, and that is why it is amazing to see that there were certain Hungarian students even winning gold medals at the IPO, during the past couple of years.
Besides, you have also prepared at Milestone…
M.V.: In Milestone, I took part in the Learning Lab of László Kőszeghy. All in all, this was the most useful as the emphasis was not on learning about famous philosophers, but rather on improving our analytical thinking skills. Laci worked a lot on our preparation by reading and analysing every single bit of our essays. He helped me to realise whether my logical inferences are correct and showed me how to structure my essays. I received a lot of attention from him. When I notified him a week before the competition that I got into the IPO, he immediately offered a video call to talk through all my previous essays to help me bear in mind the things I should pay special attention to.
Besides, my former mentor, György Greskovits, and my current one, Márton Varjú also helped me a lot, as I have written and discussed several argumentative essays with them as well. I think these were the factors which led me towards writing at the IPO with confidence.
Which philosophers had the greatest impact on you?
M.V.: Those on whom I have mainly built during my current essay, were legal philosopher John Gardner and Gilbert Harman. I mainly read legal philosophy, I have also defended some methods of legal philosophers in my essay. This may be interesting, because usually, legal philosophy is not familiar to those who merely have an interest in philosophy.
Among else, I like that philosophy doesn’t use axioms. It is only analytic thinking that matters. Even when you accept something as an axiom, you still have to argue for your reason for doing so. This is why what I write or think may have just as much relevance as that of a world-famous philosopher. In other fields of sciences, this would hardly be the case.
What would you like to study in the future?
M.V.: I want to become a lawyer, in which philosophy helped me a lot as English law schools hold analytical thinking to be especially important. It was philosophy which helped me acquire this skill. While preparing for the Cambridge Law Test with my mentor, I also have to write short argumentative essays, during which I feel that my ability to argue logically and coherently can be thanked to the skills I have gained by learning philosophy.
On the day of publishing this interview, we received the news that one of Marci’s other essays, written for the “Robert Walker Law Essay Prize” of Trinity College, Cambridge, was classified as “Highly Commended”. He has written his essay under the supervision of his mentor, Márton Varjú. We hereby congratulate him! (ed.)
You can read the winner essays here: IPO essay ,