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"If I were to start again as an undergraduate, I would major in philosophy," said Matthew Goldstein [chancellor of the City University of New York]. "I think that subject is really at the core of just about everything we do. If you study humanities or political systems or sciences in general, philosophy is really the mother ship from which all of these disciplines grow." (New York Times, 4/6/2008)
Why study philosophy?
Most students entering university are unfamiliar with philosophy. Although high school
students are intellectually capable of studying philosophy, they are seldom given
the opportunity. Consequently, the students' impressions about philosophy—impressions
widespread in our society—are often uninformed or misinformed. They may well wonder:
"Why should I study philosophy?"
The short answer is because philosophy is provocative, enlightening, and meaningful: It helps us understand that things are not always what they seem, it helps us learn about ourselves and the world, and it teaches us how to grapple intelligently with fundamental questions, such as:
- "Who am I?"
- "Does God exist?"
- "How should I live?"
- "Should I do what society tells me to do?"
- "Can I be sure of any of my beliefs?
- "Does my life have meaning?
- "Are values just a matter of opinion?"
- "What is the nature of mind, language, and thought?"*
Artist's rendering of Plato's Allegory of the Cave
Much of what is learned in philosophy can be applied in virtually any endeavor. This
is both because philosophy touches on so many subjects and, especially, because many
of its methods are usable in any field.
• General Problem Solving. The study of philosophy enhances, in a way no other activity does, one's problem-solving capacities. It helps one to analyze concepts, definitions, arguments and problems. It contributes to one's capacity to organize ideas and issues, to deal with questions of value, and to extract what is essential from masses of information. It helps one both to distinguish fine differences between views and to discover common ground between opposing positions. And it helps one to synthesize a variety of views or perspectives into a unified whole.
• Communication Skills. Philosophy also contributes uniquely to the development of expressive and communicative powers. It provides some of the basic tools of self-expression—for instance, skills in presenting ideas through well-constructed, systematic arguments—that other fields either do not use, or use less extensively. It helps one to express what is distinctive of one's view; enhances one's ability to explain difficult material; and helps one to eliminate ambiguities and vagueness from one's writing and speech.
• Persuasive Powers. Philosophy provides training in the construction of clear formulations, good arguments, and apt examples. It thereby helps one develop the ability to be convincing. One learns to build and defend one's own views, to appreciate competing positions, and to indicate forcefully why one considers one's own views preferable to alternatives. These capacities can be developed not only through reading and writing in philosophy, but also through the philosophical dialogue, in and outside the classroom, that is so much a part of a thoroughgoing philosophical education.
• Writing Skills. Writing is taught intensively in many philosophy courses, and many regularly assigned philosophical texts are unexcelled as literary essays. Philosophy teaches interpretive writing through its examination of challenging texts, comparative writing through emphasis on fairness to alternative positions, argumentative writing through developing students' ability to establish their own views, and descriptive writing through detailed portrayal of concrete examples: the anchors to which generalizations must be tied. Striker and technique, then, are emphasized in philosophical writing. Originality is also encouraged, and students are generally urged to use their imagination and develop their own ideas.**
The general uses of philosophy just described are obviously of great academic value. It should be clear that the study of philosophy has intrinsic rewards as an unlimited quest for the understanding of important, challenging problems. But philosophy has further uses in deepening an education, both in college and in the many activities, professional and personal, that follow graduation.
• Understanding Other Disciplines. Philosophy is indispensable for this. Many important questions about a discipline, such as the nature of its concepts and its relation to other disciplines, do not belong to that discipline, are not usually pursued in it, and are philosophical in nature. Philosophy of science, for instance, is needed to supplement the understanding of the natural and social sciences which one derives from scientific work itself. Philosophy of literature and philosophy of history are of similar value in understanding the humanities, and philosophy of art is important in understanding the arts. Philosophy is, moreover, essential in assessing the various standards of evidence used by other disciplines. Since all fields of knowledge employ reasoning and must set standards of evidence, logic and epistemology have a general bearing on all these fields.
• Development of Sound Methods of Research and Analysis. Still another value of philosophy in education is its contribution to one's capacity to frame hypotheses, do research, and put problems into manageable form. Philosophical thinking strongly emphasizes clear formulation of ideas and problems, selection of relevant data, and objective methods for assessing ideas and proposals. It also emphasizes development of a sense of the new directions suggested by the hypotheses and questions one encounters in doing research. Philosophers regularly build on both the successes and failures of their predecessors. A person with philosophical training can readily learn to do the same in any field.**
Will philosophy help me get a job?
Philosophy is central to a liberal education. It is also immensely practical. Many employers seek workers with a background in philosophy, providing they also have the requisite technical skills. It is not difficult to see why—philosophy majors do extremely well on a wide variety of measures. For example:
- Philosophy majors had the highest average among all majors on the verbal and Analytic Writing portions of the GRE
- Philosophy majors had the second highest average among all majors on the quantitative portion of the GRE, after economics majors
- Philosophy majors had the highest average LSAT scores of the 12 most popular pre-law majors (tied with economics majors).
- Philosophy majors had the highest medical school acceptance rates (50% compared to 37% for all majors).*
It should also be emphasized here that—as recent studies show—employers want, and reward, many of the capacities which the study of philosophy develops: for instance, the ability to solve problems, to communicate, to organize ideas and issues, to assess pros and cons, and to boil down complex data. These capacities represent transferable skills. They are transferable not only from philosophy to non-philosophy areas, but from one non-philosophical field to another. For that reason, people trained in philosophy are not only prepared to do many kinds of tasks; they can also cope with change, or even move into new careers, more readily than others.**
Some philosophy majors go to graduate school in philosophy. Most, though, pursue careers in other fields: law, medicine, government, computer science, publishing, public administration, etc.—any field which requires clear thinking. More specifically, a major or minor in philosophy would be helpful in any of the following fields:
- BUSINESS: insurance, publishing, advertising, computer programming, consulting, investment banking, marketing, technical writing.
- GOVERNMENT: public administration, diplomacy, human services, intelligence, policy analysis.
- JOURNALISM: editing, free-lance writing, literary and film criticism.
- LAW: legal journalism, criminal justice, law practice, legal aid, legal research, paralegal assistance.
- MEDICINE: consulting, hospital administration, medical practice, nursing.
- THE ARTS AND THE HUMANITIES: private and public administration, theater production, creative writing.
- THE SCIENCES: physics, biology, psychology and the social sciences.
- OTHER: education, administration, computer science, library administration.*
In fact, you might be surprised to learn that the mid-career median salary of philosophy majors ranks 16th out of 50 majors studied by PayScale.com— above such majors as chemistry, marketing, information technology, and business management.*
*[Ideas adapted from a brochure by Daniel Kolak.]
**[Taken from "A Brief Guide for Undergraduates," prepared by the American Philosophical Association's committee on the status and future of the profession. The Principal Author is Robert Audi. 1981.]
To read more from the American Philosophical Association's "Brief Guide for Undergraduates", click here.
Want to know more about what you can do with a philosophy major? Follow this link to find more resources.