Why 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?
- How should I live?
- Should I do what society tells me to do?
- What is truth?
- Does my life have meaning?
- What is the nature of mind, language, and thought?
The long-range value of philosophical study goes far beyond its contribution to one's livelihood. Philosophy broadens the range of things one can understand and enjoy. It can give self-knowledge, foresight, and a sense of direction in life. It can provide special pleasures of insight to reading and conversation. It can lead to self-discovery, expansion of consciousness, and self-renewal. Through all of this, and through its contribution to one's expressive powers, it nurtures individuality and self-esteem. Its value for private life can be incalculable; its benefits for public life as a citizen can be immeasurable.
General Uses of Philosophy
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 because so 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.
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.
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.
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.
Philosophy Makes an Excellent Second Major
Philosophy can yield immediate benefits for students planning postgraduate work. Philosophy students regularly outperform students from other disciplines on graduate school entrance exams, such as the LSAT and GRE. As law, medical, business, and other professional school faculty and admissions personnel have often said, philosophy is excellent preparation for the training and later careers of the professionals in question. In preparing to enter fields which have special requirements for postgraduate study, such as computer science, management, medicine, or public administration, choosing philosophy as a second major (or minor) alongside the specialized degree can be very useful.
A third of the students currently majoring in Philosophy at ETSU are double-majors. Some popular majors recently paired with Philosophy include Psychology, History, Theater, Political Science, Microbiology, and Economics. Talk to an advisor about potential pathways to a double-major.
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 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.
[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.]
Will philosophy help me get a job?
Philosophy is immensely practical.
Employers want—and reward—many of the capacities that 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 this reason, people trained in philosophy are not only prepared to do many kinds of tasks; they are particularly well prepared to cope with change in their chosen career field, or even move into new careers.
As all this suggests, there are people trained in philosophy in just about every field. They have gone into such professions as teaching (at all levels), medicine, law, computer science, management, publishing, sales, criminal justice, public relations, and many other fields.
Philosophy and Law
Law schools will tell you that a major in philosophy provides excellent preparation for law school and a career in law. Philosophy excels as a pre-law major because it teaches you the very proficiencies that law schools require: developing and evaluating arguments, writing carefully and clearly, applying principles and rules to specific cases, sorting out evidence, and understanding ethical and political norms. Philosophy majors do very well on the LSAT (Law School Admission Test), typically scoring higher than the vast majority of other majors.
Philosophy and Medicine
Philosophy has proven itself to be good preparation for medical school. Critical reasoning is as important in medicine as it is in law, but the study and practice of medicine requires something else—expertise in grappling with the vast array of moral questions that now confront doctors, nurses, medical scientists, administrators, and government officials. These are, at their core, philosophy questions. David Silbersweig, a Harvard Medical School professor, makes a good case for philosophy (and all the liberal arts) as an essential part of a well-rounded medical education. As he says,
If you can get through a one-sentence paragraph of Kant, holding all of its ideas and clauses in juxtaposition in your mind, you can think through most anything. . . . I discovered that a philosophical stance and approach could identify and inform core issues associated with everything from scientific advances to healing and biomedical ethics.
Philosophy and Business
Flickr and Slack cofounder Stewart Butterfield, who has both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy, says,
I think if you have a good background in what it is to be human, an understanding of life, culture and society, it gives you a good perspective on starting a business, instead of an education purely in business. You can always pick up how to read a balance sheet and how to figure out profit and loss, but it’s harder to pick up the other stuff on the fly.
[Source: Oxford University Press, “The Truth About Philosophy Majors,” 2019.]
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.
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.