I. The Study of Philosophy

Philosophy encompasses a broad range of topics and methods of inquiry: Socratic questioning of the extent and nature of human knowledge, probing the rational basis of moral and political thought, confrontation with fundamental questions of value and meaning, analysis of basic concepts underlying theoretical and practical thought, reflection on the human existential situation, and exploring the structure of reasoning itself. The great philosophers are studied both for historical understanding and contemporary significance.

Formal philosophical study in the Mediterranean region of Europe began at least as early as Plato's Academy. Students studied philosophy for diverse reasons: a few intended to make it a career; others used such study to illuminate the foundations of (or to expand the limits of) another field; and many pursued it out of intellectual fascination. Today individuals study philosophy for similar reasons. This study is an excellent preparation for advanced study in all of the humanities, in law, and in business. Moreover, the studying philosophy complements study of all majors in the arts, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences. Studying philosophy aids one in understanding one's overall conceptual scheme and in clarifying one's own views regarding morality, political and religious commitment, the character of reality, and the possibility of knowledge.

The philosophy major emphasizes effective and critical reading, writing, and speaking; and the study of philosophy deals with the interpretation of texts, the balanced exposition and examination of issues, the construction and appraisal of arguments and explanations, and the criticism of doctrines and things commonly taken for granted. (1) The skills and training which one receives as a philosophy major or minor are valuable in many careers. The major or minor serves as evidence to prospective employers or graduate schools that one is capable of creative and analytical thinking, and that one is proficient in research, reasoning, problem-solving, and verbal and written communication. Among the fields to which philosophy majors and minors have successfully transferred their philosophic backgrounds and skills are teaching at the pre-college level, educational administration, government, computer technology, law, medicine, business, journalism, publishing, management, and administration of non-profit organizations. (2)

One traditional conception of undergraduate education views it as general preparation for life. Those who champion this view contend that such an education is not primarily concerned with preparation for a particular profession via the acquisition of specific bits of information or particular practical behavioral competencies. While one may question whether this view correctly captures the nature of undergraduate education in general, it clearly applies to the undergraduate philosophy major.

While the study of philosophy does greatly enhance a number of very important practical capacities, it is oriented not toward accomplishing these ends but, rather, toward:

  • Cultivating one's analytical, critical, integrative, and communication skills;
  • Developing one's understanding of one's own culture, presuppositions, and values (and those of other individuals and cultures);
  • Enlarging one's conception of what is possible, valuable, and right; and
  • Engendering a critical attitude which enables one to understand, question, and hopefully improve the current conceptualizations.

Aside from the intrinsic value of the study of philosophy and the intellectual enjoyment which one may receive from pursing philosophical studies, there are a number of pragmatic benefits which such studies generally engender:

  • Critical thinking: it is not clear that critical thinking can be taught, but it is clear that this propensity can be enhanced through practice. Philosophy courses, of course, thrive on critical thinking and the study of philosophy generally hones one's critical faculties and enables one to think more critically. A major in philosophy should develop the capacity for critical thinking in at least three respects. One is the practice it affords in criticism—that is, thinking of counter-examples to questionable generalizations, drawing out the consequences entailed by a claim that reduce it to absurdity, and discerning defects in analogies that might otherwise pass unnoticed. Another is responsiveness to concrete cases; imagination is needed to give discriminating and illuminating phenomenological descriptions of experience, to appreciate the thinking expressed in a text or theory, and then to discern its limitations. A third is interpretation and theorizing. It takes constructive imagination to frame accounts of matters relating to explanation, freedom, justice, justification, meaning, necessity, obligation, truth and valuation, and to relate positions in one area of inquiry to those in another. (3)
  • Communication skills: the reading, the writing, and the discussion required in philosophy courses enhance one's communication skills and make one a more careful and successful communicator. Studying philosophy cultivates an individual's ability to interpret complex texts and ideas, and facilitates the ability to explain intricate and tangled issues in a balanced manner.

Indeed, a survey of the GRE, LSAT, and GMAT tests showed that philosophy majors performed substantially better than the average (5% or more) on each of the tests surveyed. Not one of the other group of majors shows this consistent pattern—not even mathematics or the physical sciences, whose majors did exceptionally well in three of the four areas but did only marginally better than average on the verbal portion of the GRE. On the LSAT and GMAT tests (tests which few students would think to prepare for by studying Socrates and Kant), philosophy majors performed substantially better than majors in any other humanities field, better than all social science majors except economics, better than all natural science majors except mathematics, and better than all business and applied fields. On the verbal portion of the GRE, philosophy majors out-performed all other majors. On the quantitative portion of the GRE, philosophy majors alone among the humanities majors scored higher than average, and they did better than all social sciences except economics. (4)

Notes:

  1. Adapted from The Philosophy Major, prepared by the American Philosophical Association, 1993, p. 10.
  2. Adapted from a letter which the American Philosophical Association sends to prospective graduate students in philosophy. Back
  3. Adapted from The Philosophy Major, op. cit., p. 11.
  4. This information is adapted from the Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association v. 59 (1986), and v. 66 (1992).