Why would anyone ever want to study philosophy?

Why would anyone want to major in Philosophy?

What are you going to do with a major like that?

In recent years, within their "Careers and Business," section such papers as The New York Times have been proclaiming the rediscovery of the philosophy major. Major employers of university graduates are finding that philosophy majors have finely honed analytic skills and problem solving abilities that make them extremely effective in a variety of professional careers.

According to the Times of London, in the August 15, 1998 issue, speaking specifically of philosophy in the United States:

The great virtue of philosophy is that it teaches not what to think, but how to think. It is the study of meaning, of the principles underlying conduct, thought and knowledge. The skills it hones are the ability to analyse, to question orthodoxies and to express things clearly. However arcane some philosophical texts may be - and not everybody can come to grips with the demands of Austrian logical positivism - the ability to formulate questions and follow arguments is the essence of education.

It can also be studied at many levels. In the US, where the number of philosophy graduates has increased by 5 per cent a year during the 1990s, only a very few go on to become philosophers. Their employability, at 98.9 per cent, is impressive by any standard. Philosophy has always been a good training for the law; but it is equally useful for computer scientists. In this country, the Higher Education Statistics Survey puts philosophy of science right up with medicine in its employment record for graduates.

Philosophy is, in commercial jargon, the ultimate "transferable work skill".

Why would employers in business, management, public administration, and such professions as journalism, public health, criminal justice, and the legal professions be attracted to philosophy majors?

The answer that is frequently given is that such professions find they have increasing need for candidates who are less narrowly trained, who are able to look at issues from a variety of viewpoints, who have the ability to think questions through, on the basis of sound reasoning and solid evidence.

In 1985 the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that philosophy majors on average did significantly better on the standardized tests that are used as a basis for admission to law schools, graduate colleges of management and business administration, and graduate schools.

Specifically on average philosophy majors did:

Some people would guess that such tests simply measure abilities that a persons has probably had from childhood, that philosophy just attracts smarter students. But the skills that are tested in many of such measures are skills that can be developed and are developed in the course of the study of philosophy. Why? Because philosophy above all else is thinking plain and simple. It is disciplined reasoning that questions to the bottom of things and tries to reason things to their logical conclusion.

To illustrate the point, lets begin again. What can you do with a major in philosophy? In philosophy we would be interested in examining the basis for that question. What lies beneath the question is the assumption that the most important thing, perhaps the only important thing, you can get out of your university experience is qualification for a job. I question that assumption. And by questioning that assumption I am engaging in philosophy. Philosophy begins by asking why. Why should this be the objective of a college education? Is training for a job the only thing a university is here for? As an alternative I would propose that the most important thing you can get from your university experience is personal, social, and intellectual growth. It ought to be directed towards achieving the kind of intellectual maturity that is more than mere training for a job.

Training and education are not the same thing. What you learn might get you a job. It won't get you a profession, and it won't get you a vocation. A profession is something that requires not just the information you have acquired. It requires your reasoning powers, your deliberating powers, and your judgments.

A professional person is person who is responsible for decisions, a person who is paid not just to do, but to think. A vocation is a calling, it is chosen not so much because of the money and perks it might offer, but because of the conviction that this occupation is something you ought to do. It entails a personal commitment. Job training teaches you what to do and what to think in the job for which you are prepared. The difficulty with such training is that the knowledge you acquire for many jobs becomes quickly obsolete. Philosophy teaches you how to think, how to learn. It teaches you how to think in situations for which no training program has even been devised.

You might get a job on the basis of things you know. You get a vocation, you get a profession on the basis of what you are! The question then in not what you can do with a degree in philosophy but what can a degree in philosophy do with you? It can teach you to question, to consider, to evaluate, to reason, to judge.

Many students who are thinking about possible college majors wonder what philosophy is, what philosophers do. Philosophy is usually thought of as composed of three areas of inquiry: metaphysics, epistemology, axiology.

Take metaphysics: what is ultimately real? You can begin with sub-atomic particles or with outer space. One of the most interesting and accessible of philosophical questions, is the question, what in reality are you? Are you essentially a material thing, or are you something more? You have a body that is unquestionably material in nature. It has weight and occupies space. But you also have capacities like thoughts, hopes, aspirations, and ideals, that are not visible to anyone but you. They are real too, but they don't have weight, color, texture.

We can begin by taking a statement that on the face of it is obviously true. I have a body. What does this mean? It can mean that I have a body just as a computer has a circuit board, a memory, software, a screen and a keyboard. It can also mean that I have a body in the sense that I have a briefcase, or a wrist watch or a pen. In that case I am one thing, my body is another; and my true self and my body are not one and the same. In doing philosophy we think about these things. We examine them.

It's not for everyone. It's not for persons who have no interest in asking deeper questions. At the end of a lifetime of philosophizing one great philosopher made the claim that the unexamined life is not worth living. Many people don't believe that. Some people don't even care to raise the question. Philosophy very simply is not for them. Philosophy is not for followers. If all you want is to get a job and a pay check. If all you want is to spend as little time and effort at that job as you can and still get paid for it, then philosophy is not for you. Philosophy is not training. Its education! It's for persons who want to understand, who want not just to live, but to live well. It is for persons who simply could never be happy without asking why.

And it turns out that philosophy is a discipline that produces the capacity to think critically and consistently, to understand varying points of view, to manage effectively, and to lead. Some universities make it difficult to get into the philosophy major. In some you have to apply for admission. Here the philosophy major is open to anyone who meets the qualifications for admission to the college of arts and sciences. It requires no SAT scores not required for the College of Arts and Sciences. I am the undergraduate advisor. I would love to talk with you.

Dr. George James
Undergraduate Advisor


940-565-4791 (office)

940-565-4448 (fax)

940-565-2266 (department)

CEP - EEGP - PHIL - CAS - TSGS - UNT - June 27, 2000

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