What is Philosophy?
Philosophy is a quest for a comprehensive understanding of human existence. The objective of philosophy is to consider the rational justification of logical inferences, human values, criteria for establishing the claims of knowledge and certainly, and intepretations of the nature of reality. The diverse insights of significant philosophers from ancient times to the present contribute resources to stimulate contemporary philosophical thinking in each of these areas.
A major in philosophy prepares students generally for careers in areas which require the ability to analyze problems and to think and write clearly. It is an appropriate major for students planning to continue their education for professional careers such as law, medicine and theology.
- The Field of Philosophy
- Traditional Subfields of Philosophy
Special Fields of Philosophy
The Uses of Philosophy
- The General Uses of Philosophy
- The Uses of Philosophy in Educational Pursuits
The Uses of Philosophy in Non-Academic Careers
The Field of Philosophy
Philosophy is quite unlike any other field. It is unique both in its methods and in the nature and breadth of its subject matter. Philosophy pursues questions in every dimension of human life, and its techniques apply to problems in any field of study or endeavor. No brief definition expresses the richness and variety of philosophy. It may be described in many ways. It is a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths, a quest for understanding, a study of principles of conduct. It seeks to establish standards of evidence, to provide rational methods of resolving conflicts, and to create techniques for evaluating ideas and arguments. Philosophy develops the capacity to see the world from the perspective of other individuals and other cultures; it enhances one's ability to perceive the relationships among the various fields of study; and it deepens one's sense of the meaning and varieties of human experience.
This short description of philosophy could be greatly extended, but let us instead illustrate some of the points. As the systematic study of ideas and issues, philosophy may examine concepts and views drawn from science, art, religion, politics, or any other realm. Philosophical appraisal of ideas and issues takes many forms, but philosophical studies often focus on the meaning of an idea and on its basis, coherence, and relations to other ideas. Consider, for instance, democracy. What is it? What justifies it as a system of government? Can a democracy allow the people to vote away their own rights? And how is it related to political liberty? Consider human knowledge. What is its nature and extent? Must we always have evidence in order to know? What can we know about the thoughts and feelings of others, or about the future? What kind of knowledge, if any, is fundamental? Similar kinds of questions arise concerning art, morality, religion, science, and each of the major areas of human activity. Philosophy explores all of them. It views them both microscopically and from the wide perspective of the larger concerns of human existence.
The broadest subfields of philosophy are most commonly taken to be logic, ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, and the history of philosophy. Here is a brief sketch of each.
Logic is concerned to provide sound methods for distinguishing good from bad reasoning. It helps us to assess how well our premises support our conclusions, to see what we are committed to accepting when we take a view, and to avoid adopting beliefs for which we lack adequate reasons. Logic also helps us to find arguments where we might otherwise simply see a set of loosely related statements, to discover assumptions we did not know we were making, and to formulate the minimum claims we must establish if we are to prove (or inductively support) our point.
Ethics takes up the meanings of our moral concepts-such as right action, obligation, and justice-and formulates principles to guide moral decisions, whether in private or public life. What are our moral obligations to others? How can moral disagreements be rationally settled? What rights must a just society accord its citizens? What constitutes a valid excuse for wrong-doing?
Metaphysics seeks basic criteria for determining what sorts of things are real. Are there mental, physical, and abstract things (such as numbers), for instance, or is there just the physical and the spiritual, or merely matter and energy? Are persons highly complex physical systems, or do they have properties not reducible to anything physical?
Epistemology concerns the nature and scope of knowledge. What does it mean to know (the truth), and what is the nature of truth? What sorts of things can be known, and can we be justified in our beliefs about what goes beyond the evidence of our senses, such as the inner lives of others or events of the distant past? Is there knowledge beyond the reach of science? What are the limits of self-knowledge?
The History of Philosophy studies both major philosophers and entire periods in the development of philosophy, such as the Ancient, Medieval, Modern, Nineteenth Century, and Twentieth Century periods. It seeks to understand great figures, their influence on others, and their importance for contemporary issues. The history of philosophy in a single nation is often separately studied, as in the case of American Philosophy. So are major movements within a nation, such as British Empiricism or German Idealism, as well as international movements with a substantial history, such as existentialism and phenomenology. The history of philosophy not only provides insight into the other subfields of philosophy; it also reveals many of the foundations of Western Civilization.
Many branches of philosophy have grown from the traditional core areas. What follows is a sketch of some of the major ones.
Philosophy of Mind. This subfield has emerged from metaphysical concerns with the mind and mental phenomena. The philosophy of mind addresses not only the possible relations of the mental to the physical (for instance, to brain processes), but the many concepts having an essential mental element: belief, desire, emotion, feeling, sensation, passion, will, personality, and others. A number of major questions in the philosophy of mind cluster in the area of action theory : What differentiates actions, such as raising an arm, from mere body movements, such as the using of an arm? Must mental elements, for example, intentions and beliefs, enter into adequate explanations of our actions, or can actions be explained by appeal to ordinary physical events? And what is required for our actions to be free?
Philosophy of Religion. Another traditional concern of metaphysics is to understand the concept of God, including special attributes such as being all-knowing, being all-powerful, and being wholly good. Both metaphysics and epistemology have sought to assess the various grounds people have offered to justify believing in God. The philosophy of religion treats these topics and many related subjects, such as the relation between faith and reason, the nature of religious language, the relation of religion and morality, and the question of how a God who is wholly good could allow the existence of evil.
Philosophy of Science. This is probably the largest subfield generated by epistemology. Philosophy of science is usually divided into philosophy of the natural sciences and philosophy of the social sciences. It has recently been divided further, into philosophy of physics, biology, psychology, economics, and other sciences. Philosophy of science clarifies both the quest for scientific knowledge and the results yielded by that quest. It does this by exploring the logic of scientific evidence; the nature of scientific laws, explanations, and theories; and the possible connections among the various branches of science. How, for instance, is psychology related to brain biology, and biology to chemistry? And how are the social sciences related to the natural sciences?
Subfields of Ethics. From ethics, too, have come major subfields. Political Philosophy concerns the justification-and limits-of governmental control of individuals; the meaning of equality before the law; the basis of economic freedom; and many other problems concerning government. It also examines the nature and possible arguments for various competing forms of political organization, such as laissez-faire capitalism, welfare democracy (capitalistic and socialistic), anarchism, communism, and fascism. Social Philosophy, often taught in combination with political philosophy (which it overlaps), treats moral problems with large-scale social dimensions. Among these are the basis of compulsory education, the possible grounds for preferential treatment of minorities, the justice of taxation, and the appropriate limits, if any, on free expression in the arts. The Philosophy of Law explores such topics of what law is, what kinds of laws there are, how law is or should be related to morality, and what sorts of principles should govern punishment and criminal justice in general. Medical Ethics addresses many problems arising in medical practice and medical science. Among these are standards applying to physician-patient relationships; moral questions raised by special procedures, such as abortion and ceasing of life-support for terminal patients; and ethical standards for medical research, for instance genetic engineering and experimentation using human subjects. Business Ethics addresses such questions as how moral obligations may conflict with the profit motive and how these conflicts may be resolved. Other topics often pursued are the nature and scope of the social responsibilities of corporations, their rights in a free society, and their relations to other institutions.
Philosophy of Art (Aesthetics). This is one of the oldest subfields. It concerns the nature of art, including both the performing arts and painting, sculpture, and literature. Major questions in aesthetics include how artistic creations are to be interpreted and evaluated, and how the arts are related to one another, to natural beauty, and to morality, religion, science, and other important elements of human life.
Philosophy of language. This field has close ties to both epistemology and metaphysics. It treats a broad spectrum of questions about language: the nature of meaning, the relations between words and things, the various theories of language learning, and the distinction between literal and figurative uses of language. Since language is crucial in nearly all human activity, the philosophy of language can enhance our understanding both of other academic fields and of much of what we ordinarily do.
Other Subfields. There are many other subfields of philosophy, and it is in the nature of philosophy as critical inquiry to develop new subfields when new directions in the quest for knowledge, or in any other area of human activity, raise new intellectual problems. Among the subfields not yet mentioned, but often taught at least as a part of other courses, are Inductive Logic, Philosophy of Logic, Philosophy of History, Philosophy of Mathematics, Philosophy of Medicine, Philosophy of Education, Philosophy of Feminism, Philosophy of Linguistics, Philosophy of Criticism, Philosophy of Culture, and Philosophy of Film.
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. Structure 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 also be clear that the study of philosophy has intrinsic rewards as an unlimited quest for understanding of important, challenging problems. But philosophy has further uses in deepening an education, both in college an 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 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 the failures of their predecessors. A person with philosophical training can readily learn to do the same in any field.
It should be stressed immediately that the non-academic value of a field of study must not be viewed mainly in terms of its contribution to obtaining one's first job after graduation. Students are understandably preoccupied with getting their first job, but even from a narrow vocational point of view it would be short-sighted to concentrate on that at the expense of developing potential for success and advancement once hired. What gets graduates initially hired may not yield promotions or carry them beyond their first position, particularly given how fast the needs of many employers alter with changes in social and economic patterns. It is therefore crucial to see beyond what a job description specifically calls for. Philosophy need not be mentioned among a job's requirements in order for the benefits derivable from philosophical study to be appreciated by the employer, and those benefits need not even be explicitly appreciated in order to be effective in helping one advance.
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-philosophical 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 many others.
Regarding current trends in business, a writer in the New York Times reported that "businessmen are coming to appreciate an education that at its best produces graduates who can write and think clearly and solve problems" (June 23, 1981). A recent long-term study by the Bell Telephone Company, moreover, determined that majors in liberal arts fields, in which philosophy is a central discipline, "continue to make a strong showing in managerial skills and have experienced considerable business success" (Career Patterns, by Robert E. Beck). The study concluded that "there is no need for liberal arts majors to lack confidence in approaching business careers." A related point is made by a Senior Vice President of the American Can Company:
Students with any academic background are prepared for business when they can educate themselves and can continue to grow without their teachers, when they have mastered techniques of scholarship and discipline, and when they are challenged to be all they can be (Wall Street Journal, February 2, 1981).
As all this suggests, there are people trained in philosophy in just about every field. They have gone not only into such professions as teaching (at all levels), medicine, and law, but into computer science, management, publishing, sales, criminal justice, public relations, and other fields. Some professionally trained philosophers are also on legislative staffs, and the work of some of them, for a senior congressman, prompted him to say:
It seems to me that philosophers have acquired skills which are very valuable to a member of Congress. The ability to analyze a problem carefully and consider it from many points of view is one. Another is the ability to communicate ideas clearly in a logically compelling form. A third is the ability to handle the many different kinds of problems which occupy the congressional agenda at any time. (Lee H. Hamilton, 9th District, Indiana, March 25, 1982.)
In emphasizing the long-range benefits of training in philosophy, whether through a major or through only a sample of courses in the field, there are at least two further points to note. The first concerns the value of philosophy for vocational training. The second applies to the whole of life.
First, philosophy can yield immediate benefits for students planning post-graduate work. 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 such fields as computer science, management, or public administration, which, like medicine, have special requirements for postgraduate study, a student may of course major (or minor) both in philosophy and some other field.
The second point here is that 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 one self-knowledge, foresight, and a sense of direction in life. It can provide, to one's reading and conversation, special pleasures of insight. 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 one's private life can be incalculable; its benefits in one's public life as a citizen can be immeasurable.
Philosophy is the systematic study of ideas and issues, a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths, a quest for a comprehensive understanding of the world, a study of principles of conduct, and much more. Every domain of human existence raises questions to which its techniques and theories apply, and its methods may be used in the study of any subject or the pursuit of any vocation. Indeed, philosophy is in a sense inescapable: life confronts every thoughtful person with some philosophical questions, and nearly everyone is often guided by philosophical assumptions, even if unconsciously. One need not be unprepared. To a large extent one can choose how reflective one will be in clarifying and developing one's philosophical assumptions, and how well prepared one is for the philosophical questions life presents. Philosophical training enhances our problem-solving capacities, our abilities to understand and express ideas, and our persuasive powers. It also develops understanding and enjoyment of things whose absence impoverishes many lives: such things as aesthetic experience, communication with many different kinds of people, lively discussion of current issues, the discerning observation of human behavior, and intellectual zest. In these and other ways the study of philosophy contributes immeasurably in both academic and other pursuits.
The problem-solving, analytical,judgmenta1 , and synthesizing capacities philosophy develops are unrestricted in their scope and unlimited in their usefulness. This makes philosophy especially good preparation for positions of leadership, responsibility, or management. A major or minor in philosophy can easily be integrated with requirements for nearly any entry-level job; but philosophical training, particularly in its development of many transferable skills, is especially significant for its long-term benefits in career advancement.
Wisdom, leadership, and the capacity to resolve human conflicts cannot be guaranteed by any course of study; but philosophy has traditionally pursued these ideals systematically, and its methods, its literature, and its ideas are of constant use in the quest to realize them. Sound reasoning, critical thinking, well constructed prose, maturity of judgment, a strong sense of relevance, and an enlightened consciousness are never obsolete, nor are they subject to the fluctuating demands of the marketplace. The study of philosophy is the most direct route, and in many cases the only route, to the full development of these qualities.