Philosophy Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is philosophy?

Philosophy is unique in its methods and in its subject matter. Life confronts every thoughtful person with philosophical questions, and everyone is guided by philosophical assumptions, even if unconsciously. No human interest is alien to it. Philosophy pursues fundamental reality, standards of knowledge and principles of conduct. Philosophical study develops the capacity to see the world from many perspectives, the ability to perceive relationships among various fields of study, and deepens our sense of the meaning and variety of human experience. It enhances problem-solving capacities, our ability to understand and express ideas, and our persuasive powers.

2. What are the sub-fields of philosophy?

  • Logic is concerned with providing sound methods for distinguishing good from bad reasoning. It helps us assess how well our premises support our conclusions, to see what we are committed to accepting when we take a view, to avoid adopting beliefs for which we lack adequate reasons, and to discover unconscious assumptions. Philosophy of Language has grown out of studies in logic.
  • Ethics takes up the meanings of our moral concepts - such as right action, obligation, justice and virtue - and formulates principles to guide moral decisions, whether in private or public life. Ethics encompasses Social and Political Philosophy, Applied Philosophy (Business Ethics, Environmental Ethics, Medical Ethics, etc.), and Philosophy of Law.
  • Metaphysics seeks an understanding of what sorts of things are real. Are there mental, physical and abstract things? Is there just the physical or just the spiritual? What is a person? Philosophy of Mind and Philosophy of Religion are important subfields of metaphysics.
  • Epistemology concerns the nature and scope of knowledge. What is the nature of truth? What sorts of things can be known? What does it mean to know oneself? Philosophy of Science is a branch of Epistemology.
  • The History of Philosophy studies major philosophers, significant periods in the development of philosophy, philosophy in individual nations, important philosophical movements, and the relations between philosophy and the wider culture.
  • Philosophy of Art (Aesthetics) asks what art is, how artistic creations are to be interpreted and evaluated, and how the arts are related to one another, and other important elements of human life.

3. What are the uses of philosophy?

The problem-solving, analytical, judgmental and synthesizing capacities philosophy develops are of wide scope and use. This makes philosophy excellent preparation for positions of leadership. Wisdom cannot be guaranteed by any course of study, but philosophy pursues this ideal systematically. Sound reasoning, critical thinking, clear writing and speaking, mature judgement and an enlightened consciousness are never obsolete. The study of philosophy is the most direct route, and in many cases the only route, to the full development of these qualities. 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.

Philosophy contributes uniquely to communicative and persuasive powers by developing skills for presenting well-constructed, systematic arguments. It helps one to express what is distinctive in one's own view, enhances one's ability to explain difficult material, and helps one to eliminate ambiguities and vagueness. These capacities are developed in reading and writing philosophy, but also in the dialogue that is a basic part of philosophical education.

Employers want and reward the capacities which the study of philosophy develops: the ability to solve problems, to communicate, to organize ideas and issues, to assess pros and cons, to boil down complex ideas, to resolve conflicts, to continue to learn. These capacities represent transferable skills. People trained in philosophy are not only prepared to work in many fields, they can also readily cope with change of work or even of careers. 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. Philosophy is also of great value to students aiming at graduate school. As law, medical, business and other professional school faculty and admissions personnel have often said, philosophy is excellent preparation for both graduate training and later careers.

Moreover, 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 for one's public life as a citizen can be immeasurable.

4. What can I expect in the philosophy curriculum?

Philosophy courses differ greatly from one to another, depending on the instructor, the topics and other factors. But typically, philosophy teachers encourage students to be critical, to develop their own ideas, and to appreciate both differences between things that appear alike and similarities between things that seem utterly different. Commonly, then, philosophy instructors emphasize not only what is said in the readings, but why it is said; whether or not the reasons given for believing it are good; and what the students themselves think about the matter. Characteristically, there is room for creativity and for choice of approach. Philosophy is unique in the way it nurtures creativity and freedom within responsible standards of clarity, reasoning and evaluation.

One might begin in philosophy either with a general introduction or with an introduction to a sub-field, such as ethics, logic, philosophy of religion or philosophy of art. Students interested in a survey of philosophy as a whole are well served by a general introductory course. But introductory courses in the sub-fields of philosophy typically provide not only some depth in the sub-field, but also some exposure to more general philosophical problems and methods. They can therefore make excellent introductions to philosophy as a whole.

Intermediate and advanced philosophy courses vary considerably in scope, method and prerequisites. Although these courses are necessary for students to benefit fully from their philosophical education and are therefore an essential part of the major in philosophy, courses in the sub-fields of philosophy are not designed just for majors. Courses in Philosophy of Science, Epistemology and Metaphysics will be of interest and use to science majors, Philosophy of Art to the art major, Applied Ethics to majors in political science, management and religion, etc. Often it is possible to construct independent study courses bridging a student's special interests in another field and their interest in philosophy.

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