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What is Philosophy Really?

In theory what is it?

When analyzed into its Greek morphemes, the word "philosophy" literally means "love of wisdom", but it would be a mistake to infer that this is an apt description of contemporary philosophy. Philosophy has changed since the time of the ancient Greeks, and so we must look beyond the word's original meaning if we are to discover the discipline's nature.

The dominant sort of philosophy in America, and thus the type that most students will encounter in college, is analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophy can roughly be characterized as the activity of trying to provide sound arguments for controversial conclusions. Furthermore, the conclusions of analytic philosophy are typically those that a more empirical discipline, like physics or psychology (both spin-offs of philosophy) cannot yet handle. Another feature of analytic philosophy is a strong focus on the language of arguments. Analytic philosophers, to some extent or another, think that conceptual errors and bad philosophy can be discovered by scrutinizing words and syntax. For example, analytic philosophers are wary of the word 'nothing', since it can function as the subject of a sentence and thus give the appearance that it denotes something (e.g. "Nothing is going to stop me"). But surely nothing can't denote a thing, for then we would be speaking of something instead of nothing. To eradicate this conceptual confusion, philosophers might translate the example sentence in the following way: "For anything that there may be, it cannot stop me." The philosopher's reputation as a persnickety logic-chopper is due to such a focus on the minutiae of language.

There are other sorts of philosophy, of course. Another well-known variety, which is commonly set in opposition to analytic philosophy, is Continental philosophy. As the late Bernard Williams has noted, the two labels are not suited for such a contrast, because analytic philosophy gets its name from a specific method of philosophy, whereas Continental philosophy gets its name because this sort of philosophy began on the Continent. In any case, Continental philosophy does differ in important ways from analytic philosophy. One key difference is that Continental philosophers place a weaker emphasis on rigorous argument and more emphasis on cultural and historical insight. An exemplar of this tradition is Nietzsche, whose perceptive works often run on for pages without even a trace of argument. Furthermore, Continental philosophers tend to see philosophical viewpoints as the outgrowths of wider cultural milieus rather than timeless theses that must be either refuted or verified. In this respect, Continental philosophy resembles the humanities more than the sciences, whereas the exact opposite is true for analytic philosophy. The key evaluative question in Continental philosophy seems to be "To what extent does this view help us to understand humanity and the world better?", whereas the key question in analytic philosophy is "Is this view true or false?" This is not to suggest, however, that both questions cannot be asked in the same tradition, for they often are.

What is it used for?

Perhaps the chief aim of the major in philosophy is a deeper understanding of issues that every thoughtful person confronts at some point. The desire for deeper understanding is a perfectly acceptable reason to major in philosophy; one need not invent practical motives.

This is not to say, though, that philosophy is practically useless. On the contrary, philosophy is a key part of jurisprudence and medical ethics. Furthermore, philosophers often serve as resident ethicists for corporations, though it is questionable whether they do any good in this capacity.
An old news story should refute the view that philosophy is impractical. Some time after the 9/11 tragedy, the company that insured the Twin Towers met with the owners and managers of the buildings to determine how much money the insurance company should allot. The policy stated that a great sum of money, say a billion dollars, would be granted per devastating event. There was a heated debate about whether the two separate jet collisions constituted one event or two. Clearly, the bone of contention was what an event is, and this is a preeminently metaphysical issue. Who would have thought that such an old philosophical debate could find its way into a legal dispute over billions of dollars? Familiarity with the pertinent philosophical arguments would have been invaluable.

What does the major actually entail - work-wise?

At many institutions, the major in philosophy has comparatively lenient hour requirements. Many programs require only 30 hours worth of philosophy courses to obtain the B.A. Within the lenient hour requirements, however, one must satisfy a breadth and a depth requirement. The breath requirement guarantees that the philosophy major will be familiar with more than just one or two major branches of philosophy. Usually a symbolic logic course and an ethics course are required. Furthermore, one must take a certain number of advanced courses. This is to ensure that the philosophy major does not squander his time on endless introductory courses.

In nearly every philosophy course, with logic often being the exception, one must do extensive reading and writing. While philosophy majors do not read as many words as English majors might, they read works that are more challenging; rarely will philosophy professors assign page-turning novels. Consequently, one will be required nearly every day to peruse dense works. What separates the good philosophy major from the mediocre one is this commitment to active, sustained reading.

Philosophical writing is just as important to the major as the reading is, and it is just as characteristic of the discipline. Hardly any other field requires the degree of precision and clarity that philosophers demand from one another (at least in theory; many prominent philosophers are poor writers). Philosophical writing is difficult for many students to master. This is primarily because it is far more direct and austere than what many have been accustomed to writing in high school. Florid metaphors and prolix sentences will make your points more difficult to grasp, and philosophy is already difficult enough as it is. Thus, one must learn to strip his prose of the extraneous, the cute, and the unclear.

The number of papers assigned in philosophy classes varies widely. One might be assigned only one long paper due at the end of the term. Alternatively, one may be assigned four ten-page papers spaced evenly throughout the term. In every case, though, the expectations will be about the same. One is expected to form a significant thesis and support it with good arguments. Furthermore, one is expected to represent fairly the views of other philosophers. In case there are two interpretations of a passage, with one being hurtful to the person's case and the other being helpful or harmless, one should always invoke the principle of charity and use the latter. Another virtue of philosophical writing is the anticipation of objections to one's own arguments, followed by a rebuttal of them. This is particularly important when one is advancing a thesis that opposes common sense or philosophical orthodoxy.

What kind of jobs do you get with it?

When the student is dedicated to improving his abilities, philosophy as a major can produce a graduate with excellent reading comprehension and marketable writing skills. Given the deplorably low reading assessment scores and verbal SAT scores in the U.S. today, it is not surprising that both of these basic skills are in high demand. Furthermore, philosophy develops good presentation skills, since one is often required to pull from multiplex resources, sort out the key problems and proposed solutions, and produce a neat paper that outlines the information. This is particularly true when one is studying the views of philosophers who are talking past one another, which often happens. One must figure out where the real disagreement lies, assuming there is a real disagreement, and format the debate in a way that is easily understood by others.

These core skills appeal to so many different types of employers that a full list is impossible. Numerous resources document the high demand for philosophy majors in medical schools and law schools. Medicine in the United States is becoming more and more affected by multi-culturalism and the particular ethical problems that it raises. Not infrequently, doctors must treat patients whose worldviews differ greatly from the worldviews of most Westerners. This has highlighted the strong occidental bias in medicine, and recent attempts to correct it involve a host of ethical problems that philosophy majors are particularly suited to handle. Law schools and business schools continue to value the analytic skills of philosophy majors, not to mention their ability to write clean prose. The list of suitable occupations could go on indefinitely.

What are the fellow students like (personalitywise) in it?

There are two sorts of philosophy majors. The first sort of student enters the major because he can get B's in the classes without too much effort. He has no passion for philosophy, is lazy, and could just as easily have drifted into women's studies or English. Within this category of student, the only common traits are aimlessness and sloth.

The second sort of student has a passion for philosophy, strives to do his best on the assignments, and views philosophy as more than just an academic major. These students are thoughtful, careful in their reasoning, and inclined to argue late into the night. They are usually much smarter than the average college student and have an integrated picture of how their major fits with their goals.

Common Misconceptions

Common Misconceptions

Philosophy students are impractical liberals.

Philosophy students can't do anything else but bicker.

Philosophy students are going to be eating out of dumpsters after graduation.

Philosophy leads one to abandon his religion.

While there are an abnormally high number of infidels in philosophy compared to the general public, there are also many theists. Indeed, one of the foremost philosophers of recent years is a Christian who claims to speak in tongues. Furthermore, the rampant disagreement that is common in philosophy usually fosters a tolerance of religious views, as debates in the philosophy of religion come to be seen as just so many disagreements among the numerous others in philosophy.

Philosophy never yields progress.

Longstanding philosophical views are often refuted and replaced with better ones. For example, Edmund Gettier's famous paper "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?" (1963) refuted the view that knowledge is nothing more than justified, true belief. Since the paper was published, many new and insightful analyses of knowledge have been proposed.


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Schools that offer Bachelors for philosophy


Philosophy Major unemployment rate

_ Philosophy All Majors
Unemployed %9 %7
Minimum Wage %5 %4
All Others %85 %88
More: Unemployment for all Majors *** not counting stay at home parents *** not counting those currently in grad school

Are things going well in Philosophy?

Going Well %79
Not Going Well %21
More: All Majors Satisfaction ??? This is a social "life satisfaction" question. Overall, would people who graduated with a degree in Philosophy say that their life is going well? It could be interpreted in terms of stress, salary, long hours, future prospects, etc. *** not counting those currently in grad school

Graduates who stayed in Philosophy

Still in Field %35
Got out %65
More: All Majors Still in field ??? A high "got out" percentage can be interpreted a couple of ways -- for instance, perhaps the major is a great stepping stone to becoming a totally different career -- like a doctor. Or perhaps the jobs one gets with the major just aren't that great. *** not counting those currently in grad school
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