Why Study Philosophy?
There are many good reasons to study philosophy. Because of its breadth, philosophy has a bearing on just about every subject and profession, and recent studies have shown that students who have strong backgrounds in the liberal arts in general and philosophy in particular do much better than one might expect in the job market. While students with seemingly more useful degrees may indeed enter the market with higher salaries, the fact that a liberal education serves to broaden one’s understanding and to cultivate one’s capacities for critical thinking and life-long learning means that students with liberal arts degrees tend to rise higher in their professions than those who start out with what look like the more practical degrees.
Among the liberal arts majors, philosophy is one of the strongest. As a group, philosophy majors score on the GRE, LSAT, and GMAT in the highest percentiles. So besides preparing students for the graduate study that might lead to a career in philosophy, the study of philosophy helps prepare students for careers in such fields as law, medicine, government, business, journalism, publishing, teaching, and the ministry.
This may be enough to show that it can be a good idea to study philosophy, but it only hints at what the study of philosophy can really do for those who take it up. The study of philosophy broadens one’s intellectual horizons and it helps one develop a sense of one’s intellectual roots. In the process, it does a great deal to make one’s thinking genuinely freer and less servile. The authors of the American Philosophical Association’s 1992 publication on “The Philosophy Major” have put it this way:
The study of philosophy serves to develop intellectual abilities important for life as a whole, beyond the knowledge and skills required for any particular profession. Properly pursued, it enhances analytical, critical and interpretive capacities that are applicable to any subject-matter, and in any human context. It cultivates the capacities and appetite for self-expression and reflection, for exchange and debate of ideas, for life-long learning, and for dealing with problems for which there are no easy answers. It also helps to prepare one for the tasks of citizenship. Participation in political and community affairs today is all too often insufficiently informed, manipulable and vulnerable to demagoguery. A good philosophical education enhances the capacity to participate responsibly and intelligently in public life.
In short, the study of philosophy increases one’s intellectual powers, and as a result it improves one’s chances of staying afloat in the high and often choppy seas of human action and human thought. Philosophy is a superb undergraduate major. Far more people ought to consider it seriously.
The Death of Socrates - Jacques-Louis David (1787)
Proof that a career in philosophy has its risks
(Courtesy CGFA - A Virtual Art Museum)