What is The Study of Philosophy?
Apr 14, 2023
What is The Study of Philosophy?
When picturing what happens in a college classroom, the philosophy major may be the most common one that comes to mind. Mainly because of popular fiction, most of us probably think of a philosophy course as a place where there are no answers, where we mindlessly think instead of learning critical thinking skills, and simply making up nonsense can be passed off as deep insight. But what is the study of philosophy, then—just empty words?
In reality, for one to study philosophy is far more complex and meaningful, and there’s a reason it’s a discipline that goes back many thousands of years to the height of ancient civilization. Reflecting on difficult questions and attempting to make sense of the unknowable what makes us human, and created the foundations on which all modern society stands. It’s only by imagining what’s possible that we go on to build political and legal systems, invent new technology, and improve our lives generation by generation.
Let’s take a close look at the basics to find out what it means to study philosophy and why we have been fascinated by it for so long, from Plato and Aristotle in Classical Greece all the way up to Ricky Gervais today.
What is philosophy?
The most basic way to characterize philosophy is that there are three major learning modes: there is the technical, the practical, and everything else is philosophy. Another way of thinking about philosophy is that it’s the study of our reality and what we value as humans. It is done by asking questions and imagining rather than observing things.
For a more practical view, we can turn to Greg Lynch, associate professor of philosophy at North Central College. He said, “Philosophy explores the fundamental questions that lie at the bottom of our everyday interactions with the world, but which we don’t often pay much explicit attention to. For that reason, (the) subject matter is very broad; there’s a branch of philosophy that studies just about every aspect of human life.”
Philosophy majors examine the same subjects any other major does, but they do so by digging into matters we usually take for granted. A philosophical question moves beyond widely accepted truths to discover why they’re accepted, or imagines what it would be like if they were not.
Plenty of weighty, important issues are at stake as part of pursuing a philosophy degree. Philosophy can come from anywhere and anyone, though, and it all comes back to very simple questions.
Lynch spelled out some discussion starters that can begin with a casual conversation and last for years. He said, “To give just a couple of examples ... questions like, ‘What is happiness?’ ‘What are responsibilities to other people and to the environment?’ ‘What does it mean for a policy to be fair or just?’
“’When should we defer to what experts tell us, and when should we think for ourselves?’ ‘Can science answer every question we might ask, or are there parts of our lives that go beyond what science can discover?’ ‘What’s the difference between being wise and being smart?’”
What is studied in philosophy?
Now that you know a little more about what the study of philosophy is, you may be wondering how to become a philosopher. The answer is simple—anyone can philosophize, whether you want to join the American Philosophical Association, form your own philosophy club, or just stare at the stars and write a journal. To do it professionally, however, you need to go to school.
As we mentioned earlier, philosophy usually isn’t introduced directly before the college level, so we tend not to be as familiar with it. We can name different kinds of math, science, political science or social science, humanities, and art, but philosophy may feel like something we don’t know because we can’t recognize it.
Questions in philosophy can be grouped into a few areas to help make sense of the almost infinite topics the field can get into. The team at Leverage Edu offers a solid list of the seven most commonly accepted branches of philosophy:
- “Axiology: study of the nature of value and valuation
- Metaphysics: study of the fundamental nature of reality
- Epistemology: study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge
- Ethics: study of what is right and wrong in human behavior
- Aesthetics: study of beauty and taste
- Logic Philosophy: study of the nature and types of logic
- Political Philosophy: study of government, addressing questions about the nature, scope, and legitimacy of public agents and institutions”
More specific areas of study within these branches include topics like analytical philosophy, business ethics, and philosophy, as it has been done during different historical periods like early modern philosophy for example.
Taking a class in philosophy usually involves closely reading texts that use metaphors and relatable stories to introduce a philosophical problem. With those readings as a guide, a philosophy professor will guide their class in discussing a fundamental question and how to create a reasoned argument to explain and defend their views.
The classes in each philosophy program vary from school to school, as each philosophy department decides its own requirements for a college major. There are many subjects that commonly come up, however. Courses offered at North Central College, for example, include:
- Professional Ethics
- Health Care Ethics
- Environmental Ethics
- Logic and Critical Thinking
- Philosophy of Law
- Philosophy of Mind
- Ancient and Medieval Philosophy
- Modern Philosophy
- Philosophy of Science
- Ethical Theory
- Feminist Philosophy
- Social and Political Philosophy
- Philosophy of Religion
- Science and Religion: Conflict or Dialogue?
- 20th Century Philosophy
- Knowledge and Reality
Why is philosophy important?
Beyond the scope of imagination and innovation, philosophy is extremely useful because, as we have suggested, it really does involve everything worth thinking about. Studying philosophy, even with a philosophy minor, can give you a much greater understanding of religion, governments, legal systems, economics, communication, physics, poetry, music, and much more.
You may be wondering, however, if philosophy will hold your interest. Writing for Study Portals, philosopher Alexandru Pop provides 10 things you can do as part of your philosophical studies that are appealing to just about any student:
- “1. Ask the most fundamental questions
- 2. Learn a little bit of everything
- 3. Study anywhere in the world
- 4. Discuss exciting topics and do thought experiments
- 5. Understand how human thinking has developed over time
- 6. Develop critical and structured thinking
- 7. Learn to read and write like a philosopher
- 8. (Know that) no question is too dumb, no topic too sacred
- 9. Apply your knowledge to more careers than you expect
- 10. (Discover) philosophy is a constantly modern subject”
Ways you can use a philosophy degree
Now for the real question. You may say that deep thinking is great, but what can you do with a degree in philosophy? What is the average philosopher salary, even? Can you get paid for making a philosophical inquiry?
The answer may surprise you. Because of the wide range of expertise that philosophy can provide, as a philosophy graduate, you’ll be equipped for many great opportunities. More importantly, you will have skills beyond what’s on your resume that you can use to convince someone to hire you.
According to Lynch, “Rather than receiving narrow training for a specific career track, philosophy students develop core critical thinking and writing skills that are transferable to a number of fields and professions. They learn how to analyze difficult documents, break complicated ideas into manageable parts, argue persuasively, communicate clearly, and navigate disagreements respectfully.”
Lynch goes on to say his students have found success across the professional spectrum—in finance, education, technology, social work, consulting, the legal profession, and especially in professional grant writing.
Higher education reporter Ilana Kowarski wrote for U.S. News and World Report that college professors across the country report similar results for their versatile philosophy students. She said, “Philosophy faculty say that the knowledge gained via philosophy coursework is especially applicable to career paths that involve considering and resolving ethical dilemmas, such as legal, policy and government jobs.
“Further, because alumni of philosophy programs tend to excel at speaking and writing, they often choose communication-focused professions, including jobs in advertising, marketing and communications, faculty say.”
Kowarski shared some prominent, and in many cases, high-paying, careers for philosophy grads:
- “Account executive at a public relations or marketing firm
- Communications director
- Marketing director
- Policy analyst
- Philosophy professor
- Research assistant”
An undergraduate degree in philosophy can be the perfect way to prepare for graduate or law school. It will train you for the higher-order critical thinking you’ll do in postgraduate work. Advanced degrees will then unlock even more rewarding and lucrative career options.
Make Philosophy Part of Your Future
Ready to get started? Your first step to a career in philosophy is to answer a much less complex question—where to go to college. You want to look for a program like the one at North Central College, where the class sizes are small, and they’re all taught by professors who encourage rich discussion and deep connection between students as well as faculty. You’ll also want to look for the kind of opportunities North Central offers for extracurricular activities like speech and debate and student political groups, as well as access to internship and research activities in and around Chicago.
Find out more about North Central’s philosophy program today.
Jacob Imm is the associate director of communication in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 13 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.
Leverage Edu, “Branches of Philosophy.” https://leverageedu.com/blog/branches-of-philosophy/
Alexandru Pop, Study Portals, “10 Reasons Why You Should Study a Philosophy Degree in 2023.” https://www.mastersportal.com/articles/2864/10-reasons-why-you-should-study-a-philosophy-degree-in-2023.html
Ilana Kowarski, U.S. News and World Report, “What Can You Do With a Philosophy Degree.” https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/what-you-can-do-with-a-philosophy-degree