What is Philosophy?

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates tells a story about the navigator on a ship who is thrown overboard by the sailors who see him as a useless stargazer: what is useful depends on whether you are focused on the task of steering the ship or the need to guide it. Imagine a race in which speed is the highest value among the runners, all of whom have forgotten where the finish line is and why they want to get there. Studying the “big ideas,” looking at an issue from various perspectives, or trying to understand the convictions of a different culture can all seem indulgent hobbies when faced with the urgency of daily concerns. Yet, it is those very ideas, perspectives, and convictions – inchoate and unexamined as they may be – that drive the decisions and outline the goals that shape our lives and the lives of those around us.

The study of philosophy sharpens critical and analytical skills which allows students to perform better in all of their studies. But more importantly, philosophy gives students the means to understand, direct, and guide their studies. To decide the right thing to do, to wonder if a law is just, to critique an article in the newspaper, to ask what you can do to help others or yourself… all of this is to do philosophy.

Why study Philosophy?

There is an old joke that the most common question a philosophy major asks after graduation is, “Do you want fries with that?” While it is certainly true that getting a philosophy degree will not guarantee you a job after graduation, the truth is that very few degrees will – and those that do drastically narrow your future options. A university education is not job training. The chance to learn to think well and investigate the most important and interesting questions in life is itself a reward, not merely a means by which to do something. Still, it is no small thing to worry about how you are going to make a living; it is just a question that has a lot less to do with your major than you may think. Philosophy is one of the most common majors of the wealthiest people in America; it is also a common major among those who have low paying jobs. Philosophy offers training in crucial, widely applicable skills – such as problem solving – but how these skills are used is up to the individual.

Philosophy plays a central role in shaping our lives. We often think that to understand our world we must study the facts: environmental influences, government policies, resource allocations, and so on. Yet facts alone have never influenced anyone. We care about facts only if they mean something to us. No one cares whether the White House lawn has an odd or even number of blades of grass. Concepts are much more powerful than facts. Since what we know depends on the facts we gather, and since the facts we gather depend on the concepts we have, if we are to act on what we know (or believe we know), our concepts will determine how we act. Hence, the philosophical ideas we hold – our concepts of security, success, beauty, love, social responsibility, and so on – will direct and change our lives and the lives of those we influence. Although fields such as medicine and engineering are of paramount importance in helping others, the reasons why someone might want to help others cannot be found within medicine or engineering themselves. There is nothing more powerful in the world than an idea.

The best reason to study philosophy is that understanding what a good life is depends on it. It is, however, also very useful for making a living. Philosophy is the only major that is focused primarily on thinking skills, hence it is valuable in a quickly changing job market. Employers repeatedly state that it is far easier to teach employees the content of the field than to teach them skills of thinking critically, presenting clear arguments, identifying essential points, and problem solving. This is just what philosophers do. Unfortunately, most people don’t know that – and hence the jokes about fries.