If you are a philosophy major, you have likely seen some odd expressions when you told people what you are studying. And you have probably had to answer questions about what you can do with a philosophy degree, or how you will be able to earn a living and pay off your student loans, or even just what it is that you are studying.
And more than likely, some well-intentioned people have suggested that getting a more “practical” degree like physics might be a better use of your time and your tuition money.
But while a philosophy student might not have an obvious college-to-job career path laid out in front of them like a mathematics student does, that doesn’t mean that studying philosophy has failed to prepare a graduate for life in the real world. The principles provided by a degree in philosophy can provide a solid foundation that can serve a student well not only in his career, but in all areas of his life.
To put it simply, philosophers seek to understand fundamental questions about what is real, and what is knowledge, and what it means to be a moral person. By exploring questions like this and formulating answers that can be discussed and defended rationally, philosophy helps expand our understanding of many areas of human experience like reality, logic, and existence, as well as moral and social issues.
As a result of this broad-based intellectual training, graduates with a degree in philosophy can be found in a wide range of sectors including business, government, education, nonprofits, and religious organizations. In fact, for most philosophy majors, career choices usually depend more on your particular interests and skills rather than on any occupational training you receive in your college philosophy classes.
For this reason it is generally recommended that you take some courses in the area that you will seek employment in after graduation (eg economics ,public policy, education) along with your required philosophy classes, or you might even consider earning a dual-major. And internships or part-time jobs that give you real-world employment experience are also valuable adjuncts to your philosophy degree.
In today’s rapidly changing job market, there are many careers that do not require a specific undergraduate major, but rather a wide range of skills, accomplishments, and experiences that demonstrate that an individual has both the ability to think critically and the flexibility to adapt to a wide range of work conditions. And an undergraduate degree in philosophy can provide excellent training in both of these areas.
Benefits of a Degree in Philosophy
By teaching us how to think about morality and make decisions based on their moral content, philosophy can have a powerful impact on us and on the world around us. In today’s highly interconnected world where even 6 degrees of separation will soon be too many, our decisions can help or hurt those around us. And the more power, influence and authority we have, the more the effects of our actions are magnified.
Our choices to behave in a moral and ethical way – or not – and to support those politicians and other leaders who exemplify moral concepts is dependent upon our understanding what morality and ethics are, what moral values are important to us, and how to recognize those concepts in others. A study of philosophy provides us with moral theories and helps us find the most reasonable methods of making moral decisions.
In practical terms, this means we can learn about psychological factors that help motivate people to act in moral ways, and then teach these factors. For example, we can learn how to nurture our empathy for others and develop programs to formally teach that information, which will hopefully result in more people helping those who are less fortunate. Conversely, we can stop training people in behaviors or beliefs that are not conductive to moral activities (“looking out for number one”, “greed is good”), which ideally will lead to a decrease in corruption, graft, bribery and other immoral activities.
Not only does a study of philosophy teach us how to recognize moral behavior, and how to implement it in our own life, but it also teaches us how to be reasonable in our own actions as we make choices and work to reach our personal goals. The philosophical areas of logic and epistemology (the study of knowledge) are especially valuable in this regard, since they can help us recognize unreasonable, manipulative and flawed thinking which can be used by politicians, propagandists, and even advertising agencies that are trying to deceive people using incomplete, misleading or outright false information.
Simply put, there is good reasoning and bad reasoning, and philosophy teaches us how to recognize the difference between the two. Learning how to make this distinction plays an important role in our ability to identify and avoid deception ourselves, and teach others how to do so as well in order to make the world a better place for all of us to live in.
And being a reasonable person, who is willing to put aside his or her personal beliefs and prejudices long enough to clearly evaluate other options that are being presented to us by others, helps decrease the possibility that we will become dogmatic, close-minded and perhaps even fanatical about a point of view that cannot be logically justified, to the detriment of ourselves and anyone who disagrees with us.
In fact, by providing us with the tools and knowledge needed to understand formal logic, philosophy enables us go beyond the limitations of our personal experiences to form reasonable and plausible beliefs about highly speculative topics that lie outside our range of actual knowledge like the nature of reality, the nature of mathematics, mental causation, the nature of morality, and controversial applied ethics.
And even if we don’t have sufficient knowledge to determine the absolute truth or “right answer” about a particular topic, philosophy can help us determine which hypotheses or beliefs are worthy of further study, and which are untenable based on the information that we do have.
Philosophy and Creativity
As well as helping us be more reasonable, philosophy can also help us to be more creative. Studying philosophy teaches you not only about what life’s greatest questions are, but also gives you some of the best answers that human beings have been able to formulate to them up to this time. This exposes your mind to possibilities that you would likely not have ever considered on your own.
As you study philosophy, you will notice that philosophers have often contributed to the world by thinking in entirely new ways and coming up with new and unique answers, and there is no reason that their example cannot inspire you to do the same. And keep in mind that there is no law that says philosophically-inspired creativity cannot have practical implications – in fact, computer languages and logic and the “scientific method” used by researchers everywhere are only some of the real-world applications that arose from philosophical thought.
And philosophy can help us hone our critical as well as our creative thinking skills. By understanding what is reasonable and what is not, by learning how to recognize deliberate deception when we encounter it, and by being able to sort out what makes sense from what is specious, we have the tools we need to improve every area of our lives from our jobs to our family relationships, from who we vote for and where we worship and what we teach our children.
In fact, training in philosophy is one of the best forms of self-improvement that you can find. No, philosophy doesn’t offer the quick fix that today’s trendy gurus promise in their books and video courses, and it definitely does require time and effort. But realistically the only way to improve your life is to begin improving yourself. And that means using philosophical knowledge and skills in everyday life in order to learn more about our world, improve our critical thinking, make informed decisions based on moral tenets, and consciously examine our actions and their influences on ourselves and those around us.