What is Philosophy?
Philosophy is the systematic study of matters such as truth, knowledge, reality, reason, mind, beauty and morality. Although other academic disciplines also address some of these topics, Philosophy is special in its focus on the more foundational and abstract problems that arise in each of these areas and in its emphasis on critical, reasoned argument. Here is what some contemporary philosophers have to say on the subject:
What is the aim of philosophy? To be clear-headed rather than confused; lucid rather than obscure; rational rather than otherwise; and to be neither more, nor less, sure of things than is justifiable by argument or evidence. [Geoffrey Warnock, Philosophers]
The word “philosophy” means the love of wisdom, but what philosophers really love is reasoning. They formulate theories and marshal reasons to support them, they consider objections and try to meet these, they construct arguments against other views. Even philosophers who proclaim the limitations of reason adduce reasons for their views and present difficulties for opposing ones. [Robert Nozick, The Nature of Rationality]
Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never traveled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect. [Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy]
How to get started
The following courses lack prerequisites. They are designed to give you a broad understanding of the field and address in detail some of the fundamental 'mechanics' of studying Philosophy (e.g. how to read and engage with philosophical writing, and how to write Philosophy essays). PHIL 103, 106, 108, and 201 are particularly good starting points for students interested in trying out Philosophy.
Subfield (a): History of Philosophy
201 - Intro to Ancient Philosophy
221 - History of Modern Philosophy
Subfield (b): Value Theory
106 - Introduction to Moral Philosophy
108 - First Year Seminar: Friendship
Subfield (c): Metaphysics and Theory of Knowledge
103 - Self and World
216 - Logic
To decide among these courses, think about which sorts of philosophical questions you find most interesting or provoking. Would you like to learn how to think carefully and rigorously about difficult moral and political problems? Try PHIL 106. Do you find yourself wondering whether there's any truly secure knowledge, and what its limits might be? Do you wonder whether modern physics challenges the possibility that humans have free will? Consider PHIL 103. Or are you most interested in Philosophy's roots, in the traditions from which we have inherited our current questions and solutions? In this case, PHIL 201 is the place to start.
The following resources provide helpful advice about reading and writing Philosophy papers for students new to the subject:
- Professor de Bres' Pink Guide to Taking Philosophy Classes
- Jim Pryor's Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper
- Jim Pryor's Guidelines on Reading Philosophy
Sub-fields of Philosophy
At Wellesley we divide our courses into three subfields:
(a) Metaphysics and epistemology
Metaphysics is concerned with what the world is like, at the most fundamental and general level. Materialism, the view that reality as a whole consists entirely of little bits of matter, organized into a variety of structures, is a metaphysical view. So is idealism - the view that reality as a whole is mental, consisting of minds and their contents, and relations amongst minds.
Epistemology is concerned with the nature and limits of human knowledge. Empiricism - the view that all our knowledge of reality comes via the use of our bodily senses - is an epistemological view. So is rationalism - the view that our reason, independently of the senses, can provide us with at least some knowledge of reality.
Logic, a form of mathematics, also falls into this subfield. One of the central concerns of logic is the nature of “deductive” arguments. If all of the premises offered in support of a conclusion are true, what else needs to be the case for the conclusion to be true? Logicians develop formal systems for determining questions of this kind.
(b) Value theory
Value theory includes Ethics, Political Philosophy, and Aesthetics: the study of the good and the right, the just, and the beautiful. Some questions that arise in these areas are metaphysical or epistemological in nature. (Are goodness and beauty part of the “fabric of the world”, or do they exist only in our minds? How could we come to know what morality demands?) Others are more practical. (Is abortion morally wrong? What are the proper limits of free speech? Should we count graffiti as art?). Ethicists and aestheticians try to articulate, in a systematic and critical way, the concepts and principles that might help us to answer these questions.
c) The History of Philosophy
In studying Philosophy, you are contributing to an ongoing conversation that has been conducted all over the world for millennia. Historians of Philosophy study what past philosophers have had to say across the course of this conversation: for instance, what Aristotle thought about the nature of virtue, or the development of theories of knowledge from Plato through to Kant. Gaining an informed understanding of the History of Philosophy is both intrinsically interesting and can shed valuable light on contemporary philosophical problems.
Why take a Philosophy class?
Many of us have thought, at some time or other, about philosophical questions and found them puzzling, worrying or intriguing. Studying Philosophy helps you to think effectively, creatively, clearly, and deeply about these fascinating issues. Because Philosophical problems are complex and difficult, attempting to solve them is challenging, fun and intellectually rewarding.
2. Portable skills.
Studying Philosophy improves your ability to:
Think carefully, critically and independently
Look at issues from multiple points of view
Dispassionately assess the pros and cons of a proposal
Sympathetically consider ideas with which you deeply disagree
Read, understand and engage with dense and challenging texts
Synthesize information and identify key points
Write lucid and fair expositions of ideas on any topic
Express yourself clearly and articulately in writing and speaking
Listen actively to an interlocutor
Ask probing questions
Detect mistakes in reasoning
Identify, evaluate and develop your existing beliefs
Generate creative and constructive solutions to difficult, abstract problems
The highly general and useful nature of these skills means that doing some Philosophy benefits students who are not planning to major in Philosophy as well as those who are.
3. Connections with other disciplines.
Philosophy can help you gain a fresh perspective on, and insight into, other disciplines that you study at college. For instance, Philosophy connects to Computing and Mathematics through Logic, to the Sciences through Philosophy of Science and Bioethics, to Media Studies, Art History and Literature through Philosophy of Art, and to Political Science, International Relations, Economics and Women’s Studies through Political Philosophy, Philosophy of Economics and Feminist Philosophy.
What can I do with a Philosophy major?
Philosophy encourages students to interpret challenging texts, to assess and develop arguments, and to write and speak with clarity and force. These skills are highly sought after in many fields, and provide Philosophy majors with a diverse range of potential careers, including medicine, journalism, business, law, teaching, politics, art and publishing.
Wellesley's own Philosophy graduates are now working as:
- Lawyers, judges and paralegals
- Physicians, nurses, lab technicians, dentists, research directors
- University professors, school teachers
- Financial analysts, consultants, marketing directors, small business owners
- IT consultants, computer programmers
- Journalists, photographers, writers, editors, graphic designers
- Directors of non-profit organizations, museum curators
A degree in Philosophy is correlated with excellent preparation for graduate study in many fields:
1. Law school.
An analysis of LSAT scores for students taking the exam and applying to law school in 1991-2 and 1994-5 showed that Philosophy & Religion majors were second only to Physics majors in their overall performance. A follow-up study in 2004 found the same pattern of results. The American Bar Association writes:
"Contrary to popular belief, law schools do not favor political science, criminal justice, and government majors over others…law schools will respect your pursuit of subjects you find challenging. This is especially true if the courses you take are known to be more difficult, such as philosophy, engineering, and science. Also, look for courses that will strengthen the skills you need in law school. Classes that stress research and writing are excellent preparation for law school, as are courses that teach reasoning and analytical skills." “Solid grades in courses such as logic, philosophy, and abstract mathematics are generally considered a plus."
2. Graduate school.
According to the 2006-7 Guide to the Use of Scores, published by Educational Testing Services (ETS), students whose intended graduate field of study was Philosophy scored highest on average in both the Verbal Reasoning and the Analytical Writing sections of the test. In the Quantitative Reasoning section, Philosophy students ranked 16th overall - behind most physical sciences and engineering but ahead of all life sciences, and ahead of all humanities and social sciences except economics and finance.
3. Medical school.
Philosophy courses help students to develop skills that are crucial in medicine: the ability to see one’s way through a problem, to assess solutions, and to communicate solutions to others. The rigor of studying Philosophy, combined with a solid performance in required science courses, also demonstrates a pre-med student’s intellectual flexibility.