Philosophy degrees are all about asking big questions - the value of life, the basis of morality, the nature of the world around us. Thanks to the ever accelerating advancements made in the ‘hard’ sciences over the past 200 years, human knowledge has advanced to a point that once would have been inconceivable.
However, such disciplines can only really deal with ‘how’ – ‘why’ is a different matter altogether. Science cannot explain the purpose of human existence or fully get to grips with the complexity of human relationships; it can’t explain the value of life, or why something is right or wrong; and it cannot explore the ideas we use to make sense of the phenomenal world around us. This, instead, is the remit of philosophy.
Common skills acquired from a philosophy degree include:
Philosophy as we know it can be traced back to the time of the Ancient Greeks – the word itself is derived from the Greek for ‘love of knowledge’. Its nature as a study of humanity means that it is less prone to going out of date than some subjects, so to study philosophy is to immerse yourself in an absolutely huge continuum of ideas and debates both past and present.
But that is not to say, however, that new developments are not being made; the past hundred years or so have produced some of the most important and significant philosophical thought there is.
It is, of course, a subject which tends to creep into other disciplines, particularly social sciences and humanities subjects like literature, politics, and the history of art, but also the ‘hard’ sciences – for instance when it comes to analyzing the ethical implications of a research project.
As such, philosophy at undergraduate level is often read in tandem with another subject –philosophy, politics and economics is a famous combination, but the options vary widely.
But, for the purist, there is the rather intense option of reading philosophy on its own. Not a subject for everyone, but if you have a passion for thinking, above else, and seeking to answer the unanswerable, then perhaps philosophy is for you.
With literally thousands of years of previous thinking to contend with, and the whole of human nature to explain, it is safe to say that philosophy is a rather big discipline. Ergo, you would be hard pressed to study all of it. A degree of specialization is therefore necessary. At undergraduate level, though, this is only likely to involve elective modules and your dissertation.
Some of the philosophical branches on which you might try to focus are:
Logic: Logic is a concept with which you’ll already be familiar – a logical statement simply being one which makes sense, based on what we know to be true. Philosophical logic is an extension of this, systematically discussing the forms of an argument to see in what ways it is legitimate to state that something is true, and which leave a margin for error. This branch of philosophy has a significant bearing on other subjects, such as mathematics and computer science.
Ethics: Again, ethics – the consideration of how one should act towards others – is a concept of which you will already have a grasp. Philosophical ethics deals with how you can determine right or wrong in a social situation, the concepts upon which this judgement may be based, and ways in which an ethically correct outcome can be achieved. It also looks to understand the nature of moral and ethical judgements at a base level.
Political philosophy: This branch of philosophy concerns the best way to organize society, what our collective goals should be, and determining the rules which should be followed to ensure these goals are met. Of course, these are not questions on which everyone can agree; therefore this is one for those who enjoy arguing their corner. Expect to employ other branches of philosophy to justify arguments.
Metaphysics: Metaphysics is one of the more abstract branches of philosophy, dealing with the fundamental nature of being and reality. It largely deals with things that cannot be fully explained by objective facts (though of course, it could be combined with neuroscience). As popular a subject with poets and prose writers as it is with pure philosophers, it has given rise to some of the most conceptually challenging and open-ended debates in the history of philosophy.
Epistemology: This is another more abstract one, which deals with the nature of knowledge, its origin, its forms, its definition, its validity and, importantly, its limits. As with metaphysics, this is one of the branches of philosophy which requires some extremely deep thought; perhaps a good way to work out if you should pursue philosophy academically is whether or not that sounds appealing…
Philosophy degrees aren't known for being vocational – how often do you meet a professional philosopher? Of course, a gifted few can climb through the levels and become professional academics, but this is not necessarily something you should bank on. However, philosophy degrees arm you with an arsenal of skills which will serve you well in the world of work.
The breadth of professions into which you can gain entry is perhaps well demonstrated with a brief list of people who have studied the subject, which includes such diverse characters as Martin Luther King, Bruce Lee, Harrison Ford, T S Eliot, George Soros, Woody Allen and Bill Clinton. Perhaps martial artist, acclaimed film director, or president of a world’s largest economy are rather far-flung careers, but they highlight the potential of a philosophy graduate. More commonly, though, you’ll find graduates working as journalists, lawyers, teachers, civil servants, diplomats, in the media or for NGOs.
Their success in these vocations can be attributed to their ability to judge between a sound and unsound argument, and draw reasoned views from difficult situations, derived from the exposure to challenging arguments philosophy students ‘enjoy’ (in a manner of speaking) over the course of their studies. This helps them to navigate a clear and logical approach which takes into account the various permutations of a given situation, and to anticipate potential counterarguments.
Any profession which involves ideas, then – be it coming up with them or explaining them – would be well suited to a philosophy graduate.