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Why Study Philosophy?

What Is Philosophy? What Are a Philosophy Major's Career Prospects?

See also: UTK Philosophy Department brochure (PDF)

As an academic discipline, Philosophy addresses questions basic to the human experience:

  • What kind of beings are human beings?
  • If human beings have a capacity for reason, what is reason?
  • What's involved in knowing the truth? Is this possible for human beings?
  • Is science the best or even the only possible way to know the truth about the world?
  • Are there truths to know that science can't reach?
  • What does it mean to act rationally?
  • How is acting rationally related to acting morally?
  • What are values?
  • Are there truths to know about values?
  • How are values related to the fact that human beings are social beings?

These are just some of the questions basic to the human experience that Philosophy addresses. Importantly, these questions concern not only human experience, but other academic disciplines as well. Consider: What kinds of truths does Mathematics seek? Truths about the world? About thought? Necessary truths? Truths that are universal, but not necessarily so? Or consider: What is it that Economics properly aims at when it studies human action involved in the production, consumption and distribution of goods? Does it properly aim only at explaining existing patterns of human action of this sort? Or does it properly aim also at improving human action in these areas? If the latter, does it properly aim at improving only the rationality of human action in these areas? Or does it properly aim also at improving the morality of human action in these areas? If the latter, how is Economics related to Ethics (one of the central areas of Philosophy) more generally?

So as an academic discipline, Philosophy casts a wide net and takes up questions basic not only to the human experience but of basic interest to other academic disciplines as well. There are a great many fields of inquiry within Philosophy. They include:

  • Metaphysics (What is reality?)
  • Epistemology (What is knowledge?)
  • Logic (What is the structure of reason or reasoning?)
  • Philosophy of Mind (What are minds? What is thought? How do they relate to their objects and to the world?)
  • Philosophy of Language (How does language function as a medium of thought?)
  • Philosophy of Science (What is science? How is it able to give us knowledge of the world?)
  • Ethics (What are values? How should we act? What makes an action right or wrong, good or bad?)
  • Political Philosophy (What is political authority? What would just institutions look like?)
  • Philosophy of Religion (Is God possible? Can we know whether God exists? Is faith rational?)

These are just some of the fields of inquiry within Philosophy and a sampling of their core questions.

In all these fields of inquiry, the questions Philosophy pursues are basic. And basic questions are often the most difficult. Indeed, sometimes progress is marked simply by finally recognizing and clarifying certain questions as basic, for it is often extremely difficult to arrive at conclusive answers to basic questions. Thus, it is sometimes said that Philosophy is the one discipline where success is marked not by conclusively answering but by recognizing and clarifying questions. Of course, Philosophy does sometimes answer basic questions, and recognizing and clarifying basic questions is sometimes a mark of success in all serious disciplines.

Most students entering the university are unfamiliar with the academic study of Philosophy. Although high school students are certainly intellectually capable of studying Philosophy, they are seldom given the opportunity through high school coursework. High school students do, however, quite often find themselves informally reflecting on philosophical questions, since many of these questions arise naturally for people who reflect on general features of their experience as human beings.

The Philosophy Major's (Surprisingly Solid) Career Prospects

"In the 21st century, mastery of the basic skills of reading, writing, and math is no longer enough. Increasingly, almost any job that pays more than minimum wage today—both blue and white collar—requires employees who know how to solve a range of intellectual and technical problems… In addition, we face an exponential increase of readily available information, new technologies that are constantly changing, and more complex societal challenges such as global warming. Thus, work, learning, and citizenship in the 21st century demand that we all know how to think—to reason, analyze, weigh evidence, problem solve. These… are essential survival skills for all of us… Effective communication, curiosity, and critical thinking skills… are much more than just the traditional desirable outcomes of a liberal arts education. They are essential competencies and habits of mind for life in the 21st century."

Given the expected outcomes of majoring in Philosophy (described below), you might think the Philosophy faculty authored the above text in an effort to draw more students into its degree programs. Well, we of course wholeheartedly endorse the passage's key claims; but we didn't write it. Instead, the quotation comes from the introduction to The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need—And What We Can Do About It by Tony Wagner, Co-Director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education .

As Wagner correctly suggests, employers of all sorts value highly the education and training Philosophy majors acquire; accordingly, career opportunities for Philosophy majors abound. Philosophy majors know how to think—they see the big picture, question assumptions, analyze arguments, and understand alternative perspectives. They can speak and write clearly, in both expository and argumentative modes. Philosophy majors can find themselves at home in the humanities, the social sciences, the natural sciences, the exact sciences, and in all manner of professions—for they have been trained to take up basic questions that range across all these areas. Philosophy majors from UT have found careers in business, medicine, law, journalism, media, government, teaching, science, social services, and advocacy organizations. And of course some have gone on to graduate work in Philosophy and to academic careers as Philosophers. Speaking of graduate work, the 2010-11 GRE "Guide to the Use of Scores" reports (pp.17-19) that Philosophy majors score higher than students in any other major on the Verbal and Analytical Writing sections. Further, on the Quantitative section, Philosophy majors score higher than almost every other major in the life sciences, social sciences, humanities and arts, education, and business. (See the relevant links below for information about how well Philosophy majors score on the GRE and LSAT.)

So: Philosophy majors do very well in the job market, much better than you might initially think. Indeed, a recent study found that, by mid-career, Philosophy majors earn on average over $80,000 a year—more than students majoring in (e.g.) Chemistry, Marketing, Political Science, Accounting, Information Technology, Business Management, Psychology, English, History, and Sociology. Granted, this could be because students who choose to major in Philosophy are brighter and more capable to begin with than students who choose to major in these other areas. But it seems likely that it is (also) because students who choose to major in Philosophy find themselves well-trained for success in a wide range of careers, thus improving their lifetime employment and earnings potential. As with most majors, your immediate post-graduation employment prospects and earnings will be determined not only by your major, but by your grades, your work experience (including internships), and your planning.

For more information about the various merits of a formal education in Philosophy, see the following articles and websites:

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