Why Study Philosophy?

Co-authored by Samuel John Benson, Philosophy Major (Class of 2015) and Charles Taliaferro, Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy, St. Olaf College.


Professor Taliaferro in Iran, summer of 2014
Professor Taliaferro in Iran, summer of 2014
Samuel Benson, contemplating life, 2014
Samuel Benson, in the studio, 2014

When we ask “why should I study X?”, what are we really asking? In an ideal world, we would study and major in what we enjoy doing most or are most proficient in or what we find most fulfilling or engaging. However, those answers do not get at the heart of the question, because in reality we are really asking about the benefits of a particular field of study and why I should prioritize that particular field of study over another (perhaps more lucrative) field of study. Even if we enjoy certain things more than others, those things are not necessarily the “practical” choices. So, in this blurb, the goal will be to outline reasons for studying and majoring in philosophy beyond merely “I find philosophy the most engaging thing I do” and explain how philosophy is applicable and practical in a wide array of domains.

One reason is that philosophy is the field that covers matters of truth and meaning across all areas of inquiry and life.  For any area of life and inquiry, from the sciences to politics to the arts to sports to life-and-death decisions, there are different views of reality and principles concerning what to value or to look for.  ‘Philosophy’ is the general term for the practice of critically reflecting on different worldviews, different views of what we should value and why, and it is the term for one’s understanding of the meaning and function of education and work.  It would be impossible for there to be a society without some philosophical *understanding* of authority, responsibility, and practical rules coordinating individuals. Furthermore, any and all endeavours function on implicit and explicit norms that govern the rules and practices of that endeavour; philosophy therefore becomes the practice of analyzing and assessing these worldviews. In such a general sense, ‘philosophy’ might be good or bad, life-enhancing or deadly.  In the historical practice of philosophy, -philosophy- is not just a general world view, but the practice of assessing worldviews in light of the “love of wisdom,” the etymological meaning of the word “philosophy.”

So, one reason to study philosophy is because it is the practice that can assist you in thinking about the widest range of areas of life we can imagine.  Another is that the study of philosophy involves skills that can enhance your work in almost any endeavor.  Philosophers are trained to be able to recognize and analyze arguments, to discover the premises or presupposition of different claims in almost any area of inquiry, and to use one’s imagination and commitment to fairness in inquiry to sort out why different persons are in conflict over competing claims. A philosophical mindset means demonstrating an openness to alternate forms of thought and argument without recourse to polemic or didacticism. This skillset can be applied across the board to a wide array of disciplines.

In concrete utilitarian terms, philosophy majors tend to outperform other majors overall on the GRE and tend to get better scores than typical finance-leaning majors on the GMAT. Philosophy majors as of 2011 are only at a 7.2% unemployment rate, which ties with neuroscience. If monetary gain is your goal, philosophy majors finish 4th in terms of median mid-career salaries without a higher degree and first in terms of overall salary growth. Even if they do not enter into academic life, philosophy majors find work in a number of different disciplines in which philosophy provides a major boon. Fields such as medicine, law, computer science, and business all benefit from the skills of the philosopher. Just take a look at the alumni profiles and you will find a vast array of different careers and jobs stemming from study in philosophy. Even studying philosophy alone will be widely applicable to an array of careers and jobs as well as offering concrete practical benefits in terms of income.