Philosophy is a Practical Major
As someone that pretty recently graduated from college, I inevitably get the question: "Oh, what did you study?" Philosophy, I answer. As someone that works in technology, I also inevitably get the reply, "Oh, interesting."
That second "oh" is hardly ever as enthusiastic as the first one.
I love philosophy, and I'm glad I studied it the entire time I was in college. New York University boasts one of the best philosophy departments in the world (perhaps the very best), and because I was a student of Gallatin within NYU, I got to come up with my own degree program and was able to meld it with the other interests I had.
"Why not computer science?" I am asked. Honestly, at the time, I felt like I knew a lot about programming by the time I went to college and that I would continue to pick up more on my own. In fact, most of the people that I respect and admire as developers were in a similar position as I was. Most of them did go on to become CS majors of course, but personally, I thought all that money for a degree would be better spent on classes on something I was just as passionate about. So philosophy it was.
What I quickly realized was that philosophy was not so much about acquiring knowledge - I don't think many people really come out of those classes with tangible answers about the world - but rather, it's a rigorous exercise for the mind. In the same way that you train a muscle, pumping away at highly abstract and complicated topics like ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology make you a stronger thinker. That's how I feel about philosophy: it builds you tangible, fundamental skills in thinking about subjects, even beyond philosophy. I'll touch on three:
For one, doing the work of philosophy is incredibly taxing on the mind. Going from class to class and wrestling with highly abstract, time-tested arguments helps you build an endurance for difficult thinking. Of course, this isn't specific to philosophy. I think that most pursuits require high levels of intellectual endurance. But there is something uniquely taxing about philosophical inquiry when do you do it for years at a time.
Most people, when they envision what studying philosophy is like, imagine a room full of students sitting in a circle pondering admittedly silly questions such as "Isn't everything subjective?" and "Doesn't saying everything is wrong invalidate that very statement?" Now there's plenty of this kind of talk going on, especially at the introductory levels, but philosophy any more sophisticated than that eventually becomes extremely rigorous. Try to recall the last philosophical debate you might have had with someone, even casually. Remember how tired you felt after it? It's just very heavy stuff, and to do that with the rigor expected of highly respected philosophers day after day is incredibly exhausting.
Building this kind of endurance prepared me well for my pursuits after my philosophy training. Dealing with a lot of very complex concepts, pulling them apart, and keeping at it for long periods of time has made me a better programmer, a better organizational thinker, and more confident and curious individual.
Sophisticated critical thinking is perhaps the most important skill you get out of a philosophy degree. Much of philosophy is about arguments: how to construct them, how to test them, and how to express them. You spend so much time picking apart the assumptions, logical steps, and outcomes of time-tested arguments of the likes of Descartes, Hume, Locke, Kant, and so many others. In the end, you come out of it having an intuition for detecting fallacy, generalization, and ambiguity.
A typical exercise you'll see in a philosophy course is to compare the contrasting ideas of two different philosophers, and it typically goes like this:
- Explain philosopher A's stance
- Explain philosopher B's stance and how it contrasts with that of philosopher A
- Come up with a rebuttal on behalf of philosopher A against philosopher B's original objection.
- Make a reasoned judgment about which stance is stronger
This exercise is extremely useful for a number of reasons, but I'll just take the one I find most important: charitability. In philosophy, an important concept in intellectual debate is to give the most "charitable" version of the opposing view. That means that you must attack another argument in its strongest form possible, otherwise, that makes your arguments appear weak. Most people's intuition tells them to try to attack an argument in its weakest form, to take low blows. But using this concept of charitability, you have a much stronger argument when you take the opposing view in its most powerful form. Charitability is something I find myself using almost on a daily basis, and if weren't for my philosophy training, it's probably not something I would have in my intellectual toolbox.
Being rigorous in philosophy also forces you to be extremely clear about your arguments, and this requires very strong communication skills, both written and verbal. For example, in order to argue about what the meaning of "meaning" is, it requires you to have a pretty formidable ability to express yourself, and not in a way that is typical for regular conversation. For example, people are not used to how philosophy papers are written. It requires a level of conciseness and clarity you rarely encounter anywhere else. Take a look at this annotated example of an introductory-level philosophy paper. Like I mentioned earlier, you don't use this language in your everyday language (my mother would kill me if I spoke to her like that), but it develops a sensitivity for how one expresses arguments.
This brings me to my final point: that philosophy is practical. What I mean by "practical" is that in the end, I believe that philosophical thinking builds useful skills that go beyond an arcane band of academia. I also do not think that this is unique to philosophy. In fact, I think that many of the liberal arts develop these same skills to varying degrees and that they get a bad rep for being "impractical" as well. Does being a philosopher major alone qualify you to become an amazing engineer? No, I don't think so. I do think that studying philosophy trains you to be a better thinker and communicator, which can certainly make you a better engineer, some other kind of professional, and better human being.