Philosophers do not usually gather data or set up experiments in laboratories. Instead, they construct theories, or best rational guesses, about any particular issue solely by using logical thinking. This involves taking any idea or theory—say, the theory that computers can be designed to think like humans—and figuring out the most basic assumptions underlying it; evaluating whether the theory is logically consistent; justifying why this particular theory is (or is not) better than other theories; and drawing out the implications of accepting this theory. Understood this way, philosophy has been, and remains, an important field.
Now, let’s consider some common objections to studying philosophy.
First, some people think that philosophy is merely the useless multiplication of competing theories. But imagine a group of people trying to find their way out of a forest. In such a situation, it would be reasonable for them to come up with competing theories, any of which could turn out to be correct; and to identify the most plausible theory in discussion with each other. They would then act on the basis of this theory, knowing that it might well turn out to be mistaken.
So we need competing theories to come up with a provisional ‘best’ theory that can then be tested. Philosophers concern themselves with the most fundamental questions relating to our world: What separates the real from the unreal, knowledge from ignorance, right from wrong? What is the nature of the mind? Can the natural sciences really give us ultimate truth? Is religious faith consistent with natural science? Is democracy the best form of government? and so on. They develop a variety of theoretical answers to such questions, and debate the relative merits of these competing theories. Thus, the fact that philosophical theories often conflict with each other, far from being an objection, is a core value of philosophical thinking. Similarly, the existence of rich and diverse philosophical traditions—Western, Sanskritic and Buddhist, Islamic, African, Latin American—enriches philosophical thinking in general.
Second, it is often said that philosophy has no practical relevance. On the contrary, many philosophical theories are deeply implicated in our practical lives. The scientific method has been traced back to Descartes and Bacon; the development of modern logic contributed to the emergence of modern computers; Rousseau helped conceptualize the notion of modern democracy—the examples are numerous. Since there are many things we still do not understand about ourselves and our world, philosophers continue to create new theories, refine existing theories, and re-evaluate those that were once rejected. Philosophers also respond to emerging concerns of their time. In contemporary times, for instance, philosophers have addressed difficult issues in areas like environmental philosophy, democracy and education, philosophy of information, social justice, bioethics, technology, philosophy of gender, caste and race, migration, the nature and ethics of artificial intelligence, among many others.
Third, many people believe that philosophy does not impart useful skills. In fact, a training in philosophy equips students with valuable skills including logical thinking; analysing and evaluating arguments; making sound arguments; and, crucially, writing in a clear, well-ordered way. Studying philosophy also helps instil a spirit of innovation and creativity, because it teaches students how to think from the ground up, that is, starting from the most fundamental concepts. The usefulness of a philosophy training is evidenced by the fact that philosophy majors do brilliantly on standardized tests like GRE, GMAT and LSAT (see here and here). Many philosophy graduates also do very well in non-academic careers (see here). Doing philosophy in college can serve as a base for careers in print and electronic media, publishing, NGOs, law, the civil services, and also industry, since firms today are looking for more than technical expertise in a limited field.
All things considered, therefore, studying philosophy in college can be a wise choice. A philosophy education provides students with reasoning and writing skills that can be useful in any career path. It also allows them to engage creatively and undogmatically with the complex ethical and socio-political issues of our time.
Philosophy, Undergraduate Education, Reasoning, Theory, Critical Thinking, Liberal Arts