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 I thought all that money for a degree would be better spent on classes that weren't largely review and on something I was just as passionate about. So philosophy it was.

Most people, when they envision what studying philosophy is like, imagine a room full of students sitting in a circle pondering questions such as "isn't everything subjective," and "doesn't saying everything is wrong invalidate that very statement," and other rather pedantic things like that. Now there's plenty of this going on, especially at the introductory levels; however, philosophy any more sophisticated than that eventually becomes extremely difficult. Try to recall the last philosophical debate you might have had with someone - 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.

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 mental bootcamp. 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 just two:

 

Rigorous thinking

This 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: (1) explain philosopher A's stance, (2) explain philosopher B's stance and how it contrasts with that of philosopher A, (3) come up with a rebuttal on behalf of philosopher A against philosopher B's original objection. This exercise is extremely useful for a number of reasons, but I'll just take the one I find most important: charity. In philosophy, an important concept in 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.

Communication 

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 (or even this blog). For example, people are not used to how philosophy papers are written. It requires a level of conciseness and clarity you typically do not 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 every day language (my mother would kill me if I spoke to her like that), but it develops a sensitivity for how one expresses arguments.

As part of another anecdote, philosophy also forces you to be extremely careful about your wording. I've gotten in a number of (probably infuriating) discussions with my friends over the use of a certain word meaning something else than I think they intend to. Many times, philosophical discussions boil down to semantics, and sometimes it seeps into my every day life (to my friends' dismay).

 

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 qualify you to become an amazing engineer? No, I don't think so. However, I think that being a philosophy major could certainly train you to be a better thinker and communicator, which may certainly make you a much better engineer or fare better in another profession.