The most pressing question people ask about philosophy is whether or not graduates can get good jobs. it’s a perfectly understandable approach and the rest of this site is dedicated to this very question.
But many people—certainly many philosophers—will argue that getting a college degree should not be about a job at all. Instead, they argue that studying philosophy should be about civic engagement, cultivating our humanity, and learning for its own sake. This is a very privledged argument made by people who are in a position to choose their principles over practicality, but this doesn’t mena it’s wrong. it’s the oldest way of justifying philosophy and it has the most staying power.
Philosophy can easily be called “citizenship training.” You take philosophy courses to spend time learning and thinking about justice, ethics, what it means to care about others, and what responsibilities citizens have in a democracy. You take philosophy so you don’t just know who you want to vote for, but why you want to vote for them. You want to know why you are right and the other side isn’t.
Being a citizen doesn’t just require critical thinking. It necessitates your being aware of your own perspective, of the arguments for your arguments, and balancing a global perspective with a local one. Philosophy excels at this. It teaches you how to think abstractly, how to consider multiple consequences, and how to think about fairness in both a personal and political context.
Most importantly for a citizen, philosophy teaches you how to persuade others and how to be critical of those who are trying to persuade you. It is practice for democracy. It is training for something meaningful to say.
“I didn’t flee a dictator or swim an ocean to be an American like some do. I just thought long and hard about it.”
― Craig Ferguson, American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot
Cultivating your Humanity
“Cultivating Humanity” is the title of a wonderful book by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum. It presents the philosophical argument that we have to learn in order to be full people. It isn’t enough to see art; we ought to explore it. It isn’t enough to listen to music; we have to think about it. It isn’t even enough to be in a relationship; we have to reflect on it. And all of these things—seeing, exploring, thinking—are social activities. We become better at them by doing them with other people.
The history of philosophy is the story of some of the best minds trying to figure out what the purpose of life is, what our moral responsibilities are, and what it means to be good. It is also the story of trying to decide what is True, Beautiful, and Just. It sounds clichéed, but it only sounds like that because we keep going back to philosophy. For 2500 years, every time we tried to leave philosophy behind, we found ourselves immersed in it again.
In the end, philosophy as a discipline is committed to the idea that the world we live in is worthy of our attention and that we waste our time on this planet if we do not contemplate the wonders around us. Socrates famously claimed “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Philosophy takes his idea as its starting point.
“I started asking the big questions that I had asked in college, that my compatriots the Greek philosophers had asked, like ‘what is a good life?’ Socrates famously said that ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ I started asking these questions from the starting point of ‘what is success?'”
Learning for its Own Sake
Everything on this website argues that philosophy is good because it has desirable consequences—a good job and employable skills, being a good citizen, even being fully aware of what it means to be a human. But there is another approach and that is to accept that learning isn’t about consequences at all. Learning is just good in itself.
Many elderly people, when asked what they would do differently if they could do it all over again, say the same thing: “I would take my education more seriously” or in some cases “I would get an education.” The fact is, it’s wonderful to know about Isaac Newton and his laws of motions; it is thrilling to dive deep into the Bible; it is tremendously satisfying to explore what has come before us. It feels great to know what people are talking about and to understand enough to talk with them.
Philosophy is worth taking as a major simply because it is interesting. We spend so much time being bored, why should we pass up the opportunity to learn a skill with an infinite number of interesting topics? When else, other than during college, do we have the chance to read Plato, Thomas Jefferson, and Martha Nussbaum? Isn’t that what college is for? You have about four years to try everything you can, to be around experts whom you can talk to, and to make learning your number one responsibility. College is for experimenting and trying new things. To spend all that time worried about the future misses the point.
Famously, the word “philosopher” comes from Greek and it means “lover of wisdom.” Getting a philosophy degree is simply a great way to spend time; it is a gateway to the greatest ideas of all time. In short, the best argument for philosophy might be, simply, that being a lover of wisdom is a good thing to be. You can’t love wisdom if you don’t look for it.
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
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