Which courses should I take first?

You might not want to be a major in philosophy, but are interested in taking a few, or even one, course to see what it’s all about. That’s great; your professors will love you for it. You might also find it overwhelming to choose one course out of the many your school offers. This list will help you decide. It contains a generic description of each course and the skills it provides. 

Typically, universities have four levels of courses (100, 200, 300, 400), but not everyone puts the same course at the same level. Don’t worry too much about this. The most important thing to understand is that the number does not refer to how much work a course is. It refers to how much background knowledge is required. Any course can be a light or a heavy workload; it depends on the teacher.

Typically, 100 and 200 level courses are for beginners, people who have taken few or no philosophy courses. A lot of “applied ethics courses,” or courses that explore ethical practices in other majors, are lower-level classes as well (for example, business ethics, medical ethics, and engineering ethics).

300 and 400 level courses are usually for people with more philosophy experience. They will presume that you have a basic understanding of what philosophy is and how it works. This is not to say that beginners can’t take 300 or 400 level courses. At our university, the University of North Dakota, upper-division courses have lots of first-timers, but they do have a pretty steep learning curve. Students have to catch up quickly. Some students are okay with that. Some are not. A good instructor will take student levels into account and make the class suitable for the people who are actually in the room.

Finally, we are using generic names here. You may have to interpret your school’s list. Introduction to Political Philosophy, for example, might be called What is Justice? Introduction to Ethics might be called Contemporary Moral Problems. There are many variations. Compare the names and the numbers and use your best judgment.

Introduction to Philosophy

Description: Introduction to Philosophy is always an introductory course. Most of the time it is a “survey” course, meaning that you read lots of smaller pieces from a variety of different philosophers. Sometimes they are presented chronologically, starting with the Classical Greeks and moving forward. Most of the time, however, they are presented thematically, dividing the philosophers into subject areas such as ethics, the study of reality (metaphysics), philosophy of religion, and the study of knowledge (epistemology). Typically, you will read selections outside of class, comment on them for homework by either submitting questions or writing reactions, and talk about the reading in class. The instructor will usually go through the text in class, sometimes with the book in front of all of you, and sometimes by writing lecture notes on the board. These classes almost always have at least one, but more often two, larger papers to write for a midterm or final assignment.

Skills: Like most philosophy courses, Introduction to Philosophy focuses on critical thinking, reading difficult texts, arguing different positions, and communicating abstract ideas. But more than any of the other classes, this one is going to introduce you to the process of joining a conversation that is already in progress. It asks that you figure out how ideas fit together by identifying the questions people are asking. It also illustrates the wide range of philosophical questions that can be asked, revealing that philosophy can apply to any situation or subject area.

Introduction to Philosophy is almost always a general education requirement, so its skill set is usable in every class you will take in school. It will teach you how to think about new ideas and to approach subject areas with skepticism. It is excellent for majors such as psychology, business, sociology, political science, art, and anthropology—any class that deals with the human experience, because it shows how much background there is to any question. It illustrates the stuff those classes won’t tell you, but are implicit in all of their discussions.

Introduction to Logic or Introduction to Critical Thinking

Description: Introduction to Logic is a class about how to argue. It focuses on constructing arguments and analyzing arguments, as well as looking for common flaws in reasoning called fallacies. If the course is called Introduction to Logic it probably emphasizes a more formal language than if it is called Introduction to Critical Thinking. The logic class will likely show you how to abstract arguments, how to take them and make them look a bit more like math so you can look at the logical relationships as distinct from the information being provided. The critical thinking class will probably focus more on everyday arguments in books, newspapers, and on the internet. In some schools, though, these names are interchangeable. If you take one philosophy class at all, this is probably the one to take, but keep in mind, this is not an introduction to the subject of philosophy. It is an introduction to the reasoning that philosophers (and everyone else) use.

This class often requires a textbook that has examples. If so, you will be learning through repetition, as you would with math. There are usually regular homework assignments and sometimes, but not always, there is a final paper, especially in the critical thinking version of the class. Chances are, you’ll be doing a lot of smaller writing assignments as well as reconstructing arguments, either from paragraphs in a textbook or opinion pieces. These readings will be from both professionals and amateurs.

Skills: To be honest, there is no class more useful to every part of your life than this one. Human beings use argument all the time. Politicians, partners, bosses, and even religious leaders are constantly trying to persuade you to do or believe things, especially when you are reluctant. This course helps you understand that process. It teaches you to break down arguments and see where people go wrong and it teaches you to argue more effectively to win your point (although, logic isn’t about winning, it’s about “getting it right”). It helps you avoid embarrassing and costly mistakes. To put it crassly, Introduction to Logic is a class about how not to be a sucker.

The skills here are the skills for business; people in marketing and sales will benefit strongly. They are the skills of politics and law; if you are considering going to law school or running for office, this is a necessary class. But it is also a class for scientists and engineers who need to be very precise about their thinking. Education majors will find this very helpful as they will have to teach logic in almost everything they do, and majors in the social sciences need this class to help them avoid mistakes in the very difficult interpretive processes they engage in. If, in the end, you read this paragraph and think “who doesn’t benefit from this class?”, then you are getting the point.

Introduction to Ethics

Description: Many students take Introduction to Ethics as their first philosophy course. It will ask the two basic questions “what should I do?” and “what kind of life should I live?” Both are intended to develop a deeper understanding of morality. This is done using two basic types of material. They usually begin with most influential ethical theories, and students will be asked to form their own opinions on “meta-ethical” issues like whether people are inherently selfish and whether there is a definitive right or wrong (whether ethics are relative). Then, instructors will apply these theories to specific ethical dilemmas. This is where the instructor’s personality comes in. Some may want to talk about abortion and euthanasia, others will discuss animal rights or the morality of prostitution., and still others will discuss the morality of war or lying. Almost anything is fodder for ethical discussion.

Most courses use textbooks, although they are usually anthologies of excerpts from larger philosophy books. They will make an effort to be inclusive, touching on a range of traditions, but emphasizing European philosophy. The classes usually involve one or two large papers, and a handful of smaller responses to the ethical dilemmas brought up in class.

Skills: It is impossible to overestimate how important this class is. It helps students reflect on the nature of their goals and personal relationships. If a student takes it seriously, they will have the opportunity to examine some of their most cherished beliefs.

More relevant to business, this is, in essence, a course on professionalism. Obviously, every employer wants someone who doesn’t steal or lie, but more importantly, they want employees who can interpret the company’s ethical standards. What is the right thing to do in this profession and why? What would an absent supervisor recommend if he or she were around? This class teaches students the skills to investigate the hidden ethics that if violated, can get people fired.

This course teaches advanced writing and persuasion; it is ideal for someone who is in a business that involves winning over the boss or clients. It teaches skills useful for team leaders and for those who are entrusted with sensitive materials—medical or financial records, for example. It also develops those skills required to apply rules to specific circumstances. How would one interpret a company’s policy in a given situation? How should an employee act in an unexpected crisis? With a strong theoretical foundation in ethics, particular cases become easier to deal with in and out of a business context.

More courses coming soon!

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