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Philosophy: A brief guide for undergraduates
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The Field of Philosophy

Introduction

Philosophy is quite unlike any other field. It is unique both in its methods and in the nature and breadth of its subject matter. Philosophy pursues questions in every dimension of human life, and its techniques apply to problems in any field of study or endeavor. No brief definition expresses the richness and variety of philosophy. It may be described in many ways. It is a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths, a quest for understanding, a study of principles of conduct. It seeks to establish standards of evidence, to provide rational methods of resolving conflicts, and to create techniques for evaluating ideas and arguments. Philosophy develops the capacity to see the world from the perspective of other individuals and other cultures; it enhances one's ability to perceive the relationships among the various fields of study; and it deepens one's sense of the meaning and variety of human experience.

This short description of philosophy could be greatly expanded, but let us instead illustrate some of the points. As the systematic study of ideas and issues, philosophy may examine concepts and views drawn from science, art, religion, politics, or any other realm. Philosophical appraisal of ideas and issues takes many forms, but philosophical studies often focus on the meaning of an idea and on its basis, coherence, and relations to other ideas. Consider, for instance, democracy. What is it? What justifies it as a system of government? Can a democracy allow the people to vote away their own rights? And how is it related to political liberty? Consider human knowledge. What is its nature and extent? Must we always have evidence in order to know? What can we know about the thoughts and feelings of others, or about the future? What kind of knowledge, if any, is fundamental? Similar kinds of questions arise concerning art, morality, religion, science, and each of the major areas of human activity. Philosophy explores all of them. It views them both microscopically and from the wide perspective of the larger concerns of human existence.

Subfields of Philosophy

The broadest subfields of philosophy are most commonly taken to be logic, ethics, metaphysics, epistemology and the history of philosophy. Here is a brief sketch of each.

Logic

Logic is concerned to provide sound methods for distinguishing good from bad reasoning. It helps us to assess how well our premises support our conclusions, to see what we are committed to accepting when we take a view, and to avoid adopting beliefs for which we lack adequate reasons. Logic also helps us to find arguments where we might otherwise simply see a set of loosely related statements, to discover assumptions we did not know we were making, and to formulate the minimum claims we must establish if we are to prove (or inductively support) our point.

Ethics

 Ethics takes up the meanings of our moral concepts—such as right action, obligation and justice—and formulates principles to guide moral decisions, whether in private or public life. What are our moral obligations to others? How can moral disagreements be rationally settled? What rights must a just society accord its citizens? What constitutes a valid excuse for wrong-doing?

Metaphysics

Metaphysics seeks basic criteria for determining what sorts of things are real. Are there mental, physical, and abstract things (such as numbers), for instance, or is there just the physical and the spiritual, or merely matter and energy? Are persons highly complex physical systems, or do they have properties not reducible to anything physical?

Epistemology

Epistemology concerns the nature and scope of knowledge. What does it mean to know (the truth), and what is the nature of truth? What sorts of things can be known, and can we be justified in our beliefs about what goes beyond the evidence of our senses, such as the inner lives of others or events of the distant past? Is there knowledge beyond the reach of science? What are the limits of self-knowledge?

History of Philosophy

This field studies both major philosophers and entire periods in the development of philosophy such as the Ancient, Medieval, Modern, Nineteenth Century, and Twentieth Century periods. It seeks to understand great figures, their influence on others, and their importance for contemporary issues. The history of philosophy in a single nation is often separately studied, as in the case of American Philosophy. So are major movements within a nation, such as British Empiricism and German Idealism, as well as international movements with a substantial history, such as existentialism and phenomenology. The history of philosophy not only provides insight into the other subfields of philosophy; it also reveals many of the foundations of Western Civilization.

More Subfields of Philosophy

The following are just a few of the dozens of subfields of philosophy. It is in the nature of philosophy as critical inquiry to develop new subfields when new directions in the quest for knowledge, or in any other area of human activity, raise new intellectual problems.

  • Philosophy of Mind. This subfield has emerged from metaphysical concerns with the mind and mental phenomena. The philosophy of mind addresses not only the possible relations of the mental to the physical (for instance, to brain processes), but the many concepts having an essential mental element: belief, desire, emotion, feeling, sensation, passion, will, personality, and others. A number of major questions in the philosophy of mind cluster in the area of action theory: What differentiates actions, such as raising an arm, from mere body movements, such as the rising of an arm? Must mental elements, for example intentions and beliefs, enter into adequate explanations of our actions, or can actions be explained by appeal to ordinary physical events? And what is required for our actions to be free?
  • Philosophy of Religion. Another traditional concern of metaphysics is to understand the concept of God, including special attributes such as being all-knowing, being all-powerful, and being wholly good. Both metaphysics and epistemology have sought to assess the various grounds people have offered to justify believing in God. The philosophy of religion treats these topics and many related subjects, such as the relation between faith and reason, the nature of religious language, the relation of religion and morality, and the question of how a God who is wholly good could allow the existence of evil.
  • Philosophy of Science. This is probably the largest subfield generated by epistemology. Philosophy of science is usually divided into philosophy of the natural sciences and philosophy of the social sciences. It has recently been divided further, into philosophy of physics, biology, psychology, economics, and other sciences. Philosophy of science clarifies both the quest for scientific knowledge and the results yielded by that quest. It does this by exploring the logic of scientific evidence; the nature of scientific laws, explanations, and theories; and the possible connections among the various branches of science. How, for instance, is psychology related to brain biology, and biology to chemistry? And how are the social sciences related to the natural sciences.
  • Political Philosophy. This field concerns the justification—and limits—of governmental control of individuals; the meaning of equality before the law; the basis of economic freedom; and many other problems concerning government. It also examines the nature and possible arguments for various competing forms of political organization, such as laissez-faire capitalism, welfare democracy (capitalistic and socialistic), anarchism, communism, and fascism. 
  • Social Philosophy. Often taught in combination with political philosophy (with which it overlaps), social philosophy treats moral problems with large-scale social dimensions. Among these are the basis of compulsory education, the possible grounds for preferential treatment of minorities, the justice of taxation, and the appropriate limits, if any, on free expression in the arts.
  • Philosophy of Law. This field explores such topics as what law is, what kinds of laws there are, how law is or should be related to morality, and what sorts of principles should govern punishment and criminal justice in general. 
  • Medical Ethics. The field of medical ethics addresses many problems arising in medical practice and medical science. Among these are standards applying to physician-patient relationships; moral questions raised by special procedures, such as abortion and euthanasia; and ethical standards for medical research, such as genetic engineering and experimentation using human subjects. 
  • Business Ethics. Business ethics addresses such questions as how moral obligations may conflict with the profit motive and how these conflicts may be resolved. Other topics often pursued are the nature and scope of the social responsibilities of corporations, their rights in a free society, and their relations to other institutions.
  • Philosophy of Art (Aesthetics). This is one of the oldest subfields. It concerns the nature of art, including the performing arts, painting, sculpture, literature, and so on. Major questions in aesthetics include how artistic creations are to be interpreted and evaluated, and how the arts are related to one another, to natural beauty, and to morality, religion, science, and other important elements of human life.
  • Philosophy of Language. This field has close ties to both epistemology and metaphysics. It concerns a broad spectrum of questions about language: the nature of meaning, the relations between words and things, the various theories of language learning, and the distinction between literal and figurative uses of language. Since language is crucial in nearly all human activity, the philosophy of language can enhance our understanding both of other academic fields and of much of what we ordinarily do.

The Uses of Philosophy

General Uses of Philosophy

Much of what is learned in philosophy can be applied in virtually any endeavor. This is both because philosophy touches on so many subjects and, especially, because many of its methods are usable in any field.

General Problem Solving

The study of philosophy enhances, in a way no other activity does, one's problem-solving capacities. It helps students to analyze concepts, definitions, arguments, and problems. It contributes to students’ capacity to organize ideas and issues, to deal with questions of value, and to extract what is essential from masses of information. It helps students distinguish fine differences between views and discover common ground between opposing positions. And it helps students synthesize a variety of views or perspectives into a unified whole.

Communication Skills

Philosophy also contributes uniquely to the development of expressive and communicative powers. It provides some of the basic tools of self-expression—for instance, skills in presenting ideas through well-constructed, systematic arguments—that other fields either do not use, or use less extensively. It helps students to express what is distinctive about their views; enhances their ability to explain difficult material; and helps to eliminate ambiguities and vagueness from students’ writing and speech.

Persuasive Powers

Philosophy provides training in the construction of clear formulations, good arguments, and apt examples. It thereby helps one develop the ability to be convincing. Students learn to build and defend their own views, appreciate competing positions, and indicate forcefully why they consider their own views preferable to alternatives. These capacities can be developed not only through reading and writing in philosophy, but also through the philosophical dialogue, in and outside the classroom, that is so much a part of a thoroughgoing philosophical education.

Writing Skills

Writing is taught intensively in many philosophy courses, and many regularly assigned philosophical texts are unparalleled as literary essays. Philosophy teaches interpretive writing through its examination of challenging texts, comparative writing through emphasis on fairness to alternative positions, argumentative writing through developing students' ability to establish their own views, and descriptive writing through detailed portrayal of concrete examples: the anchors to which generalizations must be tied. Structure and technique, then, are emphasized in philosophical writing. Originality is also encouraged, and students are generally urged to use their imagination and develop their own ideas.

The Uses of Philosophy in Educational Pursuits

The general uses of philosophy just described are obviously of great academic value. It should be clear that the study of philosophy has intrinsic rewards as an unlimited quest for the understanding of important, challenging problems. But philosophy has further uses in deepening an education, both in college and in the many activities, professional and personal, that follow graduation.

Understanding Other Disciplines

Philosophy is indispensable for this. Many important questions about a discipline, such as the nature of its concepts and its relation to other disciplines, do not belong to that discipline, are not usually pursued in it, and are philosophical in nature. Philosophy of science, for instance, is needed to supplement the understanding of the natural and social sciences derived from scientific work itself. Philosophy of literature and philosophy of history are of similar value in understanding the humanities, and philosophy of art is important in understanding the arts. Philosophy is, moreover, essential in assessing the various standards of evidence used by other disciplines. Since all fields of knowledge employ reasoning and must set standards of evidence, logic and epistemology have a general bearing on all these fields.

Development of Sound Methods of Research and Analysis

Still another value of philosophy in education is its contribution to one's capacity to frame hypotheses, do research, and put problems into manageable form. Philosophical thinking strongly emphasizes clear formulation of ideas and problems, selection of relevant data, and objective methods for assessing ideas and proposals. It also emphasizes development of a sense of the new directions suggested by the hypotheses and questions one encounters in doing research. Philosophers regularly build on both the successes and failures of their predecessors. A person with philosophical training can readily learn to do the same in any field.

The Uses of Philosophy in Various Careers

The value of a field of study must not be viewed mainly in terms of its contribution to obtaining the first job after graduation. Students are understandably concerned with getting their first job, but it would be short-sighted to concentrate on that at the expense of developing potential for success and advancement once hired. What gets graduates initially hired may not yield promotions or carry them beyond their first position, particularly given how fast the needs of many employers evolve with changes in social and economic patterns. It is therefore crucial to see beyond what a job description specifically calls for. Philosophy need not be mentioned among a job's requirements in order for the benefits of philosophical study to be appreciated by the employer, and those benefits need not even be explicitly appreciated in order to be effective in helping one advance.

Employers want—and reward—many of the capacities that the study of philosophy develops: for instance, the ability to solve problems, to communicate, to organize ideas and issues, to assess pros and cons, and to boil down complex data. These capacities represent transferable skills. They are transferable not only from philosophy to non-philosophy areas, but from one non-philosophical field to another. For this reason, people trained in philosophy are not only prepared to do many kinds of tasks; they are particularly well prepared to cope with change in their chosen career field, or even move into new careers.

As all this suggests, there are people trained in philosophy in just about every field. They have gone not only into such professions as teaching (at all levels), medicine, law, computer science, management, publishing, sales, criminal justice, public relations, and many other fields. Some professionally trained philosophers are also on legislative staffs; their work prompted one senior congressman to say,

It seems to me that philosophers have acquired skills which are very valuable to a member of Congress. The ability to analyze a problem carefully and consider it from many points of view is one. Another is the ability to communicate ideas clearly in a logically compelling form. A third is the ability to handle the many different kinds of problems which occupy the congressional agenda at any time. (Lee H. Hamilton, 9th District, Indiana, March 25, 1982.)

In emphasizing the long-range benefits of training in philosophy, whether through a major, a minor, or a sample of courses in the field, there are a least two further points to note. The first concerns the value of philosophy for vocational training. The second applies to the whole of life.

First, philosophy can yield immediate benefits for students planning postgraduate work. Philosophy students regularly outperform students from other disciplines on graduate school entrance exams, such as the LSAT and GRE. As law, medical, business, and other professional school faculty and admissions personnel have often said, philosophy is excellent preparation for the training and later careers of the professionals in question. In preparing to enter fields which have special requirements for postgraduate study, such as computer science, management, medicine, or public administration, choosing philosophy as a second major (or minor) alongside the specialized degree can be very useful.

The second point here is that the long-range value of philosophical study goes far beyond its contribution to one's livelihood. Philosophy broadens the range of things one can understand and enjoy. It can give self-knowledge, foresight, and a sense of direction in life. It can provide special pleasures of insight to reading and conversation. It can lead to self-discovery, expansion of consciousness, and self-renewal. Through all of this, and through its contribution to one's expressive powers, it nurtures individuality and self-esteem. Its value for private life can be incalculable; its benefits for public life as a citizen can be immeasurable.

The Philosophy Curriculum

What a philosophy course is like. Philosophy courses differ greatly from one to another, depending on the instructor, the topics, and other factors. But some generalizations are possible. Typically, philosophy teachers encourage students to be critical, to develop their own ideas, and to appreciate both differences between things that appear alike and similarities between things that seem utterly different. Commonly, then, philosophy instructors emphasize not only what is said in the readings, but why it is said; whether or not the reasons given for believing it are good; and what the students themselves think about the matter. One might thus be asked not only what Kant said about capital punishment and why, but whether his case was sound. One might also be encouraged to formulate, and give reasons for, one's own view on the problem. Students might compare and contrast two philosophers, noting where the two agree or disagree, and perhaps indicating and justifying a preference for one of the views. One could be asked to study non-philosophers—say, legal theorists—to bring out and assess their philosophical assumptions; and one might be asked to view several philosophers in historical perspective. Characteristically, there is much room for creativity and for choice of approach. And philosophy nurtures this creativity and freedom within broad but definite standards of clarity, reasoning, and evaluation.

Introductory Courses

One might begin in philosophy either with a general introduction or with an introduction to a subfield, such as ethics, logic, philosophy of religion, or philosophy of art. For students whose main aim is to get to know the field rather than, say, advance their thinking on ethical matters, a general introduction is often the best starting point. These introductions are most often built around important philosophical problems. A typical one-semester introduction might cover readings in several major areas, such as the theory of knowledge, with emphasis on the nature and sources of knowledge; the mind-body problem, with a focus on the nature of our mental life in relation to the brain; the nature of moral obligation, with stress on alternative ways of determining what one ought to do; and the philosophy of religion, with emphasis on how belief in God might be understood and justified. General introductions to philosophy may also be built around major texts, through which all the problems just mentioned and many others might be discussed.

Intermediate and Advanced Courses in Philosophy

At these levels philosophy courses differ considerably in scope, method, and prerequisites. Intermediate and advanced courses are obviously needed for students to get the full benefits, described above, of philosophical education, but what constitutes a good selection at these levels varies greatly from one person to another. It should not be thought, however, that advanced courses in philosophy are generally designed just for majors or that they interest only them. For instance, advanced philosophy of science courses are often meant to interest science majors (and may have, for them, few if any prerequisites); and advanced courses in the philosophy of art (aesthetics) may be designed partly for students in art, music, and other related fields. Similar points hold for philosophy of religion, philosophy of law, medical ethics, and many others.

Sample Majors

A normal course of study for a philosophy major would include some work in a wide range of subfields. In many institutions a student might meet this requirement by taking, say, two introductory courses the first year; in the second year, history of ancient and history of modern philosophy, together with at least one course in a subfield, such as ethics or philosophy of religion; and, in the last two years, intermediate and advanced courses that cover the remaining areas, with extra depth where one's interests are strongest. Many institutions require a logic course, and it is a good idea to take it early in the course of the major. Such broad areas as metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics need not be covered in courses by those names. They might be treated in studies of major philosophers, in seminars on special problems, or in related subfields, such as philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and social or political philosophy. For students intending to pursue post-graduate study, many variants of the pattern just suggested may be desirable. Those continuing in philosophy should seek a good combination of depth and breadth, which can be achieved in many ways.

For others, particularly but not exclusively those planning post-graduate study, here are some examples of valuable courses beyond general introductions:

  • Journalism and Communication. Introductory to intermediate courses in logic and ethics are highly relevant. Philosophy of language should enhance understanding of communication, and philosophy of science should cast light on some of the technical subjects with which many people in journalism and communication must deal. Beyond this, political and social philosophy can deepen one’s understanding of society and social institutions. Other courses, such as aesthetics, philosophy of law, and philosophy of religion, are highly desirable for those with related special interests.
  • Pre-Law. Intermediate to advanced courses in logic and in the general area of ethics, for instance political or social philosophy, philosophy of law, medical ethics, and business ethics, are very useful. Epistemology, which examines standards of evidence, philosophy of mind, which bears on moral and legal responsibility, and philosophy of language, may also be of special benefit. Philosophy of science is particularly valuable for those intending to practice in the technological or scientific sectors.
  • Pre-Medicine and Other Health Professions. Extra work in the general area of ethics should be useful. Philosophy of mind, with its emphasis on understanding the human person, is valuable. Philosophy of science may yield a better understanding of—and even a greater capacity for—the integration of medical research with medical practice. Philosophy of religion can lead to a better understanding of many patients and numerous others with whom physicians work closely. Aesthetics and the history of philosophy may enhance the common ground practitioners can find with patients or colleagues who are from other cultures or have unusual orientations or views. Philosophy of medicine and medical ethics are obviously of direct relevance.
  • Pre-Business. Courses in the general area of political or social philosophy are valuable background for executives and managers, particularly in understanding social institutions such as corporations, unions, and political parties. Classes in logic and decision theory may contribute greatly to the capacity to analyze data and select plans of action. Both ethics (particularly business ethics) and philosophy of mind may benefit business people in conducting many of their day-to-day activities.
  • Pre-Seminary. Philosophy of religion has the most obvious relevance for pre-seminary students, but they should also find a number of other courses, including ethics, philosophy of mind, and history of philosophy, of special value. Historically, philosophy has influenced religion, just as religion has influenced philosophy. Philosophy of art, philosophy of literature, and philosophy of history can also play a unique role in creating the breadth of perspective needed for the clergy.

Minor in Philosophy. A minor in philosophy may supplement any major, and for most majors it is an excellent companion. For students in the sciences there are, for instance, courses in philosophy of science, epistemology, and logic; for those in literature, there is philosophy of literature, philosophy of language, and history of philosophy; for students of the arts there is not only the philosophy of art, but also a number of courses using methods applicable to the interpretation and evaluation of artistic creations. For students planning to take advance degrees, a minor in philosophy can easily be designed to complement any of the standard requirements for beginning post-graduate study. For those entering a teaching field, from the elementary level on, philosophical studies are valuable both for the perspective they can give on the various academic subjects, in the ways described above, and for their contribution to one’s abilities in critical thinking and effective communication.

Conclusion

Philosophy is the systematic study of ideas and issues, a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths, a quest for a comprehensive understanding of the world, a study of principles of conduct, and much more. Every domain of human experience raises questions to which its techniques and theories apply, and its methods may be used in the study of any subject or the pursuit of any vocation. Indeed, philosophy is in a sense inescapable: life confronts every thoughtful person with some philosophical questions, and nearly everyone is guided by philosophical assumptions, even if unconsciously. One need not be unprepared. To a large extent one can choose how reflective one will be in clarifying and developing one's philosophical assumptions, and how well prepared one is for the philosophical questions life presents. Philosophical training enhances our problem-solving capacities, our abilities to understand and express ideas, and our persuasive powers. It also develops understanding and enjoyment of things whose absence impoverishes many lives: such things as aesthetic experience, communication with many different kinds of people, lively discussion of current issues, the discerning observation of human behavior, and intellectual zest. In these and other ways the study of philosophy contributes immeasurably in both academic and other pursuits.

The problem-solving, analytical, judgmental, and synthesizing capacities philosophy develops are unrestricted in their scope and unlimited in their usefulness. This makes philosophy especially good preparation for positions of leadership, responsibility, or management. A major or minor in philosophy can easily be integrated with requirements for nearly any entry-level job; but philosophical training, particularly in its development of many transferable skills, is especially significant for its long-term benefits in career advancement.

Wisdom, leadership, and the capacity to resolve human conflicts cannot be guaranteed by any course of study; but philosophy has traditionally pursued these ideals systematically, and its methods, its literature, and its ideas are of constant use in the quest to realize them. Sound reasoning, critical thinking, well-constructed prose, maturity of judgment, a strong sense of relevance, and an enlightened consciousness are never obsolete, nor are they subject to the fluctuating demands of the marketplace. The study of philosophy allows students to fully develop these qualities.


Originally prepared by the American Philosophical Association's committee on the status and future of the profession (Jaegwon Kim, Chair, 1976–1981; Robert Sleigh, Chair, 1981–1986), and committee on career opportunities (Robert Audi, Chair, 1980–1985). The principal author is Robert Audi.

The author would especially like to acknowledge the helpful comments of Jerome Balmuth, Thomas Donaldson, Jude P. Dougherty, Peter A. French, David Hiley, Joyce Beck Hoy, Jaegwon Kim, Eric Russert Kraemer, Matthew Lipman, Maurice Mandelbaum, Ruth Barcan Marcus, Hugh J. McCann, John McDermott, John O'Connor, Edmund D. Pellegrino, Jose Saporta, Mortan Schagrin, Donald Scherer, and Robert Sleigh. Special thanks are also given to Robert Hurlbutt.

Approved by the APA Board of Officers (Chair, Ruth Barcan Marcus), October 1981. Revised 2017.

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