If you are trying to decide whether to major in philosophy, it may help to know more about what philosophy is and what questions and methods it pursues. One of the most common misperceptions of philosophy is that it is in impractical field. But as Career Paths in Philosophy shows, nothing could be further from the truth. Our philosophy graduates go on to pursue an extraordinarily broad range of careers and advanced degrees, where they tend to do incredibly well, in part because philosophy teaches you how to think.
Set forth below are some facts that will help you understand what is distinctive about philosophy, why our graduates tend to do so well in such a broad range of endeavors, and what kinds of questions and methodologies philosophy majors pursue.
How Does Philosophy Compare to Other Majors?
Philosophy is not just another major. It interacts collaboratively with many other fields and teaches people to think rigorously, creatively, and nimbly about some of the most fundamental questions in human life, which can range from ethics to the sciences. Philosophy teaches highly adaptable skills to communicate difficult ideas, identify faulty assumptions, make sound arguments, and deal with deeply held disagreements. In a world where so much work that does not require complex thought is becoming increasingly automated, learning to think better and cultivating these higher mental skills are excellent ways to prepare oneself for a rapidly changing world and a broad range of vocations.
Historically, philosophy is not just another major. Plato’s Academy, depicted here, was arguably the most important center for higher learning in the world when it began in 387 BC in Athens, Greece. It was a center for philosophical learning and thought. As the institution that gave academia and academics their names, Plato’s Academy is widely viewed as the most influential early precedent for higher education. In Plato’s Academy, many notable students and world historical figures — including Aristotle, who later tutored Alexander the “Great” — pursued a wide array of disciplines, through lively teaching and discussion, at a time when the pursuit of higher education was virtually synonymous with philosophy.
Conceptually, philosophy is not just another major. These early ways of doing philosophy, which covered a broad range of topics, subsequently branched off to form many independent disciplines — like political science, law, psychology, physics, the natural sciences, the fine arts, linguistics, computer science, mathematics, and the like. Still, even to this day, philosophy is a hub where these many spokes connect and where foundational thinking within and among them often takes place, thus helping produce vital advances for the public good.
Philosophy builds bridges between the humanities and sciences and brings them into constructive interaction.
Pragmatically, philosophy is not just another major. Philosophy combines some of the best learning and skills often associated with the humanities with the rigor and logic often associated with the sciences. A philosophical training can help expand one’s thinking skills and learn to formulate and express ideas clearly and persuasively. Philosophy majors therefore tend to do very well with respect to many different types of employment. When coupled with the right course selection, philosophy also offers excellent preparation for many graduate programs, including law, business, computer science, developmental psychology, human resources and industrial relations, public administration, physics, mathematics, religious studies, medicine, and — of course — philosophy itself. Our new major in Computer Science+Philosophy is specifically adapted to combine the learning of computer and technology skills with broader critical thought about the moral, social, and political implications of technology in the digital age.
But even if you never choose to pursue a graduate degree, the ability to formulate and express ideas clearly and persuasively can help one in almost any field of endeavor. That training, along with experience discussing some of the most difficult and controversial issues in a civil manner, can make one a more effective citizen, allow one to contribute more powerfully to public discourse and the workplace, and give one the core skills needed to adapt to a rapidly changing world and a broad range of vocations.
What Do Philosophy Majors Study?
“Philosophy” and the Love of Wisdom. The word ‘philosophy’ comes from the Greek word ‘φιλοσοφία’ (philosophia), which means love (philo) of wisdom (sophia). Still, knowing the original meaning of this word is only a first step toward understanding what philosophy is.
There is a long tradition of philosophy in the West. Philosophy first emerged an academic discipline in Ancient Greece at least 2,500 years ago. But what philosophy is today differs — in some ways — from what it was back then and what it later became in the medieval period or in early or late modernity. Changes in philosophy sometimes occur because the problems people find puzzling can depend on where they are in the course of world history and on what other knowledge or understandings exist. Still, some useful things can be said.
Philosophy asks the “Big Questions.” For some, philosophy is about pursuing the “big questions.” Have you ever asked “Does God exist?”, “Do we have free will?”, “What is the nature of the mind?”, “What is the relationship between the mind and the brain or body?”, “How do we know if the external world exists?”, or “Can machines ever become conscious?” These are long-standing philosophical questions. Exploring them as a philosophy major can not only deepen one’s understanding of what is at issue with these profound questions but also reveal how insights from other fields may help address them. It can do so while teaching skills of written and oral argumentation that teach one how to think and communicate at the very highest levels about difficult topics.
Philosophy asks about the Good and the Right. Many other people are attracted to philosophy because it allows them to pursue theoretical questions related to humanity, morality, society, and politics. Have you ever wanted to ask “What is the good life?”, “What is the nature of right and wrong?”, “Are there universal moral truths?”, “What is the nature of justice?”, “What is the proper role of the state?”, or — relatedly — “When is legal coercion justified?” Philosophy majors can pursue questions like these in depth. They can also learn to apply insights gained from these foundational inquiries a broad range of contemporary social and political problems. Some examples, which are by no means exhaustive, include: environmental ethics, the proper relationship between church and state, justifications for criminal punishment, justifications for religious tolerance, the moral grounds for anti-discrimination, how the elderly or differently abled should be treated in society, and the appropriate scope for market regulations and systems of tax-and-transfer that seek distributive goals.
Philosophy asks Fundamental Questions Posed by the Natural Sciences. Many other people are attracted to philosophy because it allows them to pursue theoretical questions that are have been posed by recent advances in the sciences. Some examples might include, “What is quantum mechanics and how is it connected with everyday reality?”, “Can neurons alone explain the mind?”, or “How do words, sentences, and other linguistic expressions get their meanings?” More generally, many philosophy majors investigate questions like “What is science and how does it prove its claims?” Others ask whether advances in the natural sciences make religious faith more difficult, or whether knowledge is best produced through empiricism or reason.
Philosophy asks Foundational Questions related to Computer Science and Technology. Historically, many philosophers and logicians — including Alan Turing, who is widely considered the progenitor of both theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence — have made foundational contributions to computer science. Important connections still exist, and it is becoming increasingly important to educate citizens capable of not only developing and using these technologies but also querying their ethical status and political implications so as to be leaders in the digital ae.
To address this growing societal need, the University of Illinois recently created a novel CS + Philosophy major — one of the first of its kind in the nation. Only a handful of such programs even exist. Students who choose this major can not only learn important computer science and technological skills but also explore things like the logical underpinnings of computer programming languages in quantum computing and the nature of computation and artificial intelligence. They can do so by pursuing a degree that simultaneously trains them to ask all of the big philosophical questions noted above in relation to technology, including important social, moral and political questions raised by advances in technology in the digital age. This major aims to produce societal leaders when it comes to technology, and not just technicians.
Philosophy Brings the History of Ideas to Life. Philosophy also includes the history of philosophy. Studying this history allows one to learn from some of the most profound thinkers in world history, even while engaging in critical dialogue with them. Many find the history of philosophy engaging in its own terms. But the history of philosophy is not just a collection of facts or opinions. It often contains insights that can be brought back to bear on contemporary problems in surprising ways. By studying how different philosophers — from the ancients, to the medievals, to the moderns — have wrestled with many of the above questions, one can develop a better understanding of major developments in human thought. One can also gain a deeper appreciation for ways of seeing things or ways of approaching questions that can sometimes differ from ours today.
Philosophy is about Methodology. Philosophy is not, however, just the study of a set of questions. It also a method (or — better — a set of methods) of inquiry and argumentation. Philosophy often uses the tools of logic and reason to analyze the ways in which humans experience and understand the world. Philosophy teaches critical thinking, close reading, clear writing, and logical analysis. It often engages in close analyses of concepts and uses these analyses to help illuminate not only language but also the world and our place within it.
Philosophy Can also be Fun and Challenge You to Grow as a Person. The Philosophy Department offers hands-on experience that can help you grow in a number of exciting ways that go beyond ordinary course work. For example, you can participate in various philosophy workshops; attend talks by leading figures in many areas of philosophy; conduct independent research with a professor on a topic that excites you; or start your own student group on a topic that interests you.
The Philosophy Department is Interested in Your Long-Term Success and Wellness. The philosophy department holds workshops each semester to help philosophy majors translate the skills they are building into the language that modern employers most understand and value. We also hold workshops on topics like law school admissions and success and how to use a philosophical training to excel at law school. Our Undergraduate Advisor is in regular contact with the Humanities Resource Center, which provides career guidance.
We believe in supporting overall wellness and in the importance of developing the coping skills needed to deal with things like anxiety, stress, time management, and the inevitable flow of life. We therefore seek to ensure that our majors have access to a wide array of support resources on campus. You can also connect with student groups like Phi Sigma Tau (Philosophy Club). You can network with graduate students, professors, alumni, and other professionals through organizations (like the Illinois Philosophical Association) or at conferences (like The University of Illinois Annual Graduate Student Philosophy Conference).
Are you Interested? The Philosophy Department offers a variety of courses in ethics, political philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology, the history of philosophy, philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, philosophy of physics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of law, philosophy of computation, logic, philosophy of mathematics, and more.
If you’re interested in making a difference through critical thinking and logical analysis, consider applying to the Department of Philosophy at the University of Illinois.