The Value of Philosophy by Sara Schulwolf ’17

“What are you possibly going to do with a philosophy degree?”

I’ve fielded this question and others like it more times that I care to recall. The inquirer usually raises an eyebrow, then casts me a pitying glance as they envision my inevitably unemployed future. Then, with a conspiratorial wink, they’ll lean in (often so they’re uncomfortably close), and assure me that I can always go to law school.

I’d like to take this opportunity to clear a few things up for all of you philosophy skeptics. Call me a liberal arts idealist, but people ought to consider more than just employability when choosing a course of study. College provides a rare opportunity for us to form critical habits of mind that ground the way that we think, process, and act in the future. Far from useless, Philosophy provides students with a toolkit of investigative, analytic and critical thinking skills that prove valuable in all aspects of life. For that reason, we should all study philosophy.

First and foremost, Philosophy shows you how to argue and communicate effectively. However well developed out thoughts seem while safely inside our brain, people have a tendency to word-vomit and then pray that others might cobble together some meaning from the refuse. Take any philosophy seminar, and you’ll learn how to structure these diffuse ideas into a coherent, logical order. In all likelihood, you won’t even realize the change.  When probing complex material, speaking clearly and articulately simply becomes a necessity in order for your peers to understand you. The ability to distill difficult concepts into neat phrases certainly has applications beyond discussions of Kant and Hegel.

Second, Philosophy teaches you how to write. Forget everything that your high school AP literature teacher told: verbs of being are not the enemy, and scores of adjectives are not your friends. Most philosophy professors that I’ve encountered are firm believers in drafting, that your first attempt is never your best. To help your work evolve, these professors employ the Oxford method of review: you and your professor meet, likely in his intimidating, book-filled office, and you read him your entire paper line-by-line. When you arrive at a point of contention – a vague explanation, a faulty argument, or even just an ugly phrase – he’ll halt you, and you’ll discuss the problem right then and there. This method forces you to become intimately familiar with your work, to consider not only the meaning of your arguments but also their cadence and their tone. In writing philosophy papers, you learn to augment substance with style, and create work of unparalleled intellectual and prosaic quality.

Finally, philosophy imparts upon you a mechanism for navigating life’s bullshit. In fact, the first piece that I ever read in a philosophy class was titled “On Bullshit,” and provided insight on how to separate the bullshitter from the simple liar. Spending hours each day pondering, debating, and cataloguing dense philosophical texts really sharpens your radar for relevance. This ability to quickly unearth important information from the minutia has applications far beyond the classroom. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a situation in which you can’t employ this skill.

The next time you cast a disparaging eye at my Frege Reader, or slyly hand me a pamphlet for the consulting club, consider what you might be overlooking. There’s a reason why democracy, the scientific method, and many other critical developments in our history were proposed by philosophers. A background in philosophy provides the foundation for any future in which you’ll ever need to apply reason, which is to say, every future.  So you might as well register for that Kant seminar now.  You can thank me later.

…and for your information, I have no plans to go to law school.

sschulwolf17@amherst.edu

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