Nathan J. Jun, Ph.D., Coordinator
"The unexamined Life is not worth living" - Socrates (c. 399 B.C.E)
"The mission of the Midwestern State University Philosophy Program is to cultivate a historically-informed understanding of and appreciation for the philosophical enterprise; to foster critical reading, writing, and thinking skills through the examination of philosophical problems; and to promote a spirit of self-reflection and concern for the world among our students."Learning Outcomes
Students who take philosophy courses will develop an:
1. Ability to read, comprehend, and critically analyze both primary and second philosophical texts.
2. Ability to recognize and critically analyze philosophical arguments within texts.
3. Ability to construct rational arguments on behalf of their own points of view and defend those arguments against objections.
4. Ability to recognize and appreciate the relevance of philosphical inquiry to other liberal arts and humanistic discourses.
5. Ability to reflect critically and insightfully on non-philosophical issues using philosophical methods.
What is Philosophy? - by Professor Jun
Philosophy is not easily defined. Dictionary definitions of philosophy tend to be pretty awful. Even the one I use in my PHIL 1033 syllabus is a total disaster:
What does that mean? I wrote it and I have no idea!
First of all, how does one know whether a given problem qualifies as “fundamental,” “ultimate,” and/or “very general”? It is fairly well-known around campus that I am a fanatical Chicago Cubs fan. For me, the fact that the Cubbies have not won a World Series title since 1908 is certainly a problem. Is it a “fundamental” problem? Definitely! Is it an “ultimate” problem? You bet your life! Is it a “very general” problem? No way! Most people around here believe I’m completely and totally insane for being a Cubs fan.
Okay, okay. Is the problem of the Cubs Curse really “fundamental” or “ultimate”? Sure, it often feels that way to me, but in the grand scheme of things it’s just baseball. Obviously the terms “fundamental” and “ultimate” are intended to denote importance or significance: a “fundamental” or “ultimate” problem is one that matters on a deep and profound level. Consider, for example, the problem of the meaning of life. Some people claim that life doesn’t have any meaning unless a God exists, or unless human consciousness survives death. Others claim that belief in an afterlife devalues life in the here-and-now. This is not an idle, academic dispute; a person’s approach to the problem will have concrete ramifications for how she lives his or her life. This is why it is important, significant – why it matters.
Very few people at MSU care about the Cubs Curse, but everyone cares – or should care – about the problem of the meaning of life. This is because it is “fundamental” and “ultimate” in another sense – that of being “very general.” The problem of the meaning of life is general because it seems to apply to all human beings simply in virtue of our being human. Many problems that we encounter in life are not general in this sense, but particular, in that they only apply to us as individuals. The problem of the meaning of life is also general in the sense that it doesn’t seem reducible to a simpler or more basic problem. Again, most of our own problems are not like this; on the contrary, they tend to be complex problems that are actually composites of simpler, more basic problems.
So the problem of the meaning of life is “fundamental” and “ultimate” because it is important, universal, and basic (we can say that universal and basic together denote “general”). Are there other problems like this? Sure. For example: Does God exist? Where did the universe come from? Why do I exist? What will happen when I die? How do I know what I know? What is real? How should I live? How should we organize society? What is beautiful and is it the same for everyone? They are “fundamental” and “ultimate” because they are important and general problems.
Philosophy as a Way of Life
The ancient Greeks, among others, believed that coming to terms with these problems is absolutely necessary for leading a good and happy human life. They called the process ????????? – “philosophia” – whence comes our word “philosophy.” ????????? literally means “the love (philia) of wisdom (sophia).”
Note that philia is a specific kind of love – namely, the love that exists between best friends. A philosopher, therefore, is one who makes herself a best friend to wisdom. Just as a friend seeks to cultivate her friendship, the philosopher seeks to cultivate wisdom. Like a friendship, moreover, the relationship of the philosopher to philosophy grows and evolves; it is reciprocal and selfless. Because the philosopher is a friend to wisdom, she does not seek to capture or possess it. She does not love wisdom by seeking once-and-for-all answers, but by embracing the questions and living in the problems.
This demonstrates something important about philosophy. It is different. Philosophy is different from all the other subjects you will study in college. It is different from all the other academic disciplines. In fact, it’s not an academic discipline at all. It’s neither a natural science (like physics), nor a social science (like sociology). It’s neither a fine art (like painting), nor just another liberal art (like literature). It’s neither just a body of knowledge (like history), nor just a methodology (like calculus).
So what is it?
Philosophy is a modus vivendi – “a way of life.” Philosophy is a practice, a skill, an attitude, an approach, a disposition, an outlook, habitual manner of thinking, a characteristic mode of living and orienting oneself in the world. One doesn’t “learn” philosophy so much as one “does” philosophy (or “philosophizes”). And one “does” philosophy by orienting oneself in the world in a certain way – that is, by living “philosophically.”
How does one do this?
Everyone is a Philosopher
You already are doing philosophy and have been doing it most of your life. The same is true of every person on this planet above the age of 4.
Take a look at the questions I provided as examples a few paragraphs earlier. If you’re a human being – and you obviously are if you’re reading this! – then you’ve probably pondered more than a few of them over the course of your life. Perhaps you’ve come to terms with a couple; others may still confuse you. The fact that you’ve pondered them, however, should come as no surprise. After all, as the philosopher Aristotle said, “All human beings desire by nature to know.” Not everyone is a chemist, an engineer, or a sociologist, but everyone is a philosopher. Why? Because every human being wants to know the answers to the fundamental, ultimate, and general questions – the questions that matter. That’s why we pose them to ourselves and others without prompting or training. That’s why we continue to do so again and again throughout our lives.
If everyone is a philosopher and everyone is already “doing” philosophy to greater or lesser extent, then what’s the point of a course in philosophy?
Most philosophy courses have two “official” goals. The first is to help students appreciate and understand the various approaches other intelligent human beings have taken to addressing philosophical problems throughout history. The second is to help students refine, sharpen, and cultivate their philosophical skills through analysis of philosophical theories, concepts, ideas, and problems. The two goals are intended to work in tandem; the first prevents students from reinventing the wheel, while the second allows them to improve at something they already do (i.e., philosophize).
My philosophy courses have at least one additional goal:
Grow Up... By Resurrecting Your Inner Child!!
Most of us reach our philosophical peak when we are about 4 or 5 years old. It is around that time in our lives, after all, that we are the most filled with wonder, awe, and curiosity. Little children are constantly – and to the eternal chagrin of adults – asking “why?” They are pure, unadulterated philosophical machines! The world is alive with questions; everything is new and nothing is certain.
Unfortunately adults seldom provide real answers to children’s philosophical inquiries. Instead, they make dogmatic recourse to their own authority (“Because I said so.”) The process only widens and deepens as children grow. They are taught to accept countless “truths” solely on the basis of authority. (“Why is it true? “Because the teacher said so.” “Because the minister said so.” “Because my friends at school said so.” “Because the president said so.” Et cetera, et cetera.) The desire to ask “why?” is essentially beaten out of children through pressure and conditioning. They are told who they are, what to believe, how to act, etc. Eventually they accept everything they are taught as the “truth.”
We often believe that “maturity” is a function of “thinking for oneself,” and this is basically correct. However, since most 18-21 year-olds have spent the last ten years of their lives being indoctrinated by parents, teachers, peers, churches, the media, the government (and are still being told what to believe by at least some of those groups), the process of truly thinking for oneself involves resurrecting one’s inner child – the obnoxious 4 year-old who asks “Why?” at every possible turn. Unlike a real 4 year-old, however, the resurrected inner child will not accept blind, arbitrary appeals to authority in response to its inquiries. It will require credible evidence, sound arguments, rational justification, etc., otherwise it will not be persuaded.
My goal is to reawaken your inner philosopher-child. If you come into my class sharing this goal, you will succeed. If you are hostile or resistant to it, you will probably dislike me, the class, or both. You will find philosophy in general and the course in particular a waste of time.
Is Philosophy a Waste of Time?
From the standpoint of making money, philosophy is the most spectacular waste of time imaginable. So if your principal aim in life is to become fabulously wealthy, you should probably avoid philosophy at all costs (no pun intended). Studying philosophy tends to make people wise and good, but wise and good people are often poor. Contrariwise, studying “practical” disciplines tends to make people rich, but rich people are often and bad. There are exceptions, but not enough to disprove the rule.
You will also find philosophy to be a waste of time if you are a: fundamentalist (i.e., a person who thinks s/he already possesses Absolute Truth), bigot (i.e., a person who hates other person for abritrary, irrational reason), materialist (i.e., a person who ascribes inordinate value to the acquisition and possession of material goods such as cards, consumer electronics, clothing, jewelry, real estate, etc.), hedonist (i.e., a person who ascribes inordinate value to eating, drinking, sex, or physical pleasure in general), narcisst (i.e., a person who ascribes inordinate value to his or her physical appearance including weight, clothing, etc.), or nihilist (i.e., a person who doesn't care about anything at all).
Note: if you are a recovering fundamentalist, bigot, materialist, hedonist, narcissist, or nihilist, philosophy may be just the thing you were looking for. Read on.
A story is told about the great Greek philosopher Socrates. A friend of the young Socrates asks the Oracle if there is any man wiser than Socrates. When the Oracle replies in the negative, they are both amazed and bewildered. “How can I be the wisest,” Socrates asks, “when I know nothing?” From there, Socrates sets out to find someone wiser than himself, thereby launching his philosophical career. As it turns out, Socrates’ wisdom consist precisely in knowing that he knows nothing. Throughout his life, Socrates questions the so-called wise men and authorities – the ones who claim to “know” – and finds that they, too, know nothing at all!
This tale reveals two important features of philosophy. First, philosophy is not only about seeking the truth about the world; it is also – and perhaps more importantly – about seeking the truth about ourselves. A person who lives philosophically is a person who strives to know herself. Second, philosophy is about the journey, not the destination. Sometimes people say that philosophy is “all a matter of opinion” or that philosophical questions are “unanswerable.” Even if this is true – and I don’t think it is - would it mean that philosophy is not worth doing? Certainly not! Merely asking the questions and dwelling within them, humbly and with reverence, is worthwhile in itself. In fact, it is the beginning of wisdom!
The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living
Socrates said this. It’s a very strong claim, but one that ought to be considered carefully. What’s the sense in living if you don’t ask questions of life? Being told who you are, what to think, how to act, etc. – maybe it doesn’t make life altogether worthless, but it certainly devalues and demeans life. Obviously there is a strong connection between thinking for oneself and being a free human being.
He also said that “the one aim of those who practice philosophy is to prepare for dying and death.” Philosophy isn’t an academic game played by professors. It’s a serious issue – a matter of life and death. The goal of philosophy is to live well, to be good people, excellent human beings. This suggests that there is an intimate relationship between the True and the Good. The closer we draw to the True, the better we will be morally. Does this mean that ignorant people will necessarily be evil? No, not necessarily. In fact, ignorant people can be and often are extremely happy because they don’t know enough about the world to care. Evil people, on the other hand, are seldom wise and never on the side of Truth. By definition their beliefs are false, their thinking irrational.
So, is philosophy a waste of time? Only if cultivating a relationship to the Truth is a waste of time. Only if cultivating a relationship to the Good is a waste of time. Only if avoiding ignorance and false beliefs is a waste of time.
There are other ways to do these things. Philosophy is just one. The point is that, everything else being equal, no student at MSU is wasting his or her time by taking philosophy courses.
On the contrary, it may be the most valuable time you ever spend in a classroom!
Other Benefits to Studying Philosophy
It should be stressed immediately that the non-academic value of a field of study must not be viewed solely or even mainly in terms of its contribution to obtaining one's first job after graduation. Students are understandably preoccupied with getting their first job, but even from a narrow vocational point of view it would be short-sighted to concentrate on that at the expense of developing potential for success and advancement once hired. What gets graduates hired initially may not yield promotions or carry them beyond their first position, particularly given how fast the needs of many employers alter 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 derivable from 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.
That said, in emphasizing the long-range benefits of training in philosophy, there are at least two points to note.
First, although pondering and debating philosophical questions is valuable for its own sake, studying philosophy also has practical benefits that are relevant to all walks of life, but especially to students planning postgraduate work in law, business, medicine, etc. According to numerous recent studies, students with extensive philosophy coursework consistently outperform other students on standardized professional and graduate school admissions tests. For example:
- On the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), philosophy majors/minors tend to have the highest mean verbal scores of students in all majors/minors and the highest mean quantitative scores among all humanities and social science majors/minors.
- A 2004 study shows that philosophy majors/minors score higher on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) than any other majors/minors, including political science and pre-law.
- From 1991-1996, philosopher majors/minors achieved significantly higher mean scores on the GMAT than business students (accounting, management, finance, etc.)
- Outside of the hard sciences, philosophy has had either the first or second highest mean score on the GMAT each year; the mean GMAT score for philosophy majors/minors is fourth or fifth highest of all majors/minors.
Pursuing a minor in philosophy, or even just taking philosophy courses, instills problem-solving capacities, increases the ability to understand and express ideas, and enhances persuasive powers - all good traits for any position of leadership, responsibility, or management. Unlike other fields of inquiry, philosophy is equipped to explore and analyze the basic axioms and presuppositions of all theoretical and practical disciplines from art and science to ethics and poiltics. It provides fundamental thinking and reasoning skills which not only aid the individuals who use them, but also everyone who benefit from their activities. Philosophy provides the common denominator between general and professional education. In his 1989 Annual Report, Francis J. Cashin, former president of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, acknowledged the importance of philosophy for engineers: “From Philosophy, we engineers must obtain the working tools of logic and reasoning [and recognize]. . . . the need to understand . . . ethics because of the engineer’s profound effect on human society and the environment” [p. 6]. In their 1992 Conference Report CUBE [Coalition of Universities and Business for Education] vowed to aid in changing our schools “where only some of the students learn to think” to schools “where all students learn to think” . A study in the 1980s by the Bell Telephone Co. determined that majors in the liberal arts fields, in which Philosophy is a central discipline, “continue to make a strong showing in managerial skills and have experienced considerable business success” (Robert E. Beck, Career Patterns).
Second, the long-range value of philosophical study goes far beyond its contributions to one's livelihood. Most of us ponder philosophical questions - at least occasionally - and to this extent we are all already philosophers. Asking, and caring about the answers to, philosophical questions is a basic and natural human activity whether it is recognized as "philosophizing" or not. Studying philosophy is simply a more rigorous approach to this activity. It broadens the range of things one can understand and enjoy. It can give one self-knowledge, foresight, and a sense of direction in life. It can provide, to one's reading and conversation, special pleasures of insight. It can lead to self-discovery, expansion of consciousness, and self-renewal. It can inculcate wisdom, leadership skills, excellence, and goodness. Through all of this, and through its contribution to one's expressive powers, it nurtures individuality and self-esteem. Its value for one's private life is incalculable; its benefits in one's public life as a citizen are immeasurable.
Wisdom, leadership, excellence, goodness - these cannot be guaranteed by any course of study. But philosophy pursues these ideals systematically. Its methods and its best expressions are of perennial use in our quest to realize our ideals, which are, indeed, the necessary conditions for our continued existence. Critical thinking, clear expression of our ideas, accurate judgment in complex situations, and a receptive consciousness are never obsolete, nor subject to the demands of trends or markets. The study of philosophy is the most direct route to the best qualities in us, and the best plans for all of us.