Philosophy Is Not Just For Dead White Guys

 

According to popular understanding, philosophy is a useless subject. It doesn’t teach us how to code new software or to connect volunteers to projects or create new products for the disabled or run political campaigns. The problem with this stereotype is that it ignores the fact that philosophy undergirds all areas of our lives. The basic human claims that it is good to help others, accommodate the disabled and be involved in our governments are all philosophical questions in nature. Computer science, engineering and politics cannot tell us why these issues are important — only philosophy can. The universal relevance of philosophy is why I think that every student, regardless of major, should take a philosophy class.

Yes, I mean that even hard science majors should take a philosophy course. Subjects like chemistry and physics teach students about the compositions and processes that govern our world. These fields have practical and impressive applications – this year’s Nobel Prize winners in chemistry conducted the directed evolution of enzymes, and one of this year’s Nobel Prize winners in physics created laser “tweezers” that enable scientists to manipulate viruses, atoms and other microscopic specimens. Hard sciences can yield impressive results but they cannot answer deeper questions of how and why the world works: How do we know anything about the world? What are the limits of scientific knowledge? How much evidence do we need in order to prove something? These are questions that only the philosophy of science and epistemology (the philosophical study of knowledge) can answer. College is the time to explore these big questions. Careers, families and “real life” quickly take over after graduation. STEM students should take advantage of philosophy courses like Science and Society, Cognitive Science and Topics in the Philosophy of Science. These courses allow STEM students to expand their study of science and answer the big “why” questions embedded in our world.

Philosophy classes can be more practical than examining “why” questions. They can also help us answer ethical questions of how we should conduct ourselves. Ethical philosophy is applicable to all fields. Ethics can help physicists figure out whether it’s morally acceptable to develop nuclear weapons. Businesses use ethics to determine whether it’s okay to cut employee benefits. Journalists abide by a code of ethics that governs how they treat their sources and readers. Every field uses ethics to determine what is right and wrong within itself. Diverse classes like Ethical & Technological Advances in Medicine; Bioethics; Business and Professional Ethics; Engineering, Ethics, & Society and Media Ethics can help students apply ethics to their fields.

If applied ethical concerns don’t interest you, then you might be interested in the most pragmatic reason to take a philosophy course: Studying philosophy can help improve your graduate exam scores. According to PrepScholar, philosophy majors score higher than the average test taker on all three components of the GRE. According to the Law School Admission Council, philosophy majors also score decently on the LSAT. It’s no wonder, considering that the study of philosophy improves critical thinking, analytical writing and reading comprehension, according to the U’s Philosophy Department.

Personally, I study philosophy because I’m interested in the world’s big questions. I like puzzling over questions such as “what is justice?” and “why is there something in the world rather than nothing?” I know that not everyone shares my love of abstract questions, so I’ll simply reiterate that philosophy really is practical. Far from being an exclusive domain of long-dead white men, it’s an ever-changing discipline that is universally applicable and can help you get into graduate school. Whether it’s a “big questions” class or a practical ethics class, every student should take a philosophy course.

letters@chronicle.utah.edu

@TheChrony

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