Why philosophy?

Philosophy at A Level

With the change of curriculum in 2000, Philosophy and Religious Studies A Levels have become one of the most popular ‘fourth’ options. The rise of the International Baccalaureate has also contributed to the increase in people studying philosophy in Years 12 and 13. What is it that philosophy, whether taken ‘neat’ or in the context of religious studies, can offer? Here’s six things we think are important.

1. Independent thought: doing philosophy is an excellent training in thinking for yourself. In our experience, many people are quick to say that beliefs, especially on such philosophical matters as ethics or religion, depend on upbringing. But very few people say this about themselves. Does what you think about abortion or about life after death come straight from your parents and teachers? Or do you think you have good reasons to believe what you do? If you aren’t thinking for yourself already, doing philosophy will provide you with the perfect opportunity!

2. Subject matter: the questions that philosophy investigates are the most profound questions that we can ask. It investigates the deepest aspects of what it means to be human. Are we simply animals that have evolved, or do we have a spiritual dimension that will survive the death of our bodies? Does God exist, and if so, what does God expect of us? What can we know about the world we live in, and is certainty important? Is there one moral code for all people to live by, or is right and wrong ‘simply’ a matter of culture? How far can you take this idea – could it really ever be right to sexually abuse someone, whatever your culture says? Whether you study these questions in a religious context or not, they are questions that get to the heart of our existence.

3. Dispute: if there are any answers to these questions, they are not obvious! This means that philosophy requires you to suspend your belief and disbelief while thinking. It asks you to avoid being too quick to jump to conclusions, especially the conclusions you want to be true. Thinking hard without quickly falling back on what you already think can be quite scary at first; that’s why, perhaps, some people don’t have any time for philosophy – it can feel unsettling and personally challenging. But what is personally challenging also offers a chance to grow.

4. Character: because it encourages open-mindedness, doing philosophy can actually change your character. It can help you mature in your thoughts about and relations with people who are different to you, whether they are people you meet or authors you read. This doesn’t just mean it can give you new thoughts, but it can only new ways of thinking – about yourself, about others, about the world.

5. Thought: doing philosophy is not easy. It is difficult to understand the arguments and the ideas. As with doing anything that is difficult, you develop new skills that make it easier with practice. Some of the skills that doing philosophy can teach you are:
a) understanding the relations between ideas: how one idea can imply another or contradict it
b) the ability to spot flaws in arguments
c) the ability to argue
d) imagination: coming up with novel solutions and novel ideas
e) communication and conversation: philosophy is done through discussion and debate

6. Self-understanding: taking all these ideas together – being able to think and think independently, thinking about deep questions but without resorting to what you already believe – philosophy can help you to understand yourself. It’s what education is really about. What more could anybody want from an A level??

Philosophy at University

Doing philosophy or religious studies as a fourth option at A level is one thing; but surely it would be foolish to go on to study it at university? What could it possibly help with in ‘real life’?

It’s worth noting that self-understanding and self-development don’t finish when you’re 18! Philosophy at university has everything that philosophy at A level has to offer, but with much more depth and achievement.

In fact, it’s surprising just how many career paths a philosophy degree can help with. In a nutshell, doing philosophy can make a significant contribution to any job that requires you to think well, that is clearly and rigourously. Big business – the City firms, the banks, the management consultancies, the chartered accountants – are enthusiastic about people who’ve done philosophy, because they know how to think clearly. Philosophy students also go into law, politics, and the civil service. Journalism is a logical career path, since you have to be able to write well and present ideas logically and clearly. Advertising is another choice, and of course, last in this very incomplete list, but never least, there’s always education!  Philosophy students do better in verbal and writing skills than students with any other degree in the standard “GRE’ entrance examination for post-graduate study in the USA (see the graph below). They even do better on mathematical skills than everyone except those, such as maths and physics, with a heavily mathematical degree. So a degree in philosophy opens doors, it doesn’t close them.

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