undergraduate program

Is Philosophy the Right Major for You?

Many students wonder if they will find philosophy a stimulating and rewarding field in which to major. The best guide here is your experience in philosophy courses you have already taken. Nearly everyone who does philosophy is attracted by the challenge of grappling with issues that have stimulated the greatest thinkers of every age. But the source of this attraction differs. Some see philosophy primarily as a way of arriving at certain fundamental truths about mankind and the world in which we live. For such people, the overriding motivation in doing philosophy is to find the correct answers to such questions as "What makes one action right and another wrong?, "Does God exist?", "Can we be certain about anything beyond our own existence?", and "Are people just complicated physical systems of the same kind as other animals or computers?" Others are more attracted by the process of "doing philosophy" itself. For these people, the very act of analyzing a difficult problem is the main source of pleasure. The history of philosophy is seen as a storehouse of intellectual puzzles to which the philosopher can apply her analytical and dialectical skills. The exercise of these skills is inherently satisfying even if it does not ultimately lead to a unique correct solution of the problem being considered.

You might also bear in mind the following considerations. (l) If you have felt that courses in other fields don't address what you regard as the most basic questions, or don't go into them deeply enough, you will probably like the sort of work done in philosophy courses. (2) A philosophy major can expect to do a lot of writing, and writing of a rather special kind. As mentioned before, the emphasis is on the critical assessment and development of arguments. In preparing a philosophy paper, clarity and rigor of thought are much more important than research; in fact, there is no such thing as a "research", or purely expository, paper in philosophy. If you enjoy carefully examining arguments and thinking about the different ways one can deal with an issue or problem, you will probably enjoy writing philosophy papers. On the other hand, since writing is so important in philosophy courses, if you are not interested in this kind of writing, perhaps you should think twice about majoring in philosophy. (3) Readings for philosophy courses are generally not long, but they are difficult and challenging. You cannot expect to go through an assigned reading once and have an adequate grasp of it. Some students seem to thrive on the painstaking study required, while others simply don't have the patience for it. (4) Discussion normally plays a much greater role in upper-level philosophy courses than it does in those of other disciplines. If you enjoy trying to get at the truth about difficult and important issues through dialogue and discussion, you will probably enjoy being a philosophy major.