5 things you learn as a philosophy major

You say, “I don’t see the point of philosophy. It’s just a bunch of confusing nonsense that doesn’t actually do anything except turn you into a pretentious atheist-communist-nihilist. If you get a philosophy degree, the only thing you can do is rant about obscure theories to kids who have been suckered into paying to hear you ramble.”

I usually say, “Please stop talking to me. Go, naïve bourgeois, stay the hand of introspection and disillusionment: distract yourself from ultimate reality with a televised singing competition. Or whatever it is people like you do, people who make statements like those in the preceding paragraph; typically right after you query into my major of choice.”

But if I had the patience to attempt to enlighten you as to the value of studying philosophy, I might bring up the following points (and you would be thankful for it, hypothetical insolent.) I broke them down into subsections, because statistically speaking, you probably have some form of attention deficit and you think reading is for nerds. That or you’re too busy watching a Law & Order marathon to make it through an essay that doesn’t have any Internet memes or gifs in it.


1) How to argue like an intelligent and civilized person

Don’t argue with the philosophy professor. The philosophy professor has at least three degrees in higher-level arguing; if the philosophy professor decides to engage with you in an argumentative fashion, you are probably going to lose, especially if you approach the discussion as a win-lose argument. Just don’t do it. This isn’t high school debate team or the United States Congress. Instead, just try listening, then give yourself adequate time to digest the information, and then maybe start asking questions.

Seriously though, philosophy courses are, in part, months-long critical thinking exercises in which you process argument after argument. From the start we’re made familiar with terms and inherent fallacies that make for bad logic or shoddy arguments. Here are just a few common fallacies of many:

Ad Hominem: This literally means  “Argument to the Man.” This is when somebody attacks the person making the argument instead of his or her actual argument. For an example, pick a political advertisement, because probably 95% of them are ad hominem attacks that attack a group or a candidate instead of addressing the issues at hand. People do this because it’s easy. You can call someone an idiot, and thus anything they say is to be rebuked; that way you don’t have to spend any time discussing boring politics, or even say what you really stand for as a candidate. You’re not going to vote for an idiot, are you? Then clearly you should vote for the non-idiot who paid for this cleverly revealing advertisement!

Appeal to Authority: An appeal to authority would sound something like, “Neil Degrasse Tyson agrees with me, so I must be right.” It’s vague and doesn’t actually mean anything, because as with the ad hominem, it doesn’t go into the argument itself, it’s just supposed to make you blink as you wonder whether or not you want to disagree with Dr. Tyson and risk being banned from the Internet.

Fallacy of Extension (Straw Man): “You think x is a good idea? That’s funny, I didn’t know you were a Nazi.” Basically, somebody takes the argument to an absurd and maybe tangential extension that is not the actual subject of the debate. But, by virtue of being more interesting or inflammatory than whatever the argument is actually about, the extension gains the spotlight and it’s probably something polarizing that is designed to make you look reprehensible.

You might have seen somebody point out fallacies like these in an online forum or comment section. The thing is, people use fallacies like this all the freaking time, in writing, when talking, and in more subversive methods like metaphors. When you take a philosophy course, you’ll learn to dissect arguments, keep track of their threads, and see where the line of reasoning leads beyond the presented material. You’ll do a lot of this, and you’ll get better and faster at it, and suddenly fallacies like these will leap out at you whenever somebody slips one into whatever they’re discussing. Perhaps more importantly, you’ll get better at thinking through problems and you’ll be able to catch yourself when you start to use a fallacy, and you’ll see that a position that relies on a fallacy is not a perspective worth defending.

2) How to cope with the cold and uncaring nature of existence

Ok, now that the boring crap is out of the way, we can get into the fun stuff.

Have you ever thought about how you and everybody you’ve ever known and cared for will die someday? And that, no matter what you do, everything you create or discover will eventually be eroded into nothingness by the relentless onslaught of time? That you will be forgotten, lost to the vortex of existence, and odds are nothing you do will matter after it slips far enough into the past?

No? You never have thoughts like that? Maybe one of them fluttered up and into your eye one day like a bug on a humid day, and you were like, “GAH! Get out of my face!” and you waved it away, or maybe even swatted it down and then crushed it into goo under your foot or with a cheap vampire paperback? Oh, right, you were probably inside watching relatively more clueless people get exploited on Tru TV.

Anyway, for the rest of us who might encounter one of these nagging thoughts, or otherwise stumble into a hive of them from time to time– don’t worry! Really, you are far from the only one. And many people, both smarter and more fragile than the majority of us, have grappled with these questions and emerged triumphant (Most of them. One guy went catatonic. But don’t worry about him, that sort of thing happened to people all the time in the 1800s).

There are theories that start with what may be the worst possible assumption, that life is inherently and likely irredeemably meaningless. Some of these theories, while they can certainly put you in a funk, can turn out to be very uplifting if you make through to the end and process them.

Then there are religions! And when they’re understood properly, they can be pretty rad too. People fly around and fight demons and stuff, it’s awesome. Religions can pump meaning and warmth into even the most mundane aspects of life. You don’t even have to be religious or spiritual or believe in God to get some cool ideas from a religion. That’s right– those are all separate concepts that do not necessarily equivocate or exclude each other.

But the key is to truly comprehend a religion, which requires asking lots of uncomfortable questions and putting your faith (and you do have faith, regardless of whether or not you believe in God or a religion) through some difficult tests, many of which will be a lot like dissecting a huge argument. You should want to understand your faith from a multitude of perspectives, not just hold on to a comforting but vague generalization. When somebody asks you hard questions about your faith, you want to be able to honestly answer them without using fallacies.

And if you’re not religious, you don’t want to be the arrogant jerk who acts like he invented atheism, or the smart aleck who only has a surface understanding of an issue and bases his or her entire identity around one overused and mediocre joke. Both those types of people use lots of fallacies, by the way.

3) How to equip yourself as a meaningfully ethical person

When you’ve learned how to stave off nihilism, you’ll probably find yourself sitting around and thinking, “Ok, so life can have meaning and I should do something meaningful and probably not just act on depraved impulse like a sticky, disgusting toddler or some sort of chimp.”

But, what exactly should you do? Not knowing what to do can be just as bad as thinking there’s no reason to do anything anyway, and can leave you with just as many sleepless nights. In fact, once you determine how to make a meaningful life for yourself, upholding that meaning can be more daunting than when you previously thought you didn’t have to worry about meaning at all.

Nothing and nobody can really give you explicit instructions of precisely what you should do. Some things can give you an idea or a general direction to head in, but nothing can give you a step-by-step breakdown of everything you’re going to encounter and every decision you’re going to make.

Ethics can help, though. To study ethics is to study how to make decisions. Are you interested in efficiency and bringing about the greatest amount of benefit and the least amount of harm? Do you want to uphold justice and the rights of humanity in the face of all odds? Or do you look at the big picture and wonder, what does human excellence look like, and how might we go about attaining it?

Maybe you already have a personal ethos or set of rules that you live your life by that helps you to answer questions like these, and you feel no desire to complicate things by looking at other theories. But studying ethics isn’t just about figuring which game has the best set of rules– even with the values you already have, you’ll still want to have the capability to provide a satisfying answer the question of “Why” you do whatever you choose to do– not just to other people, but hopefully to yourself.

The question of “Why?” is important, because it is closely linked to the question of “Who?”

4) What is identity, and who you should be

Every choice you make or decline to make shapes who you are as a person. Now, when you ask yourself the question, “Who am I?”, how do you answer? (If you’ve never thought to ask this question of yourself, go ahead and do it now, just to see how you respond.)

Do you answer with your name? Your occupation? Your favorite color? The kind of music you listen to? Your political affiliation? Do any one of these things really  define who you are as a person? Hopefully not– hopefully you possess more depth than that. Even combined, these answers may seem woefully inadequate.

Studying philosophy exposes you to more levels of meaning, more ideas, and a broader, deeper perspective on the world. This goes beyond ethics and logic to aesthetics (the study of art and what makes something beautiful), mathematics and physics (after a certain point, even the scientists rely on philosophers), free will, history, literature, neuropsychology, linguistics, politics– the list goes on and on. On a long enough time line, philosophy has a hand in everything we do. Essentially, by studying philosophy, you open up more options and more choices– more aspects to add to yourself, a greater potential to be who you are and all you possibly could be.

The question of identity is a tricky one– you’ll probably never find a wholly satisfactory answer, and whatever conclusion you come to should continue to change and evolve over time. That in itself can be scary– and if you’ve made it this far…

5) Acceptance

Things are never going to make complete sense. You should get used to that, because it doesn’t look likely to change any time soon. If you study philosophy, you will grow accustomed to this.

You will get used to staring into dense thickets of text that lead to bizarre conclusions about things you never considered or things that you once thought simple (see below). You’ll learn to put yourself in a vulnerable spot where you can lose your assumptions and truly question everything. You’ll see that it’s ok to be confused and left questioning. You will learn to submit your own beliefs to rigorous and brutal questioning so that you can emerge with a greater and stronger understanding of who you are. You will get frustrated, often, and you’ll get better at dealing with frustration. You will learn patience and humility. You’ll learn not to write anything off without giving it due consideration, you’ll learn to respect those who have come before you no matter how kooky they might look or sound now. You’ll learn how to both distance yourself from things and to engage and integrate with them on a more profound level than you ever thought possible. You’ll be lost, then found and reified, and then prepare to drop into unknown wilderness again.

I became a philosophy major because they seemed to be having the discussions worth having. I stayed a philosophy major not because I’m seeking ultimate knowledge in these theories, but because the process of working through them leads to so much more understanding of how things work. Nothing will ever make total sense, but eventually a wordless understanding of the struggle should bring a calm and a confidence that really doesn’t lie in any theory; it might most simply be described as a hope that the struggle is worth it, or faith that no matter how awful it gets, things are as they should be and really couldn’t be any other way.

Disclaimer: you may have heard or entertained the thought that there is a difference between ‘studying philosophy’ and ‘taking a philosophy class,’ and you would be right. The difference is this:

From Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”:

In recent years Carnap has tended to explain analyticity by appeal to what he calls state-descriptions. A state-description is any exhaustive assignment of truth values to the atomic, or noncompound, statements of the language. All other statements of the language are, Carnap assumes, built up of their component clauses by means of the familiar logical devices, in such a way that the truth value of any complex statement is fixed for each state-description by specifiable logical laws. A statement is then explained as analytic when it comes out true under every state-description. This account is an adaptation of Leibniz’s “true in all possible worlds.” But note that this version of analyticity serves its purpose only if the atomic statements of the language are, unlike ‘John is a bachelor’ and ‘John is married,’ mutually independent. Otherwise there would be a state-description which assigned truth to ‘John is a bachelor’ and falsity to ‘John is married,’ and consequently ‘All bachelors are married’ would turn out synthetic rather than analytic under the proposed criterion. Thus the criterion of analyticity in terms of state-descriptions serves only for languages devoid of extralogical synonym-pairs, such as ‘bachelor’ and ‘unmarried man’: synonym-pairs of the type which give rise to the “second class” of analytic statements. The criterion in terms of state-descriptions is a reconstruction at best of logical truth.

Yeah, go ahead and try and figure that out on your own, chump. Don’t cheat! A Wikipedia entry or study guide might give you the basic idea, but in order to have a working understanding of a complete text like that, you’re going to have to dig in and hunker down. It’s certainly feasible to get through stuff like this by your lonesome; I’m just saying, there’s a good reason we pay people who have spent years studying it so they can rant about it to the rest of us.

Full disclosure: not all philosophy is that daunting. I intentionally asked Dr. Panza for the most difficult passage he could readily think of (I actually haven’t even read this particular text and am only vaguely aware of what this passage is addressing). But even the more straightforward texts have multiple levels and implications that you likely will not pick up on unless you learn the proper skills. You need to learn the vocabulary and the contexts of the dialogue.


One Comment

  1. I love this article, thank you for writing it.

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