50 Things To Know About Being a Philosophy Major
“Whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent.”
Choosing a major in college can be daunting. Do you want to study science, history, literature, art, math? Sometimes it can feel like choosing one means you’re going to miss out on all the others. And nobody likes missing out!
How would it feel if instead, you could pick a major that lets you continue to study anything and everything that catches your interest? That’s what philosophy is.
Historically, almost every major area of study started as philosophy. Aristotle was a famous philosopher, and also laid down important foundations for math and science. Kurt Godel was a logician who described the incompleteness theorems, which turned our knowledge of mathematics on its head. Even neuroscience has its foundations in the philosophy of the mind.
The following book is an overview of what to expect from an education in Western Philosophy.
If you’re thinking about philosophy as a major, then you should know what you’re in for—fun, variety, and seeing how the world looks when you’re standing on the shoulders of giants.
Signs That A Philosophy Major Is Right For You
1. You Have A Curious Mind
Do you love trying to get to the bottom of things? Are you interested in finding out what makes the world tick? If so, then the philosophy major is perfect for you. There are many different areas of study in philosophy (which we will go over later) that can and will satisfy any craving for knowledge that you may have. Ethics, religion, science, and so much more—a philosophy major is perfect for those people out there with curious minds, who truly love to learn.
2. You Enjoy Reading
Books encapsulate our knowledge, hopes, dreams, stories… basically everything that makes us human. They are central to our civilization! If you agree with that, and grew up loving and appreciating the entertainment and education that books provide, then philosophy is perfect for you. As a philosophy major, you’ll read all sorts of things. Philosophy, essays, classic literature, stories—basically anything and everything is connected to philosophy in one way or another. All you have to do is enjoy it!
3. You Like To Debate
Do you find yourself playing devil’s advocate during philosophical debates with friends and family? Have you ever thought that maybe being a lawyer would be right for you? (We’ll talk more about that later!) If you’re the kind of person who enjoys seeing all sides of a situation, and being able to argue convincingly for each side, you already have one of the important qualities in a philosophy major!
4. You Like A Challenge
If you’re looking to philosophy to be an easy major, it’s time to look elsewhere. Philosophy will give you what you put in. Successful philosophy majors rise to a challenge and will gain a lot from it. If you enjoy digging into a subject and creatively applying your mind to it, then a philosophy major is right for you.
5. You Like Variety
Many majors force their students to specialize, but philosophy is not one of those. There are nearly limitless areas of study. It’s true that some professors and PhDs are pretty specialized, but studying philosophy as an undergraduate major means going down any path that catches your eye. If you’re the kind of person who loves variety, then this is a great choice for you.
6. You Hate Stagnation
And the other side of the coin from variety—stagnation. If doing the same thing every day appeals to you, philosophy is probably not the major for you. When studying as a philosophy major, every day will be different! This is a huge bonus for people who hate stagnation and an everyday routine that never changes.
7. You Love Discovering New Things
Do you get a chill up your spine when you find out something new, that gives context to your world and beliefs? Well, if you want to be a philosophy major, be prepared for that feeling—all the time! There’s so much to learn about in philosophy, that you can and will be discovering new things about the world, and even yourself, every single day.
8. You Have A Mind Built for Puzzles
Philosophy is all about connection—how does one thing fit with another? If you have a mind for puzzles, and you thrive on finding connections between things that seem very different to other people, then you will definitely thrive as a philosophy major. A person who is able to solve puzzles and find connections is the kind of person who will be able to pave their own way through a philosophy major—you will be able to study anything that you find interesting, as long as you can connect it to the bigger picture.
9. You Want to Have A Variety of Career Paths Open to You
As a freshman in college, it can be overwhelming to think about picking a career path for the rest of your life. The good news is that with a philosophy major, you don’t have to! This major is among the most flexible as far as future careers go. Philosophy prepares people for all sorts of careers—writers, politicians, lawyers, and even famous actors have gone through their college years as philosophy majors. They were all the more prepared for the world because of it! We will cover these career paths and more, later on in the book.
10. You Want to Build a Foundation For Graduate School
If higher education is important to you, a philosophy major is the perfect foundation. People who major in philosophy tend to do better on standardized tests required for graduate school, including law school. The years of study in argument, critical thinking, and writing effectively, make philosophy majors prepared for any kind of graduate education that you can dream of.
11. You Want to Build a Foundation for the Rest of Your Life
Even if graduate school is not in the cards for you, philosophy will certainly help you build a foundation for your life. When you spend years training in critical thinking, looking for connections, and seeing the world through many perspectives, you will be prepared for anything. These skills help in any area of life—from careers, to relationships, to hobbies, to building healthy habits.
What to Expect When You’re Starting Out
12. College Philosophy Classes Will Be Nothing Like High School
Philosophy classes are among the most fun and engaging classes available on a college campus. The professors care deeply about their subject, and they are eager to teach—not like your high school gym teacher who also taught European history. Philosophy professors are the best at what they do, and they will expect the same level of care from their students. Don’t plan on skipping the reading and doing the bare minimum if you want to be a philosophy major. These classes will challenge you and give you so much in return—as long as you let them!
13. You Will Have to Take Classes That You Did Not Plan On
So maybe you decided on philosophy because you want to study environmental ethics. You want to learn about how humans can ethically engage with our environment. Great! But you will also have to take classes that seem irrelevant to your interests, like logic, metaphysics, and ancient Greek philosophy. But you better believe that even though these classes might seem irrelevant, they are not. That’s because…
14. Your Philosophy Classes Will Help You with Your Other Classes
That’s right. Any philosophy class you take will certainly help in another class, whether you know it at the time, or not. That’s because every class you take expands your critical thinking toolkit. If you’re a great critical thinker, you’ll be able to think through problems that pose others a greater challenge. For example, let’s say you’re in a biology class. How is philosophy going to help with that? Well, if you have a solid grasp on logic, then it will be easier for you to piece together biological processes and distinctions, since you know how things fit together. Not to mention—all philosophy classes make your writing more efficient, effective, and readable for your professors—a HUGE bonus!
15. You Will Find Yourself Thinking in New Ways
There are some things you probably have decided on years ago, even as a child. How you treat others, what kind of value you assign to certain beliefs and actions, what’s really important in this world, what’s fundamental, and more… all of those sorts of things we learn growing up, from our parents, families, schools, churches—basically anywhere that adults impart wisdom to children. But there’s a question behind every thought or belief—why? Philosophy will teach you to get to the bottom of things. For example, say that you follow the Golden Rule when it comes to treating others—treat others the way you would like to be treated. But why? Is it because that’s a good way to be? Because of karma? Because it will get your further in life? There are many ways to interpret this axiom, and others that you encounter in your life. Being a philosophy major will help you clarify and dig deeper in your thinking.
16. You’ll Make Friends with Different Types of People
Maybe in high school you were an athlete, or a theater kid, or a debate team member, a musician, artist, or all or none of the above. In philosophy, you will encounter every type of person. Since there is such a diverse set of things to learn, the people attracted to the subject are just as diverse. Maybe you never imagined being friends with a hardcore metal head with facial piercings and a mohawk, but if you share an interest in the foundations of logic, you could become besties! Philosophy departments are a wonderful example of never judging a book by its cover—look inside the people in your cohort and you will find a rich tapestry of human experience and personality.
17. The Professor’s Office Hours Can Be Intense—and Rewarding
One of the best ways to take advantage of college education is by attending your Professor’s office hours. This is where you will have concentrated one-on-one time with the person who wants to teach you about a subject they have been studying for years. This can be intimidating! Sometimes it can feel like you’re asking dumb questions, or like you’re wasting the professor’s time. But believe me—you’re not! There is no greater joy to a philosophy professor than a student who engages deeply with a subject, and who wants to learn more about it. So, while it might be intimidating to be sitting face-to-face with someone that you normally see from afar in a big lecture hall, if you show up prepared and willing to talk and learn, a philosophy professor’s office hours can be extremely rewarding.
Types of Philosophy You Can Study
18. The Two Schools
There are two types, or “schools,” in western philosophy that you should know about when you’re committing to the major. They are called analytic philosophy and continental philosophy. Now, like in most areas of philosophical study, there is plenty of overlap, and plenty of debate over to which school a certain philosopher or belief system belongs. In most colleges and universities, the philosophy department will probably favor one over the other, but as a philosophy major, you will certainly be able to learn about both. In fact—learning about one helps to provide a contrast while learning about the other! Here’s a very short description of both:
Analytic philosophy is, perhaps not surprisingly, philosophy practiced with a focus on analysis. Typical issues that analytic philosophers engage with include thought, knowledge, language, logic, etc. In other words, they want to break down these topics to their fundamentals through analysis of propositions, ideas, and arguments that support or refute one theory over another. In this area of philosophy, you will tend to find logicians, mathematicians, linguists, and scientists.
Continental philosophy, on the other hand, is concerned with synthesis. This means that these types of philosophers are more interested in finding the connections and middle grounds between disparate theories, or of creating brand new theories. They are concerned with problems like how an individual fits into society, what kind of role history plays in shaping us, and questions about the meaning of life.
Ethics, broadly, is the study of value in principles, actions and beliefs that humans have with respect to the world around us. We can derive ethics from many sources—religion, societal norms, what our parents teach us, what feels right to us, and more. Learning about ethics as a philosophy major will help to answer the question why.
22. Two Schools of Ethics
Just as there are two main schools of philosophy (analytic and continental), there are two main schools of ethics, deontology and utilitarianism. Unlike the overlap and complementary aspects of analytic and continental philosophy, however, deontology and utilitarianism are pretty much incompatible, and the value or rightness of each one is a debate that is still very much alive today. The main difference between the two can be oversimplified as a question of value—is the “good” of any particular action in the action itself, or in its consequence? Here’s a short overview of each one. Which one seems more correct to you?
Utilitarianism states that the moral value of an action is in its consequence. To put it very simply, a “good” action is one that has “good” consequences. We put “good” in quotation marks because deciding what’s good is a whole other story that we could write a whole book about—and in fact, some philosophers have! A classic thought experiment that tends to highlight the common-sense nature of this view is the trolley problem. If there’s a trolley barreling down the tracks toward 10 people, and you can pull the switch to change the direction, where the trolley will only hit one person, would you pull the switch? Most utilitarian thinkers would say yes—the consequences of hitting one person are less bad than the consequences of letting 10 people get hit. What do you think?
On the other hand, deontologist thinkers think that the consequences of an action don’t matter so much. The ethical value, instead, comes from the action itself. Famously, Immanuel Kant believed that lying was bad, full stop, and therefore, never ethically permissible, not even if the lie was in the service of an action that most of us would think of as good. The famous example against this theory is the example of Nazis knocking at your door when you are harboring escapees from concentration camps. If the Nazi asks you if there are any refugees in the house, and lying for ANY reason is never morally acceptable, what do you do? Some people take this example to refute Kant’s theory, or deontology in general. But others would suggest not lying, but perhaps distracting or misdirecting the Nazi. What would you do?
Another area of philosophy that provides many avenues of study is logic. In symbolic logic, you can learn the foundations of mathematics, and start to find myriad answers to questions like “what is a number?” Going further, we can find the sorts of logical proofs that some analytic philosophers use to advance their theories in ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, and more. Having a strong foundation in logic makes you ready to study and learn anything, since almost anything you can think of will have some underlying logic to it, even if it seems chaotic on the surface.
Metaphysics is one of those huge questions that philosophers have been asking for centuries. Basically, the question is—what is everything? What are the foundations of everything we are, know, and believe to be true? That might sound silly to the more scientifically-minded, who would answer—“We’re made out of atoms, of course, then electrons, then quarks!” But metaphysics goes further. If we are made from something we will never be able to observe—how much can we know about it? Is there one substance that is at the bottom of all physical things? If there is, how is that substance differentiated to the people and objects that we know? Or is it not differentiated at all? Metaphysicians have been asking these questions and more for thousands of years, about anything you can possibly think of. It’s a deep pool, and one that changes the way the swimmer thinks forever!
Epistemology is the study of… studying. Well, to be more precise, it’s the study of theories of knowledge. What can we know? What do we know? How do we know it? What’s the difference between a belief, and opinion, a fact? How much out there can we know for sure? This area of study, like metaphysics, is ancient and bursting with different theories, from thousands of years ago to today.
The foundations of modern western philosophy—ancient philosophy. Once again, we break into schools—Roman stoicism, Greek philosophy are the major two that we study when we’re looking for the foundations of Western Philosophy. But many schools are now approaching a more diverse spectrum of thought—including ancient Indian, Chinese, and Japanese religions and philosophies. It can be surprisingly enlightening to realize how closely our current thoughts and beliefs resemble the beliefs of our ancestors, and to see what we can still learn from them.
Medieval philosophy isn’t just for the fans of renaissance fairs, although there’s plenty of that! But the study of Western medieval philosophy provides great insight to a pivotal time for human thought. The period between and surrounding the Dark Ages and the Renaissance was one of the most turbulent in Western history—from the formation of modern religion to the changes in government and socioeconomic systems. Philosophers were there for it all, and there’s much to be gained from studying those patterns of thought they provided!
If you want to get an education to change the world, political philosophy is a must. Often equated with applied ethics, it can be so much more. Studying political philosophy is studying philosophy at the intersection of many of the categories described above, with the central question of: what is a good way for humans to organize themselves, politically? If we should have a government, what kind should we have, and what role should it play in our lives? What do I owe my government, and what does my government owe me? If you think you know the answers to these questions, just taking one class on political philosophy will expand your mind to the possibilities of so much more.
31. Philosophy of Mind
Philosophy of mind is both ancient and modern. Since the beginning of recorded history, philosophers as well as everyday people have grappled with one of those most basic questions of them all—how does our mind work? We want to know whether we have a non-physical soul that works as the mind, or if the fleshy grey matter in our skulls is all there is. Are there things that we know innately from birth, or is everything we know something that has been taught to us? What are instincts? What is pain? These questions and more are constantly being worked through in the philosophy of mind.
While philosophy of mind is classically an analytic philosophical study, phenomenology is the continental side of the same coin. Instead of attempting to describe the objective processes of the brain, phenomenology delves into the subjective experience of consciousness. This are of study asks questions like the following: What is consciousness? What does it feel like to be conscious? If the study of human consciousness interests you, consider phenomenology!
33. Philosophy of Science
As mentioned before, many of the major areas of study started as areas of philosophical inquiry. Since Ancient Greek times, philosophers have also been scientists. Descartes famously performed vivisection (dissection of a live subject) on animals to see whether they had souls. While that is an extremely grisly experiment, it did provide insights into science that we wouldn’t have otherwise. Today, philosophers of science aren’t getting their hands dirty (or bloody) with much empirical experimentation (other than experimental philosophy, discussed next). Instead, philosophy of science explores questions about validity of certain scientific methods, statistical significance, ethics in science, and more.
34. Experimental Philosophy
If you want to be on the cutting edge of philosophy, then experimental philosophy may be right for you. It uses techniques more closely associated with social sciences by collecting data from experiments, and extrapolating philosophical theories based on that data. In terms of philosophy in general, experimental philosophy is still in its infancy—widely agreed to have begun near the beginning of the 21st century, it has approximately a 20-year history, rather than the 2,500+ year history of philosophy in general. Its major areas of study so far: consciousness, cultural diversity, determinism and moral responsibility, intentional action, epistemology, and, funnily enough, predicting philosophical disagreement.
35. Philosophy of Language
This area of philosophy has so many avenues and inlets for interesting areas of study. Noam Chomsky is the most famous linguist and philosopher, whose ideas have brought this once strictly academic subject into the mainstream. Philosophy of language asks questions like—what is language? What distinguishes it from the kind of communication animals perform, if anything? Do we have innate brain structures built for language? What is the connection between our brains and language? If you find communication and language interesting, you will definitely want to take a deep dive into the philosophy of language.
Existentialism is a very famous area of philosophical study that has been integrated into many cultures, artistic projects, and is central to many a discussion on the meaning of life. That’s because existentialism’s central question is: What is meaning? From there, it’s off to the races. Once a philosopher decides on a value system (or decides that there is no such thing as value), it has broad implications for every area of philosophy, especially metaphysics and ethics. Some famous existentialist philosophers include Sarte, Camus, Nietzche, de Beauvoir, and Arendt. We see existentialism in the everyday in TV shows like Black Mirror, The Good Place, Rick and Morty, True Detective (whose writer was a philosophy major!), and many more. The meaning of life is a question that everyone on earth probably asks at one point or another, so why not study it?
Life Lessons Gained From Philosophy
37. Look at The Bigger Picture
Philosophy teaches us to take a look at the bigger picture—see the forest for the trees. It helps us doing that by helping us to understand the individual trees, and to see how they make up the forest. If we find something that we don’t like, we can explain why and how. For example: imagine that there is what we consider to be one unjust law in our system of government. Thinking analytically and philosophically helps us show how something as seemingly small as one law actually affects the bigger picture, and it helps us find a way forward that will improve that picture.
38. Find the Connections
What do religion and politics have in common? More than you’d think! Philosophy helps us look at the structure of systems, rather than just the details. This means that we are able to draw connections across systems. We can compare and contrast two different religions, for example, by finding what connects them. We can find ways to communicate with people who think and believe differently from us, by finding the inevitable connections between us and them. This is an invaluable skill in a world that’s becoming increasingly divided!
39. Explore Every Option
Philosophy forces you to think carefully. That’s because of the emphasis that the pursuit of philosophy puts on careful definitions, and sound logical arguments. With the continued study of philosophy, these kinds of skills will become second nature to you. That will prove helpful in almost any situation you can think of, from deciding on a company to work for, to picking a wedding cake flavor!
40. Find A Deeper Meaning
“Only boring people get bored.” We’ve all heard that, right? And philosophers agree. They believe that anything on the planet, and anything in our imagination is worth exploring, because it all has a deeper meaning than meets the eye. Even without religion, people can find meaning in how they believe the world works, and how they act toward each other. To have a coherent system of reasoning, and to imbue it with meaning, is part of what makes philosophy (and the world) tick.
41. Be Prepared For Anything
And what do these life lessons add up to? Being prepared for anything! Philosophical thinking helps cut down on surprises. When you have strong skills in finding connections, seeing the bigger picture, exploring every option, and finding a deeper meaning, it’s almost like a superpower. You will be able to predict things that other people couldn’t even imagine, and it’s not magic—it’s just thinking about the world deeply and analytically.
Career Paths For Philosophy Majors
42. There Are Many Career Paths Out There—All Equally Great!
Being a philosophy major prepares you for anything life may throw at you. Like we mentioned above, philosophy students are exceedingly well-prepared for graduate school in almost any discipline. People who choose not to pursue graduate school need not worry, though. Armed with a bachelor’s in philosophy, college graduates can enter the workforce in a variety of ways, with skills that will help them in any career path they choose.
43. Philosophy Professor
This is an obvious one—if you have an undying love for philosophy, education, research, and academia, then perhaps becoming a philosophy professor is right for you. As a philosophy major, you will be ready to enter a graduate program, which is the first step to becoming a professor. After you finish your PhD in philosophy, you will be limited only by the quality of your work and imagination. Philosophy professors have some of the most fun jobs in the world, because they get to continue a lifelong study of a subject about which they are passionate, and they get to teach fresh, eager students about it. How cool is that?
Being a lawyer requires an understanding of laws, governments, ethics, and human nature. Philosophy majors learn all of this and more. Studying philosophy trains students in how to think critically, construct arguments, and debate with opposing viewpoints, all of which are crucial skills for lawyers. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Philosophy is consistently a top 10 major on LSAT scores!
Like being a lawyer, a lobbyist has to be able to consider all sides of a problem or situation, and figure out how to best advocate for their side. In order to do their job, a lobbyist has to deal with all sorts of people—representatives from different industries, lawyers, politicians, and more. A good, successful lobbyist will be able to get along with everyone, see the bigger picture, and convince people to see things their way, all of which are skills to be gained in a philosophy major.
Bill Clinton (former US president), Robert McNamara (former Secretary of Defense), David Souter (Supreme Court Justice), Pierre Trudeau (former Prime Minister of Canada), Robert E. Rubin (Secretary of the Treasury), Stephen Breyer (Supreme Court Justice), Richard Riordan (former mayor of Los Angeles)… These people and many more of the most important politicians and government officials in North America began their careers with studies in philosophy. Love or hate them and their policies, you have to admit they were successful in their fields, and philosophy gave them the foundation. How? Philosophy helped them see the larger patterns in our systems of government, and they figured out connections between the people and the policies that would allow them to push their agendas.
47. Think Tank
Working in a think tank, or as a consultant, is a somewhat obscure but very important job. Think tanks are where some of the smartest, most well-informed people in the world gather to formulate opinions and plans about how the world should be run. Outside of any formal government, these academics, scholars, and businesspeople have free reign to be creative and bold with their ideas, which then can be implemented through government or corporate cooperation. Being a philosophy major, once again, is a great advantage, since critical thinking is crucial to these operations.
It would definitely behoove anyone who wants to become a journalist to study philosophy. Ethics are integral to journalism, and they are only becoming more and more important all the time. Since the majority of mainstream newsrooms are being bought and sold by large corporate interests and venture capitalists who have an interest in omitting or censoring journalism about themselves, it is imperative that journalists today have a strong foundation in ethics, and that they understand the consequences of straying from ethical journalism. Also, as mentioned in the other possible professions, journalists need to be able to see the forest AND the trees, in order to be effective reporters.
Many writers began as philosophy majors. Philosophy is a great major for writers because you will have to write a lot, and many authors say that the most important part of writing is just “showing up on the page.” Also, choosing philosophy rather than literature can imbue your works with deeper and more nuanced philosophical meaning, which makes for classics. Just ask Iris Murdoch, David Foster Wallace, Mary Higgins Clark, or Philip K. Dick. They are all wildly successful authors, who started out as philosophy majors, and whose works continue to be classics, even decades after they were written.
What do the following people have in common?
Angela Davis (writer, activist)
Alex Trebek (late host of Jeopardy!)
David Duchovny (actor)
Steve Martin (actor)
Martin Luther King, Jr. (activist)
It’s not that they’ve all been on television! That’s right, they were all philosophy majors. Philosophy majors go on to MANY careers—just google “famous philosophy majors” for more. Like we said earlier, the critical thinking upon which the entire major relies, is also a skill upon which an entire career and life can rely. Being good at thinking will help you think through any job you can think of, and may even help you come up with a job unique to you! Philosophy majors can do and be anything!
Other Helpful Resources
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Ergo, an Open Source Journal For Philosophy
The Philosopher’s Magazine