Why study philosophy?

whyProfessor Nietmann offers an answer:

People ask me about majoring in philosophy. It's one of those things a person can't believe that he or she might actually do. What might their friends (their parents!) think were they to major in philosophy?  

It is true that people who major in philosophy characteristically are bright and have an interest in issues and analyses which requires the skills for which philosophy is known--attitudes founded in careful analysis.  

Philosophy tends to attract better than average students. But there is no way around the practical concerns of life, either. Friends and family will ask: "What could you do with a philosophy major?" However, this question can begin a conversation. Here is an answer to that question. 

Read more

No matter what you major in, there is risk. People get laid off from, lose interest in, become alienated from, the careers which at an earlier stage in life they thought themselves well-suited.

For instance, I am told that the majority of people entering religious seminaries today are people past their twenties who were launched into successful careers--engineering, business management, teaching--but wanted to start a new one. 

They would have been well-advised in college to have paid close attention to their general study courses and placed their training in technical courses against the background of life's long run.  

Courses taken in college as part of an educational background may be thought to have no direct bearing careers and jobs, and in a way they don't.  

The technical competencies required in various jobs require training. You can't be an engineer without training in engineering, a translator without training in a language, an accountant without training in accountancy--but people change their minds as they grow in experience.  

What they thought was important at one moment in life looks quite different at another, and it is the breadth of education which provides for adaptation. 

To be sure, there is psychological security in finding a major that you know will have people lined up to hire you. Parents and friends are correct at that point. Engineering is popular in today's world; accounting majors can always find a job somewhere; the hotel and restaurant school administrators tell us that their graduates always have several job offers from which to choose.  

People who major in the sciences have it a bit harder. Unless they want to be sales people, if they are to use their major, they anticipate going on to graduate school. 

At the unpopular end of the scale of "career opportunities" stand the liberal arts. Nobody lines up at the door of the English, history, or philosophy departments to hire their majors. Is this cause for alarm? What can a philosophy major do? 

Not unexpectedly, students in philosophy enter the traditional professions: medicine, law, the clergy, teaching. There is no better preparation for these professions than philosophy. I'll say something about those few students who may go into one of the professions but then turn attention to the majority of what our students do with a philosophy degree. 

A few of our students have prepared for medical college. Medicine? You ask. Of course. But you'd better do well in the first two years of the fundamental sciences, too. Medical colleges teach the necessities of medicine but do not teach the breadth of perspective that stabilizes a doctor's life.  

We advise our pre-med philosophy majors to take the beginning two years of biology, chemistry, and physics as well as calculus. This is the standard expectation of all pre-med students.  

Philosophy students scored the highest of all liberal arts students on the entry examinations into medical college; they are bested by very few subject areas, subjects like biochemistry and mathematics. 

A significant number of students in philosophy are interested in law school. This career choice is a natural. In fact, philosophy is one of the preferred majors in preparation for law school. Philosophy trains a person in the art of critical reasoning and writing.  

Studies confirm that the highest scoring students on Law School Admissions Test, the standard examination for entry into law school, were students who majored in one of the following: philosophy, economics, physics, or mathematics. 

The clergy, likewise, can anticipate being well-served by philosophy. There is nothing in western religious thinking which is unaffected by philosophy. The basis of all theological thinking lies in an outlook given in the thinking of some philosopher.  

For the early Christian church, it was the thinking of Plato. St. Augustine was a neo-Platonist. In contemporary times, religious thinkers pay attention to the work of Martin Heidegger or Alfred North Whitehead. 

Of course, teaching philosophy is a possibility. Finding a job to teach philosophy at the college level will be difficult but not impossible. If a person obtains the necessary advanced degree (the doctoral degree), there are two chances in three of finding a full-time college teaching career (the percentage varies with the times).  

We discourage our students from rushing in this direction unless they are dedicated to the task. Right now we have a few majors in graduate schools pursuing an advanced degree. They love philosophy and can't leave it alone.  

We have gotten our better students into some very fine graduate schools where they have done well. 

However, our students have also gone into elementary and high school teaching as well as into college teaching. David Bartrug teaches elementary school in L.A. and Kathy Lash teaches high school English in the Verde Valley.  

In most states philosophy is not taught in high school, but something called "humanities" is. Philosophy students typically obtain this certification to teach in the public schools. 

However, most of our students don't go into the professions and don't intend to go to graduate school. For example, here is what some of our students have done: one became a movie theater manager, another a librarian, a third a fiction writer, and a fourth installs irrigation systems!  

Each one of these could have had been successful in a philosophy graduate program but chose something else to do with their lives. We currently have between 55 and 60 majors (the average philosophy department has about 20 majors—UofA and ASU, much larger schools than we, also have around 60 majors. 

Most of our graduates find jobs in the world of business. Why? Usually, philosophy students can think analytically and write well. It is this training which prepares them well for of life's eventualities.  

Some of our philosophy students may go to graduate school in business. The same high scores achieved by philosophy students entering the professions will be found in the standard examinations for admission into business college. 

What is the practical truth, then? The student who graduates in philosophy has to toot his or her own horn to those who do the hiring. The person in philosophy applying for a job must be able to put his or her best foot forward in the hiring process. How does this work? 

I recall Tony Picarello who upon graduation was hired by Ford Motor Company's Motorcraft division to sell Ford auto parts. He went to an NAU Job Fair and interviewed with a Ford Motor Company representative.  

After some negotiation, he was hired to sell Motorcraft parts out of Dallas. Quite soon he was assigned to Dallas itself, then he was made regional manager. He quickly rose through the ranks of Ford and became a consulting management team member for Ford's Premier Auto Division, stationed in Irvine, California. 

There are many opportunities for liberal arts graduates in business. I once wrote Consolidated Freight, a trucking company with headquarters located in Menlo Park, California, asking about their hiring policies.  

Their personnel officer wrote back saying that people in the liberal arts (that includes philosophy) rise higher, faster in management than other majors. 

No one knows where life will take a person. Some famous journalists were trained in philosophy, people like Eric Severeid (whose name your parents might recognize) or George Will. Alex Trebek of Jeopardy fame was a philosophy major.  

Do your parents remember "Hoss" of Bonanza fame? He was a UCLA philosophy major. Our department has a couple of actors who act in semi-professional theater. Here are some of the jobs in which our students have found employment, otherwise unrelated to philosophy.  

One owns a florist company another an upscale restaurant in Chicago. Several are technicians in the computer field, one works at a highly classified defense industry job with Sandia in New Mexico, another for the XS Corporation. One plays in a rock group, the last I knew which was performing in San Diego! Another is a reporter for one of the Pulitzer newspapers. 

Here are some other jobs our students have received for which philosophy might have some relevance: a librarian, several consultant/advisors, for instance, one who works for a think-tank in economics in Los Angeles, another with a banking consulting firm in Denver.  

There are writers of fiction, biographical and other novels. Some are in government, including the diplomatic corps. Another works in the Peace Corps.  

Getting into any of these jobs required initiative on the part of the individual--and that is the usual picture. These people were doing things unrelated to philosophy and still enjoyed studying philosophy. If they had it to do over again, they would still major in philosophy. 

I have no way of reassuring you or your parents that you will end up with a job, and there is no way that the job you end up with in any major is the place you'll want to be ten years down the line.  

What we will do for our students is to cut them slack so that any career they will want to pursue will not be threatened by having to take too much work in philosophy. For instance, we will help design a course package for students who want to go into business.  

They will take all the basic business courses needed to qualify them for admission to a master's of business administration program. If journalism is what attracts the student, we will work out a program which allows for that possibility at the end of the four years by having them take those courses which would be helpful in the field.  

As you can see, philosophy bakes no bread, but it does give the student that sort of education in the skills of thinking which opens up doors in the world of work. 

If finding a saleable career is your goal, then don't major in philosophy. There is no way into dental hygiene or nursing but by training in these programs.  

If a career beckons you, pursue it. It is possible to return to philosophy. It won't go away or become outdated. 

You'll have to decide where your talents and abilities lie. Philosophy is very demanding; some say the toughest of the liberal arts. I don't know about this, but you do have to read, reason, and write well to do well in philosophy.  

You ought to have that sort of inquisitiveness and curiosity which doesn't rest easy until intellectual problems are understood and can be dealt with.  

Philosophers turn their attention to more than just the elements of the history of philosophy. They pick areas in which they want to become expert, for instance in science, psychology, religion, art, social science, and so on.  

One's training can take off in a number of areas where there are concepts which require analysis. Philosophy at heart is the art of "crap detection," and it is this training which makes the philosopher a valued person in the world at large.  

Philosophy prepares one for analysis and the business of living, and with the exceptions noted, does not prepare one for a job. Yet, insofar as life and work are related, the capacity to think clearly is philosophy's contribution. 

Should you want to major in philosophy, I hope these remarks help make the case for you. 

William F. Nietmann, Emeritus Professor 
Department of Philosophy