Philosophy: A Brief Guide for Undergraduates


Table of Contents

1. The Field of Philosophy

+ Introduction

+ Traditional Subfields of Philosophy

+ Special Fields of Philosophy

2. The Uses of Philosophy

+ General Uses of Philosophy

+ The Uses of Philosophy in Educational Pursuits

+ The Uses of Philosophy in Non-Academic Careers

3. Conclusion


The unexamined life is not worth living.


Happiness is something final and complete in itself, as being the aim and end of all practical activities whatever ... Happiness then we define as the active exercise of the mind in conformity with perfect goodness or virtue.


Now laws are said to be just both from the end (when, namely, they are ordained to the common good), from their author (... when the law does not exceed the power of the lawgiver), and from their form (when, namely, burdens are laid on the subjects according to an equality of proportion).

-Saint Thoman Aquinas

There is a great difference between mind and body, inasmuch as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible.

-René Descartes

Love is pleasure accompanied by the idea of an external cause, and hatred pain accompanied by the idea of an external cause.


The effect is totally different from the cause, and consequently can never be discovered in it.

-David Hume

The very notion of what is called Matter or corporeal substance invloves a contradiction.

-George Berkeley

The understanding does not derive its laws (a priori) from, but prescribes them to, nature.

-Immanuel Kant

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

-John Stuart Mill

There can be no difference anywhere that does not make a difference somewhere.

-William James

Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.

-Ludwig Wittgenstein

Fact is richer than diction.

-J. L. Austin

Existence precedes essence.

-Jean-Paul Sartre


The Field of Philosophy


Philosophy is quite unlike any other field. It is unique both in

its methods and in the nature and breadth of its subject matter.

Philosophy pursues questions in every dimension of human life, and

its techniques apply to problems in any field of study or

endeavour. No brief definition expresses the richness and variety

of philosophy. It may be described in many ways. It is a reasoned

pursuit of fundamental truths, a quest for understanding, a study

of principles of conduct. It seeks to establish standards of

evidence, to provide rational methods of resolving conflicts, and

to create techniques for evaluating ideas and arguments.

Philosophy develops the capacity to see the world from the

perspective of other individuals and other cultures; it enhances

one's ability to perceive the relationships among the various

fields of study; and it deepens one's sense of the meaning and

variety of human experience.

This short description of philosophy could be greatly expanded,

but let us instead illustrate some of the points. As the

systematic study of ideas and issues, philosophy may examine

concepts and views drawn from science, art, religion, poitics, or

any other realm. Philosophical appraisal of ideas and issues takes

many forms, but philosophical studies often focus on the meaning

of an idea and on its basis, coherence, and relations to other

ideas. Consider, for instance, democracy. What is it? What

justifies it as a system of government? Can a democracy allow the

people to vote away their own rights? And how is it related to

political liberty? Consider human knowledge. What is its nature

and extent? Must we always have evidence in order to know? What

can we know about the thoughts and feelings of others, or about

the future? What kind of knowledge, if any, is fundamental?

Similar kinds of questions arise concerning art, morality,

religion, science, and each of the major areas of human activity.

Philosophy explores all of them. It views them both

microscopically and from the wide perspective of the larger

concerns of human existence.

Traditional Subfields of Philosophy

The broadest subfields of philosophy are most commonly taken to be

logic, ethics, metaphysics, epistemology and the history of

philosophy. Here is a brief sketch of each.

Logic is concerned to provide sound methods for distinguishing

good from bad reasoning. It helps us assess how well our premises

support our conclusions, to see what we are committed to accepting

when we take a view, and to avoid adopting beliefs for which we

lack adequate reasons. Logic also helps us to find arguments where

we might otherwise simply see a set of loosely related statements,

to discover assumptions we did not know we were making, and to

formulate the minimum claims we must establish if we are to prove

(or inductively support) our point. Click here for more on what

logic is and why philosophers study it.

Ethics takes up the meanings of our moral concepts-such as right

action, obligation and justice-and formulates principles to guide

moral decisions, whether in private or public life. What are our

moral obligations to others? How can moral disagreements be

rationally settled? What rights must a just society accord its

citizens? What constitutes a valid excuse for wrong-doing?

Metaphysics seeks basic criteria for determining what sorts of

things are real. Are there mental, physical, and abstract things

(such as numbers), for instance, or is there just the physical and

the spiritual, or merely matter and energy? Are persons highly

complex physical systems, or do they have properties not reducible

to anything physical?

Epistemology concerns the nature and scope of knowledge. What does

it mean to know (the truth), and what is the nature of truth? What

sorts of things can be known, and can we be justified in our

beliefs about what goes beyond the evidence of our senses, such as

the inner lives of others or events of the distant past? Is there

knowledge beyond the reach of science? What are the limits of


The History of Philosophy studies both major philosophers and

entire periods in the development of philosophy such as the

Ancient, Medieval, Modern, Nineteenth Century, and Twentieth

Century periods. It seeks to understand great figures, their

influence on others, and their importance for contemporary issues.

The history of philosophy in a single nation is often separately

studied, as in the case of American Philosophy. So are major

movements within a nation, such as British Empiricism and German

Idealism, as well as international movements with a substantial

history, such as existentialism and phenomenology. The history of

philosophy not only provides insight into the other subfields of

philosophy; it also reveals many of the foundations of Western

Civilization. Click here for a chronological map of the great


Special Fields of Philosophy

Many branches of philosophy have grown from the traditional core

areas. What follows is a sketch of some of the major ones.

Philosophy of Mind. This subfield has emerged from metaphysical

concerns with the mind and mental phenomena. The philosophy of

mind addresses not only the possible relations of the mental to

the physical (for instance, to brain processes), but the many

concepts having an essential mental element: belief, desire,

emotion, feeling, sensation, passion, will, personality, and

others. A number of major questions in the philosohy of mind

cluster in the area of action theory: What differentiates actions,

such as raising an arm, from mere body movements, such as the

rising of an arm? Must mental elements, for example intentions and

beliefs, enter into adequate explanations of our actions, or can

actions be explained by appeal to ordinary physical events? And

what is required for our actions to be free?

Philosophy of Religion. Another traditional concern of metaphysics

is to understand the concept of God, including special attributes

such as being all-knowing, being all-powerful, and being wholly

good. Both metaphysics and epistemology have sought to assess the

various grounds people have offered to justify believing in God.

The philosophy of religion treats these topics and many related

subjects, such as the relation between faith and reason, the

nature of religious language, the relation of religion and

morality, and the question of how a God who is wholly good could

allow the existence of evil.

Philosophy of Science. This is probably the largest subfield

generated by epistemology. Philosophy of science is usually

divided into philosophy of the natural sciences and philosophy of

the social sciences. It has recently been divided further, into

philosophy of physics, biology, psychology, economics, and other

sciences. Philosophy of science clarifies both the quest for

scientific knowledge and the results yielded by that quest. It

does this by exploring the logic of scientific evidence; the

nature of scientific laws, explanations, and theories; and the

possible connections among the various branches of science. How,

for instance, is psychology related to brain biology, and biology

to chemistry? And how are the social sciences related to the

natural sciences?

Subfields of Ethics. From ethics, too, have come major subfields.

Political Philosophy concerns the justification-and limits-of

governmental control of individuals; the meaning of equality

before the law; the basis of economic freedom; and many other

problems concerning government. It also examines the nature and

possible arguments for various competing forms of political

organization, such as laissez-faire capitalism, welfare democracy

(capitalistic and socialistic), anarchism, communism, and fascism.

Social Philosophy, often taught in combination with political

philosophy (which it overlaps), treats moral problems with

large-scale social dimensions. Among these are the basis of

compulsory education, the possible grounds for preferential

treatment of minorities, the justice of taxation, and the

appropriate limits, if any, on free expression in the arts. The

Philosophy of Law explores such topics as what law is, what kinds

of laws there are, how law is or should be related to morality,

and what sorts of principles should govern punishment and criminal

justice in general. Medical Ethics addresses many problems arising

in medical practice and medical science. Among these are standards

applying to physician-patient relationships; moral questions

raised by special procedures, such as abortion and ceasing of

life-support for terminal patients; and ethical standards for

medical research, for instance genetic engneering and

experimentation using human subjects. Business Ethics addresses

such questions as how moral obligations may conflict with the

profit motive and how these conflicts may be resolved. Other

topics often pursued are the nature and scope of the social

responsibilities of corporations, their rights in a free society,

and their relations to other institutions.

Philosophy of Art (Aesthetics). This is one of the oldest

subfields. It concerns the nature of art, including both the

performing arts and painting, sculpture, and literature. Major

questions in aesthetics include how artistic creations are to be

interpreted and evaluated, and how the arts are related to one

another, to natural beauty, and to morality, religion, science,

and other important elements of human life.

Philosophy of Language. This field has close ties to both

epistemology and metaphysics. It treats a broad spectrum of

questions about language: the nature of meaning, the relations

between words and things, the various theories of language

learning, and the distinction between literal and figurative uses

of language. Since language is crucial in nearly all human

activity, the philosophy of language can enhance our understanding

both of other academic fields and of much of what we ordinarily


Other Subfields. There are many other subfields of philosophy, and

it is in the nature of philosophy as critical inquiry to develop

new subfields when new directions in the quest for knowledge, or

in any other area of human activity, raise new intellectual

problems. Among the subfields not yet mentioned, but often taught

at least as part of other courses, are Inductive Logic, Philosophy

of Logic, Philosophy of History, Philosophy of Mathematics,

Philosophy of Medicine, Philosophy of Education, Philosophy of

Feminism, Philosophy of Linguistics, Philosophy of Criticism,

Philosophy of Culture, and Philosophy of Film.

Click here for a map of the major branches of philosophy.

The Uses of Philosophy

General Uses of Philosophy

Much of what is learned in philosophy can be applied in virtually

any endeavour. This is both because philosophy touches on so many

subjects and, especially, because many of its methods are usable

in any field.

General Problem Solving. The study of philosophy enhances, in a

way no other activity does, one's problem-solving capacities. It

helps one to analyze concepts, definitions, arguments and

problems. It contributes to one's capacity to organize ideas and

issues, to deal with questions of value, and to extract what is

essential from masses of information. It helps one both to

distinguish fine differences between views and to discover common

ground between opposing positions. And it helps one to synthesize

a variety of views or perspectives into a unified whole.

Communication Skills. Philosophy also contributes uniquely to the

development of expressive and communicative powers. It provides

some of the basic tools of self-expression-for instance, skills in

presenting ideas through well-constructed, systematic

arguments-that other fields either do not use, or use less

extensively. It helps one to express what is distinctive of one's

view; enhances one's ability to explain difficult material; and

helps one to eliminate ambiguities and vagueness from one's

writing and speech.

Persuasive Powers. Philosophy provides training in the

construction of clear formulations, good arguments, and apt

examples. It thereby helps one develop the ability to be

convincing. One learns to build and defend one's own views, to

appreciate competing positions, and to indicate forcefully why one

considers one's own views preferable to alternatives. These

capacities can be developed not only through reading and writing

in philosophy, but also through the philosophical dialogue, in and

outside the classroom, that is so much a part of a thoroughgoing

philosophical education.

Writing Skills. Writing is taught intensively in many philosophy

courses, and many regularly assigned philosophical texts are

unexcelled as literary essays. Philosophy teaches interpretive

writing through its examination of challenging texts, comparative

writing through emphasis on fairness to alternative positions,

argumentative writing through developing students' ability to

establish their own views, and descriptive writing through

detailed portrayal of concrete examples: the anchors to which

generalizations must be tied. Strucure and technique, then, are

emphasized in philosophical writing. Originality is also

encouraged, and students are generally urged to use their

imagination and develop their own ideas.

The Uses of Philosophy in Educational Pursuits

The general uses of philosophy just described are obviously of

great academic value. It should be clear that the study of

philosophy has intrinsic rewards as an unlimited quest for

understanding of important, challenging problems. But philosophy

has further uses in deepening an education, both in college and in

the many activities, professional and personal, that follow


Understanding Other Disciplines. Philosophy is indispensable for

this. Many important questions about a discipline, such as the

nature of its concepts and its relation to other disciplines, do

not belong to that discipline, are not usually pursued in it, and

are philosophical in nature. Philosophy of science, for instance,

is needed to supplement the understanding of the natural and

social sciences which one derives from scientific work itself.

Philosophy of literature and philosophy of history are of similar

value in understanding the humanities, and philosophy of art is

important in understanding the arts. Philosophy is, moreover,

essential in assessing the various standards of evidence used by

other disciplines. Since all fields of knowledge employ reasoning

and must set standards of evidence, logic and epistemology have a

general bearing on all these fields.

Development of Sound Methods of Research and Analysis. Still

another value of philosophy in education is its contribution to

one's capacity to frame hypotheses, do research, and put problems

into manageable form. Philosophical thinking strongly emphasizes

clear formulation of ideas and problems, selection of relevant

data, and objective methods for assessing ideas and proposals. It

also emphasizes development of a sense of the new directions

suggested by the hypotheses and questions one encounters in doing

research. Philosophers regularly build on both the successes and

failures of their predecessors. A person with philosophical

training can readily learn to do the same in any field.

The Uses of Philosophy in Non-Academic Careers

It should be stressed immediately that the non-academic value of a

field of study must not be viewed mainly in terms of its

contribution to obtaining one's first job after graduation.

Students are understandably preoccupied with getting their first

job, but even from a narrow vocational point of view it would be

short-sighted to concentrate on that at the expense of developing

potential for success and advancement once hired. What gets

graduates initially hired may not yield promotions or carry them

beyond their first position, particularly given how fast the needs

of many employers alter with changes in social and economic

patterns. It is therefore crucial to see beyond what a job

description specifically calls for. Philosophy need not be

mentioned among a job's requirements in order for the benefits

derivable from philosophical study to be appreciated by the

employer, and those benefits need not even be explicitly

appreciated in order to be effective in helping one advance.

It should also be emphasized here that-as recent studies

show-employers want, and reward, many of the capacities which the

study of philosophy develops: for instance, the ability to solve

problems, to communicate, to organize ideas and issues, to assess

pros and cons, and to boil down complex data. These capacities

represent transferable skills. They are transferable not only from

philosophy to non-philosophy areas, but from one non-philosophical

field to another. For that reason, people trained in philosophy

are not only prepared to do many kinds of tasks; they can also

cope with change, or even move into new careers, more readily than


Regarding current trends in business, a writer in the New York

Times reported that "businessmen are coming to appreciate an

education that at its best produces graduates who can write and

think clearly and solve problems" (June 23, 1981). A recent

long-term study by the Bell Telephone Company, moreover,

determined that majors in liberal arts fields, in which philosophy

is a central discipline, "continue to make a strong showing in

managerial skills and have experienced considerable business

success" (Career Patterns, by Robert E. Beck). The study concluded

that "there is no need for liberal arts majors to lack confidence

in approaching business careers". A related point is made by a

Senior Vice President of the American Can Company:

Students with any academic background are prepared for business

when they can educate themselves and can continue to grow without

their teachers, when they have mastered techniques of scholarship

and discipline, and when they are challenged to be all they can be.

(Wall Street Journal, February 2, 1981.)

As all this suggests, there are people trained in philosophy in

just about every field. They have gone not only into such

professions as teaching (at all levels), medicine, and law, but

into computer science, management, publishing, sales, criminal

justice, public relations, and other fields. Some professionally

trained philosophers are also on legislative staffs, and the work

of some of them, for a senior congressman, prompted him to say:

It seems to me that philosophers have acquired skills which are

very valuable to a member of Congress. The ability to analyze a

problem carefully and consider it from many points of view is one.

Another is the ability to communicate ideas clearly in a logically

compelling form. A third is the ability to handle the many

different kinds of problems which occupy the congressional agenda

at any time. (Lee H. Hamilton, 9th District, Indiana, March 25,


In emphasizing the long-range benefits of training in philosophy,

whether through a major or through only a sample of courses in the

field, there are a least two further points to note. The first

concerns the value of philosophy for vocational training. The

second applies to the whole of life.

First, philosophy can yield immediate benefits for students

planning postgraduate work. As law, medical, business, and other

professional school faculty and admissions personnel have often

said, philosophy is excellent preparation for the training and

later careers of the professionals in question. In preparing to

enter such fields as computer science, management, or public

administration, which, like medicine, have special requirements

for post-graduate study, a student may of course major (or minor)

both in philosophy and some other field.

The second point here is that the long-range value of

philosophical study goes far beyond its contribution to one's

livelihood. Philosophy broadens the range of things one can

understand and enjoy. It can give one self-knowledge, foresight,

and a sense of direction in life. It can provide, to one's reading

and conversation, special pleasures of insight. It can lead to

self-discovery, expansion of consciousness, and self-renewal.

Through all of this, and through its contribution to one's

expressive powers, it nurtures individuality and self-esteem. Its

value for one's private life can be incalculable; its benefits for

one's public life as a citizen can be immeasurable.


Philosophy is the systematic study of ideas and issues, a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths, a quest for a comprehensive understanding of the world, a study of principles of conduct, and much more. Every domain of human experience raises questions to which its techniques and theories apply, and its methods may be used in the study of any subject or the pursuit of any vocation. Indeed, philosophy is in a sense inescapable: life confronts every thoughtful person with some philosophical questions, and nearly everyone is guided by philosophical assumptions, even if unconsciously. One need not be unprepared. To a large extent one can choose how reflective one will be in carifying and developing one's philosophical assumptions, and how well prepared one is for the philosophical quesions life presents. Philosophical training enhances our problem-solving capacities, our abilities to understand and express ideas, and our persuasive powers. It also develops understanding and enjoyment of things whose absence impoverishes many lives: such things as aesthetic experience, communication with many different kinds of people, lively discussion of current issues, the discerning observation of human behavior, and intellectual zest. In these and other ways the study of philosophy contributes immeasurably in both academic and other pursuits. The problem-solving, analytical, judgemental, and synthesizing capacities philosophy develops are unrestricted in their scope and unlimited in their usefulness. This makes philosophy especially good preparation for positions of leadership, responsibility, or management. A major or minor in philosophy can easily be integrated with requirements for nearly any entry-level job; but philosophical training, particularly in its development of many transferable skills, is especially significant for its long-term benefits in career advancement. Wisdom, leadership, and the capacity to resolve human conflicts cannot be guaranteed by any course of study; but philosophy has traditionally pursued these ideals systematically, and its methods, its literature, and its ideas are of constant use in the quest to realize them. Sound reasoning, critical thinking, well constructed prose, maturity of judgement, a strong sense of relevance, and an enlightened consciousness are never obsolete, nor are they subject to the fluctuating demands of the market-place. The study of philosophy is the most direct route,and in many cases the only route, to the full developent of these qualities.


Prepared by the American Philosophical Association's Committee on the

Status and Future of the Profession (Jaegwon Kim, Chair, 1976-1981;

Robert Sleigh, Chair, 1981-1986), and Committee on Career Opportunities (Robert Audi, Chair, 1980-1985).

The Principal Author is Robert Audi.

The author would especially like to acknowledge the helpful comments of Jerome Balmuth, Thomas Donaldson, Jude P. Dougherty, Peter A. French, David Hiley, Joyce Beck Hoy, Jaegwon Kim, Eric Russert Kraemer, Matthew Lipman, Maurice Mandelbaum, Ruth Barcan Marcus, Hugh J. McCann, John McDermott, John O'Connor, Edmund D. Pellegrino, Jose Saporta, Mortan Schagrin, Donald Scherer, and Robert Sleigh.

Special thanks are also given to Robert Hurlbutt.

Approved by the APA Board of Officers (Chair, Ruth Barcan Marcus),October 1981.

HTML Editing by Darren Brierton.