Philosophy: A Brief Guide for Undergraduates
Table of Contents
1. The Field of Philosophy
+ 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
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.
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.
The very notion of what is called Matter or corporeal substance invloves a contradiction.
The understanding does not derive its laws (a priori) from, but prescribes them to, nature.
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.
Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.
Fact is richer than diction.
-J. L. Austin
Existence precedes essence.
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
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
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.