In my senior year as a business undergraduate, I stumbled on philosophy. At a used bookstore I’d been going to for years I picked up a philosophy text instead of my usual fiction. The book was Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, in which he argues that a fundamental source of unhappiness is the tension between innate human desires and essential features of society. Reading it undermined my mode of approaching life.
Its substance, scope, and implications were completely foreign to me. The only tools I knew to explore the social world were those of psychology and economics. I had deployed models to predict outcomes in social interactions. I had learned about studies that purport to explain certain stretches of human behavior. Freud showed me that you could make claims about the entirety of social living: its nature, its structure, its merits.
At the time, I certainly did not understand the text. Neither did I understand what I just articulated. But, you might say that I sensed the possibilities of philosophy. With that limited grasp of what a philosophy degree had to offer, I chose it over a job in financial services consulting. (I also met with a dozen professors across the humanities trying to discover what each discipline promised – the faculty at CMU is ludicrously supportive and generous with its time.)
1. Getting a philosophy degree makes you a more effective reader
On the other side of a BA and MA focusing on philosophy, I can say what choosing this path afforded me. First, it made me into an effective reader and analyst of texts. Second, more than substantive knowledge, it fostered the tools for hygienic and reasoned thought.
2. It makes you a more effective arguer, too
Holding a philosophy degree doesn't mean you can simply read -- it give you methodologies for approaching an argument. Methodologies – like reading conclusion sections first, attending to topic sentences – can be more or less helpful. The real benefit of philosophy in the arena of reading is that you can see through the text while you read it. As you read, your mind gets to work creating a mental sculpture of the argument - how each point supports some thought, all in service of a larger claim.
Another sense in which a philosophy degree lets you see through the text is you can figure out why the author is mentioning something. As you’re reading it, you know where on the mental sculpture of the argument this bit will end up because you know why something like that bit should be there. Also, you get a feel for what you need for the mental structure to stand up. Sometimes they stand up on their own merits. Other times, you need to add some assumptions in order to keep them upright.
Once you’ve read the relevant material, studying philosophy also equips you with tools to adjudicate how successful an argument is. Our minds have the tremendous capacity to evaluate how claims are either reasons to believe or disbelieve some proposal. Philosophy training lets you understand how strong those reasons are, the grounds for dismissing reasons, and what direction the net sum of those reasons point in.
3. It gives you the #1 resume skill -- attention to detail
This attention to reasons corresponds with a focus on disambiguating the questions we are trying to answer. Philosophy trains you to ask as many questions are necessary, to avoid conflating or multiplying questions. About consciousness, we might ask what is it, how does it work, why does it exist. Answering one does not necessarily answer another. We err if we think accounting for how any individual conscious experience comes up explains either what kind of consciousness is or why humans have consciousness more generally.
Philosophy is first and foremost a destructive enterprise. It attacks our received beliefs and usually finds them wanting for justification. It’s also deeply unsettling: we know nothing with certainty (not even that I am, I exist). In the end, I found it more more settling and comforting to know to what extent I am warranted in believing what I do.
Are you interested in connecting with Alec for philosophy tutoring?
Want to read additional blog posts on philosophy?