Why Study Philosophy?

The life of the intellect is the best and pleasantest life for man” - Aristotle

The unexamined life is not worth living” - Plato

The unlived life is not worth examining” - Anonymous

The business of philosophy is to think clearly and logically about the deepest and broadest questions: What is the nature of Reality? How can we distinguish right from wrong, and truth from falsehood? How should we organize society and act toward one another? How much can we know about these, and other issues?

When you study philosophy here at the University of Maryland, you will be studying the best efforts, both old and new, to make progress towards philosophy’s aim, which is a clear and systematic view of who we are, where we stand, and where we should be going.

Because philosophy deals with the big issues, and uses reflection (taking thought about our situation) as one of its main methods, it is sometimes confused with religion, or psychology, or mystical experience. Philosophy does indeed aim to reach an overall vision; this is an impulse which it shares with all the religions. But philosophy proceeds only by plain hard thinking, and tests everything by the rules of ordinary reason alone.

All thought and action is carried on within some general framework of ideas about nature and about human life. In that sense you already have a philosophy, even if you are not yet aware of it. One of the ways studying philosophy contributes to intellectual life is by uncovering the unstated assumptions behind scientific and social life, and testing the validity of those assumptions. Another is that knowing some philosophy is worthwhile for its own sake; it’s part of being an educated person.

To get the best out of your study of philosophy you will need some patience and some perseverance; without them you may feel that you are not progressing fast enough towards getting answers to philosophy’s big questions. Students often feel that the way we pay close attention to the details of ideas, and analyze arguments so carefully, holds them back from reaching deep and satisfying conclusions. Philosophy is a discipline: it requires us to hold haste and hope in check, even, and especially, when it comes to really significant matters.

Philosophy classes are not easy; but do not be afraid of them. We realize that you have had no opportunity to study the subject up till now. Introductory classes really do begin at the beginning. We understand how unfamiliar to you are both the material in philosophy books and the way we tackle that material. Even though our courses tend to be demanding, and your work will be given critical scrutiny, most of our students succeed in fulfilling the class requirements. If they can do it, probably you can too.

Studying philosophy is worthwhile not only for its own sake—it provides many benefits:

  • it helps with discovering for ourselves who we are and what manner of world we are in.
  • philosophy expands our horizons by enabling us to see beyond the world as it presently exists and to develop awareness of how things might be.
  • it develops our ability to reason clearly and to distinguish between good and bad arguments. It improves our capacity to sort out complicated questions, and to write clear, readable prose. These are abilities which stand anyone in good stead.
  • studying philosophy makes available to us some of the world’s great literature, making us aware of how greatly scientists and artists, statesmen and theologians have been influenced by the work of philosophers.
  • philosophy also develops intellectual skills and attitudes which are crucial in today’s post-industrial world. For example, a recent study by psychologists looked at the correlates of success in the kinds of important reasoning tasks at which many people - even well-educated people - perform poorly. As you might expect, they found a correlation between success and IQ. But even when that was factored out, there remained a substantial correlation with certain intellectual dispositions (or qualities of character) - such as a willingness to ‘step back’ from one’s own beliefs and consider other points of view, a capacity to think abstractly in a ‘decontextualized’ fashion, and so on. But these are, in fact, the very dispositions which philosophy develops! It is no wonder that many professions, such as law, are keen to recruit people with philosophical training.

You do not need to major in philosophy to reap some of its benefits. We regard as equally important our two main functions in undergraduate teaching: providing training in philosophy for those who elect our discipline as a major, and providing high-quality instruction in the subject for students taking philosophy courses either as electives or in fulfillment of University or College study requirements.

Most students who take philosophy courses have majors in other departments, so in addition to the staple courses in ethics, logic, metaphysics, theory of knowledge, and history of philosophy, we offer courses which apply to other areas of concentration. These courses tackle fundamental questions concerning history, art, music, science, law, medicine, religion, etc.


Philosophical Terms

Certain terms crop up again and again in philosophical discourse with their meaning presupposed. This list is neither comprehensive nor the final word. See also:

Common Philosophical Terms

Iff. Short for “if and only if”.

A fortiori (“Hence still more strongly”). All cats are fat, a fortiori Tibbles is fat.

A priori / a posteriori. A proposition is knowable a priori iff one could be justified in believing it on the basis of reason alone. If experience must in some way enter into the justification, it is said to be only knowable a posteriori.

Ad hoc (“To a specific end or purpose”). A claim is ad hoc iff it lacks independent motivation but is made instead solely so as to save the pet theory of the person making it.

Ad hominem fallacy (“To the person”). Criticizing a position by calling attention to irrelevant personal characteristics of someone who holds it.

Analytic / Synthetic. A sentence is analytically true iff it is true solely in virtue of the meaning of the expressions within it. If the meaning alone of a true sentence is not enough to ensure its truth, it is synthetically true.

Argument. A set of claims where (a) one of these claims is the argument’s conclusion, (b) the others are its premises, and (c) the premises are (rightly or wrongly) put forward as evidence for the conclusion.

Begging the question. An argument begs the question iff one of the premises of the argument covertly assumes the truth of the conclusion – that is, the argument is circular.

Converse. The converse of “If X, then Y” is “If Y, then X”. It’s contrapositive is “If not-Y, then not-X”. Only the contrapositive is logically equivalent to the original.

Deduction. A deduction is a valid argument.

Definiens. In a definition, the definiendum is the phrase being defined, the definiens is what defines the definiendum.

Empirical. Dependent on, or in some other way related to, experience.

Induction. An induction is an argument the truth of whose premises would not serve to guarantee the truth of its conclusion, yet would provide some evidence for it. Sometimes said to be “inductively but not deductively valid”. Two common types of inductive inference are…

Enumerative induction. To infer from the truth of many instances of a generalization, to the truth of the generalization itself, is to have performed an enumerative induction. E.g. this swan is white, this other swan is white, and so is that one, therefore all swans are white.

Inference to the best explanation. To infer to the best explanation is to infer from the existence of a phenomenon (e.g. tongue marks on the butter) to the truth of the theory that best explains the phenomenon (e.g. a mouse in the house).

Ipso facto (“By that very fact”). E.g. To be a person is ipso facto to have moral worth. (Similar: eo ipso.)

Metaphysics / Epistemology. Metaphysics has many specific branches but at the broadest level can be thought of as the study of how things are. By contrast, epistemology (again broadly) is the study of our knowledge of how things are.

Modus ponens. Any inference of the form: if X, then Y, X, therefore Y (“Affirmation of the antecedent”). Not to be confused with the fallacious: if X, then Y, Y, therefore X (“Affirmation of the consequent”).

Modus tollens. Any inference of the form: if X, then Y, not Y, therefore not X (“Denial of the consequent”). Not to be confused with the fallacious: if X, then Y, not X, therefore not Y (“Denial of the antecedent”).

Necessary / Contingent. A state of affairs is necessary iff it could not possibly have failed to obtain. It is contingent iff it obtains though it could have failed to obtain.

Necessary / Sufficient Condition. X is a necessary condition of Y iff Y could not obtain without X also obtaining. X is a sufficient condition for Y iff X’s obtaining is enough for Y to obtain.

Normative. A normative (or “prescriptive”) claim is one that could be true only if someone or other ought to do something, or something ought to be the case. A normative term is one that cannot be used except in making normative claims. Contrasted with (merely) descriptive claims/terms.

Ontology. A branch of metaphysics concerned specifically with what (kinds of) things there are.

Possible world. A way things could have been (or are, since the actual world is also a possible world).

Reductio ad absurdum (“Reduction to absurdity”). A good way to argue for a claim is to temporarily hypothesize the negation of this claim and then show that this hypothesis generates an absurdity.

Sound. An argument is sound iff (a) its premises are all true and (b) it is valid.

Straw position / Straw man. A position under criticism, but which no one really holds.

Thought experiment. An imagined scenario. Our intuitions about the scenario may be incompatible with what a theory claims about the scenario, forcing us to decide between the theory and our intuitions.

Type/Token. How many letters does the word “London” contain? The question is ambiguous. It contains 4 types of letter (d, l, n, o) but a total of 6 letter tokens.

Use/Mention. Mentioning a word involves talking about the word itself, not about what it refers to, which is what is done in using the word. E.g. London is smelly (use); “London” has six letters (mention).

Valid. An argument is valid iff the truth of all its premises would serve to guarantee the truth of its conclusion. (Alternative definition: ... iff there is no possible situation in which the premises are all true and the conclusion false.)

Some Logical Notation

$\neg, \sim$: Not
$\wedge,\&$: And
$\vee$: Or
$\forall$: All/Every
$\exists$: There exists at least one/Some
$\rightarrow,\supset$: If...Then...
$[ ]$: Necessarily
$< >$: Possibly

$P\rightarrow Q$: If $P$ then $Q$
$[ ] Fa$: Necessarily, $a$ has property $F$
$\exists x (Fx\wedge Gx)$: There is at least one thing that is both $F$ and $G$
$\forall x(Fx\vee Gx)$: Everything is either $F$ or $G$


Career Tips

The philosophy department provides career guidance mostly for careers in philosophy. It strongly urges you to contact Erin Eaker, the Director of Undergraduate Studies, for further information in this regard. The job market for philosophy professors is very tight, but graduate degrees in philosophy can also be helpful for other professions besides philosophy teachers.

Jobs that Require Technical Training as Prerequisites

If you want to get a job that requires a high degree of prerequisite technical expertise (engineering, accounting, etc.), you obviously will need more than a degree in philosophy. Many of our students are double majors, so that when they graduate they have the necessary technical skills in their chosen field, as well as a rewarding undergraduate experience as philosophy majors. This breadth tends to give students a competitive edge in the job market, or when applying for graduate school.

Jobs That Do Not Require Technical Training as Prerequisites

If you are a liberal arts major, you are much more flexible in your career options than, say, an engineering major, who has only one main career path open to her. That is why surveys show that liberal arts majors, while less employable when in college than technically-oriented students, have the same employment rate four months after college.

Whatever you decide to do, don’t hide your philosophy degree under a bushel! Your prospective employer/interviewer will ask you why you decided to study philosophy and what you think you got out of the philosophy major. Think hard about that question before you go into the interview. Be as specific as you can; talk about experiences you have had, books you have read, teachers that you liked, and courses that made an impact upon you. You will be judged not only on the specific content of your answers, but on your ability to express yourself, and the depth of your insights. In a sense, you have been “interviewed” about philosophy ever since you decided to be a philosophy major – by friends, roommates, relatives, and anybody else. So relax!

Think, too, about how best to present the skills that you have acquired as a philosopher. You can analyze a problem, distinguishing its various components and aspects. You can lay out and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed solutions to the problem. You can write clearly and in an organized fashion, and you know how to make out a rational and convincing case for the best solution. These are skills that are vital in many walks of life, and in many professions.

Liberal Arts Internships

For juniors and seniors, the Office of Experiential Learning Programs in the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Studies runs an Internship program. It keeps a file of positions available, and matches students to them. You can register for up to 3 credit hours (PHIL 386); you work for the employer and have added supervision from a faculty advisor. Generally speaking, these positions are non-paying; you gain experience and academic credit, and often a better idea of where your future goals lie.


If you are unclear about what you want to do after you graduate, don’t worry -- you are very typical! The university’s Career Center is your one-stop center for career advising on the UMCP campus. The Center offers career counseling workshops, career development services, courses, special programs, a Career & Employment Resource Room, a Credentials File Service in support of graduate school and employment applications, and an extensive web site: www.careercenter.umd.edu.

The Career Center has a liaison that works as the Program Director for ARHU, Stacy H. Brown. The ARHU Program Director plans various career workshops and information sessions specifically tailored for students in the College.



Writing and Exam Advice

Writing a paper

A nice presentation on writing philosophy papers.

Allow yourself enough time. When the questions are set and you have decided which one to answer, try to do some preliminary reading as soon as possible. Give yourself time to write both a rough draft and a further more polished version.

You will find discussion (particularly of your rough draft) with others (either friends, or others in the course) to be very useful. It is part of the purpose of a university and in particular of a major in philosophy to give students opportunities for argument and the exchange of ideas.

Plan your paper beforehand. Read over the topic carefully and decide what exactly it means. (Check with the instructor if you are unsure.) Then consider what thesis or view you are trying to demonstrate in regard to the topic. Finally, try to work out what your arguments are.

The introduction to your paper should mirror your plan by succinctly stating your overall strategy. Don’t give enormous vague meandering introductions; get down quickly to the set topic.

The core of philosophy is learning how to argue your case coherently and validly, and the core of a philosophy paper is its arguments. Those who grade your work (in both essays and examinations) are more likely to be interested in the reasons you have given than in the truth of your conclusions. If, however, you feel you must offer a conclusion and cannot give reasons for it, give reasons why you feel that it is impossible to give reasons!

Don’t be afraid to defend a position which diverges from that of the instructor. You will not be marked down for this. (On the contrary, it is generally refreshing to have someone present careful criticisms of one’s views.) But you do need to offer arguments for your divergence.

Write as clearly and simply as possible. Write your paper (or examination answer, for that matter) as if you were explaining your position, and the arguments for it, to an intelligent person from another course who knows nothing about philosophy.

An indispensable tool for both good argument and clear expression is sensitivity to the correct use of words. Use words carefully. Don’t use words about whose meaning you are uncertain. Don’t adopt the vocabulary of some book you have just consulted. Use your own vocabulary; avoid jargon.

Avoid just stringing together quotations. Indeed, you should be extremely careful in your use of quotations. At most a quote can illustrate a point for you; it cannot prove it, no matter how great the thinker you are quoting from. Again, do not just paraphrase or summarize views without comment. This is generally of little value. If you refer to someone’s views on the topic under discussion, you should critically assess the worth of that person’s view.

Ensure that you follow the university Code of Academic Integrity, especially as it concerns plagiarism (‘intentionally or knowingly representing the words or ideas of another as one’s own’). Follow these three principles scrupulously:

  1. Direct Quotation: Every direct quotation must be identified by quotation marks or by appropriate indentation and must be promptly cited in a footnote.
  2. Paraphrase: Prompt acknowledgment is required when material from another source is paraphrased or summarized in whole or in part in your own words.
  3. Borrowed Facts or Information: Information that is obtained in one’s reading or research, which is not common knowledge among students in the course, must be acknowledged. Materials which contribute only to one’s general understanding of the subject may be acknowledged in the bibliography and need not be immediately footnoted.

Moreover: never down-load or copy and paste material from the internet into your paper without proper acknowledgement.

Taking an exam

The essays you write in answer to exam questions should be written in good, clear English; they should be well organized; they should avoid dogmatism (evidence, reasons, analyses, justifications, arguments, objections, and the like should be provided); they should be relevant (their content should comprise all and only what is needed to answer the question); they should display sophisticated understanding and wide knowledge of the subject matter; they should avoid jargon, repetition, and mere paraphrase of the views of others; and (of course) they should avoid falsity and invalidity.

There are a number of simple Dos and Don’ts that should be observed when taking any exam:

  • As far as possible allot the same amount of time to questions that have the same weight; and in particular, allow one hour to each of the two questions on a standard two-hour exam.
  • Answer the question! Irrelevance will be severely penalized (especially in a pre-released exam).
  • Don’t use the same material twice in answers to different questions. (If necessary, cross-refer to your other answer.)

Write as legibly as possible. An essay which is barely legible will tend to seem philosophically unclear too, and is apt to make graders less sympathetic.

If you incorporate quotations or other material from the writings of others or from lecture handouts, these must be explicitly acknowledged as such. The rules about plagiarism apply in exams too!

A variety of forms of exam is possible, ranging from long-release seen exams (where the exam questions are released to students well in advance) to traditionalunseen exams. Between these two poles can fall a variety of other forms of exam, including exams which consist of a sub-set of questions from a previously released set, and various forms of ‘open book’ unseen exam, in which students may take books or notes into the exam with them.

All forms of exam provide some defense against plagiarism. The rationale for exams at the unseen end of the spectrum is that, besides testing for the usual philosophical virtues (clear thinking, sound argumentation, and so forth) they also encourage breadth and retention of knowledge. On the other hand, the rationale forseen exams is that they test for the philosophical virtues without the distorting effects of surprise, nerves, and a capacity to think quickly under pressure. In addition, they enable students to pursue a question in some depth.

2(a) Pre-released exams. You should approach a pre-released exam in exactly the way that you would approach the writing of a term paper. Decide which questions to answer. Consult your lecture notes, lecture handouts, and notes made from books and articles you have been reading to remind yourself of the layout of the issues. Perhaps do some further reading if necessary. Then set yourself to plan, draft, and polish an answer. Having written a paper, ensure that you have a firm grasp of its structure so that you can reproduce essentially the same content in the exam room.

Remember that you will be expected to write somewhat longer answers in a seen exam than in an unseen one, and that graders will expect essays which are well structured and polished, with critical material well developed.

2(b) Unseen exams. Preparing for an unseen exam is a somewhat different sort of exercise. You should have received advice from the instructor on the range of topics to be covered and the kinds of question you might expect. Select three or four of these to work up in preparation. Do not just prepare two topics for a two-answer unseen exam. Since one or more of the topics in question may not come up, or may come up in a form which you don’t know how to answer, to do so is to take a big gamble.

In preparing a topic it can be helpful to assemble a variety of essay components (explanations of important doctrines or ideas, outlines of important arguments, developed criticisms or arguments of your own) which you can then assemble in a variety of different ways in answering the actual question set.