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.