What Do Philosophers Do (and Why Bother?)

I love philosophy, reading it, writing it, and talking about it. I acknowledge this is a bit of niche interest, as most primary and secondary do not offer philosophy in their curriculum, and many people see philosophy as a “Worthless Major” in college. In actuality, philosophy majors earn on average more than any other humanities major, with a mid-career median of $82K (/http://www.theatlantic.com/…/philosophy-majors-out-…/403555/).

I, for one, am interested in becoming a professional philosopher, which includes similar earning trajectory over time, provided one finds a tenured position at a university, or lands a place at a thinktank. Erik Olin Wright, professor at the University of Wisconsin’s Sociology department, and one of the more esteemed philosophical sociologists in the business, brings in $400K a year (his book “Imagining Real Utopias” is wonderful), but in order to get to this place, one must obtain a Ph.D, which takes anywhere from 5 to 10 years of full-time study, and needs to market themselves in the crowded University market.

The first question the prospective philosopher should ask themselves is, why bother? One third of all PhDs will not finish their program. And of those who do finish, approximately half of all PhDs will never find a tenure-track position; this would be like if half of all board-certified doctors could only find jobs working as elementary school nurses. There are other career options: I personally know philosophy majors who ended up making bank by becoming recruiters and business consultants, by becoming a public relations specialist for an oil company, by becoming lawyers, politicos, and non-profit administrators. The idea that the only thing one can do with an education in philosophy (or english, or history, or sociology…) is teach is false, but after working in the non-profit field for a few years myself, I am interested in teaching and writing philosophy, a practice that I believe have tremendous utility in the world.

What is philosophy? The direct greek translation means, “The Love of Wisdom.” In practice, academic philosophy is a set of subjects that center around two broad questions: What is the world like? And How should the world be? Dealing with these questions are the six major disciplines of analytic philosophy: Ethics, Politics, Aesthetics, Logic, Epistemology, and Metaphysics. I will summarize each of these fields, and give some examples as to why they matter.

Ethics is the study of how we ought to live our lives, especially with regards as to our actions and values. The three major subfields are metaethics, which studies the nature of what a value or moral is, and if it exists; normative ethics, which are theories of morality; and, applied ethics, where you find the fun cases like abortion, capital punishment, and health care.
Even though we often disagree about how we ought to act, studying ethics helps give a person a language and a rational for their values. This is applicable in just about every professional field imaginable.

Probably the most popular subject in philosophy, given that everybody seems to have an opinion about it, politics is the study of power and its relationship with groups of people.
Political ideology motivates wars, treaties, economies, education, and just about every major force that affects a person’s life. A knowledge of political philosophy, especially theories of power, is a tool to be able to make a change in the world.

This is easily the most neglected field in philosophy: aesthetics is the study of art, especially trying to make sense of beauty. Aestheticians often explore questions of whether beauty or ugliness can be an objective property of an object, what actually is art, and what our attitudes toward artistic judgement ought to be.
Art is always political. Having a way to think about art without throwing your hands up and saying, “Bah! It’s all subjective!” is useful for looking into other cultures and making sense of the ideas of people within their time periods, as well as question why you find what you do of value.

Logic is the set of rules and structures that govern rational thought. Logic is closely related to mathematics (and some philosophers have attempted to prove that math is an applied form of logic), and relies on lots of symbols and axioms that are very confusing if you are not familiar.
Computer programming and lots of higher-order mathematics owe a huge debt to the work of logicians. Formal logic might be one of the most applicable skills one can learn with a philosophy background. Additionally, a knowledge of logical fallacies and how to avoid them makes your conversations much more consistent and cogent.

As the study of knowledge, epistemologists dive into questions like, what does it mean to know something? What can I be certain about? What counts as evidence? Of what value is testimony? How is a belief justified?
Epistemology helps you evaluate your belief structures, and often times makes you very skeptical or challenging about how you have come to believe what you do. Robust epistemologies are very important, especially for fields like science, law, education, and journalism, which grapple with issues around evidence and justification of belief.

Metaphysics is a loaded word, because many people hear this think of chakras, spirits, third eyes, past lives, astral projects, the lost city of Atlantis, and other eccentric beliefs. By metaphysics, what philosophers mean is, the study of abstract concepts, especially those which are just beyond (“meta-”) the reach of physics. Topics include things like, the nature of time, do we have free will, do numbers exist, are minds and brains are the same thing, are there such things as emergent properties, are properties objectively part of the world, and so forth.
Metaphysics is especially abstract, but I do believe there are many cases where science, law, and politics benefit from really examining the structure of their concepts. One prime example is Race. Sociologist WEB DuBois argued that race is a social construct in the 19th century, but it took scientists a couple of generations to come to that same conclusion. Additionally, metaphysics weights heavily in the discussion of religious, spiritual, and ethical beliefs. Consider, “Does God exist?” “Do I have a consistent self-identity throughout my life?” “When does life begin or end?” and “Do we have free will, and if we do or don’t, or what consequence is this?”

Lastly, I think of philosophy as a form of brain-training. Coming to work through the problems people have been exploring for thousands of years gives a context for your own experiences, and can help you make decisions and seek to lead a richer life.

One thought on “What Do Philosophers Do (and Why Bother?)

  1. conceptsphilosophy

    Hi Bren, I’m curious to know if you’ve pursued this further. Are you reading/studying/working in philosophy, apart from your blog of course?

    If I read you right, we are travelling the same path in reverse: I made a philosophical blog after studying the subject 🙂


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