0.2 Why Study Philosophy?


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • That the study of philosophy has practical as well as personal value.
  • That philosophy majors tend on average to succeed more fully in whatever careers they choose than do those from other liberal arts majors.
  • That this course will improve your academic skills and support success in most other courses you might take.
  • That a philosophy degree is great preparation for several post-graduate professional programs.
  • Why Bertrand Russell argued that philosophy is also a sometimes necessarily impractical field.
  • Arguments for and against the study of philosophy.


Practical Reasons to Study Philosophy.

Why Philosophy?  Perhaps you have heard people say that studying philosophy is a lot like navel-gazing.  Perhaps you’ve been asked, “Philosophy, what are you going to do with that?”  We lovers of wisdom will respond by saying that studying philosophy never fails to enrich the lives of those who enter into it seriously.  Remember, philosophical investigation is almost always an investigation into ourselves, asking the big questions of why we speak say and believe what we do.

However, there are als very practical reasons to learn philosophy.   A course in philosophy is an excellent opportunity to think deeply while developing important transferrable skills. Moreover, people who study philosophy see its benefits throughout their careers.

Philosophy Pays

According to the Department of Philosophy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Philosophy majors have some of the highest undergraduate employment rates.  In 2016/17, 92.7% of all graduates from the Department of Philosophy, Logic & Scientific Method were in employment, completing further studies, or taking time out, just six months after graduation.

Choosing Philosophy as your subject will prepare you for the kind of careful thinking, critical analysis, and persuasive writing that is critical in many different areas of work. The starting salaries of students graduating with a Philosophy subject degree compared to other subjects may surprise you![1]

Recent data, from the Atlantic Magazine, citing PayScale.com, shows how a major in philosophy can lead to significant earnings mid and late career.

Payscale.com data for long-range Philosophy Degree Earnings[2]

payscale philosophy salary data
Philosophy improves Academic Skills

Because those who take philosophy courses are asked to create clear and compelling arguments in response to many philosophical questions, they invariably develop skills that transfer to other coursework.  In philosophy you will study basic logical argumentation: how to think about thinking.  In practicing inductive and deductive arguments your abilities to make and defend your own positions will improve.  You will be able to better spot bad arguments in the ideas you encounter in other courses and offer stronger counter-arguments in your papers and responses.  In studying epistemology and metaphysics, you will learn to recognize the philosophical assumptions of other disciplines, allowing you to better understand those fields as well as “think outside the box” by considering some of their ideas from a broader perspective.  In short, by seriously studying philosophy you will become a better thinker, writer and problem-solver, all important skills in most fields of study.

Philosophy is Excellent Preparation for…

Law School

Philosophy is a strong preparation for law school and is the most common degree held by law students in the United States. Because philosophy requires the ability to think about issues from multiple different perspectives it serves future law students very well.  Philosophy also furthers the development of one’s problem-solving skills, close reading, and clear research and writing, students with a philosophy degree do very well in law school.

Graduate Study

Verbal section of GRE results, with philosophy ranking the highest, and accounting ranking the lowest.

Philosophy also is excellent preparation for Graduate School.   Most graduate programs in the United States require prospective students to take the GRE entry exam. Philosophy students consistently score higher than all other subject areas on the verbal and analytic writing portions of the GRE and tend to score extremely high on the quantitative portion as well.

Business School

Likewise, students wishing to pursue an MBA in business usually are required to take the Graduate Management Admissions Test.  Those who have studied philosophy tend to score much higher than most on this exam.

So we can see that learning philosophy could be a great “career move” for many.  But perhaps the BEST reason to learn philosophy is to become a better human being, to develop the ability to engage life with all its richness, to ask deeper and better questions, and to thereby enrich your life.

A Deeper Reason to Study Philosophy

Philosopher Bertrand William Russell was a British academic who worked in philosophy, mathematics, and logic. His work has had a considerable influence in these fields, impacting mathematics, logic, set theory,

A photograph of Bertrand Russell taken in 1957
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)


linguistics, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, computer science, and various areas of analytic philosophy, especially philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics. He was a public intellectual, historian, social critic, political activist, and Nobel laureate.

Russell knew well the challenges which faced the discipline of philosophy in his time.  It was widely believed that philosophy was a frivolous pursuit because it did not offer up the kinds of clear answers that the sciences and mathematics offered.  In the following, he offers a rich defense of philosophy.

Excerpts from Bertrand Russell’s The Value of Philosophy

In what follows, Russell shares a compelling argument on the worth of studying philosophy.  Consider as you read how he would respond to:

  • Why is philosophy not a “practical” field of study according to Russell?  Why does he argue that this is not a criticism of philosophy?  What is philosophy “good for”?

[It] will be well to consider…what is the value of philosophy and why it ought to be studied. It is the more necessary to consider this question, in view of the fact that many men, under the influence of science or of practical affairs, are inclined to doubt whether philosophy is anything better than innocent but useless trifling, hair-splitting distinctions, and controversies on matters concerning which knowledge is impossible.

This view of philosophy appears to result, partly from a wrong conception of the ends of life, partly from a wrong conception of the kind of goods which philosophy strives to achieve. Physical science, through the medium of inventions, is useful to innumerable people who are wholly ignorant of it; thus, the study of physical science is to be recommended, not only, or primarily, because of the effect on the student, but rather because of the effect on mankind in general. This utility does not belong to philosophy. If the study of philosophy has any value at all for others than students of philosophy, it must be only indirectly, through its effects upon the lives of those who study it. It is in these effects, therefore, if anywhere, that the value of philosophy must be primarily sought.

But further, if we are not to fail in our endeavor to determine the value of philosophy, we must first free our minds from the prejudices of what are wrongly called “practical” men. The “practical” man, as this word is often used, is one who recognizes only material needs, who realizes that men must have food for the body but is oblivious of the necessity of providing food for the mind. If all men were well off, if poverty and disease had been reduced to their lowest possible point, there would still remain much to be done to produce a valuable society; and even in the existing world the goods of the mind are at least as important as the goods of the body. It is exclusively among the goods of the mind that the value of philosophy is to be found; and only those who are not indifferent to these goods can be persuaded that the study of philosophy is not a waste of time.

Philosophy, like all other studies, aims primarily at knowledge. The knowledge it aims it is the kind of knowledge which gives unity and system to the body of the sciences, and the kind which results from a critical examination of the grounds of our convictions, prejudices, and beliefs. But it cannot be maintained that philosophy has had any very great measure of success in its attempts to provide definite answers to its questions. If you ask a mathematician, a mineralogist, a historian, or any other man of learning, what definite body of truths has been ascertained by his science, his answer will last as long as you are willing to listen. But if you put the same question to a philosopher, he will, if he is candid, have to confess that his study has not achieved positive results such as have been achieved by other sciences.

It is true that this is partly accounted for by the fact that, as soon as definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible, this subject ceases to be called philosophy, and becomes a separate science. The whole study of the heavens, which now belongs to astronomy, was once included in philosophy; Newton’s great work was called “the mathematical principles of natural philosophy.” Similarly, the study of the human mind, which was, until very lately, a part of philosophy, has now been separated from philosophy and has become the science of psychology. Thus, to a great extent, the uncertainty of philosophy is more apparent than real: those questions which are already capable of definite answers are placed in the sciences, while those only to which, at present, no definite answer can be given, remain to form the residue which is called philosophy.

This is, however, only a part of the truth concerning the uncertainty of philosophy. There are many questions—and among them those that are of the profoundest interest to our spiritual life—which, so far as we can see, must remain insoluble to the human intellect unless its powers become of quite a different order from what they are now. Has the universe any unity of plan or purpose, or is it a fortuitous concourse of atoms? Is consciousness a permanent part of the universe, giving hope of indefinite growth in wisdom, or is it a transitory accident on a small planet on which life must ultimately become impossible? Are good and evil of importance to the universe or only to man? Such questions are asked by philosophy, and variously answered by various philosophers. But it would seem that, whether answers be otherwise discoverable or not, the answers suggested by philosophy are none of them demonstrably true. Yet, however slight may be the hope of discovering an answer, it is part of the business of philosophy to continue the consideration of such questions, to make us aware of their importance, to examine all the approaches to them, and to keep alive that speculative interest in the universe which is apt to be killed by confining ourselves to definitely ascertainable knowledge.

Many philosophers, it is true, have held that philosophy could establish the truth of certain answers to such fundamental questions. They have supposed that what is of most importance in religious beliefs could be proved by strict demonstration to be true. In order to judge of such attempts, it is necessary to take a survey of human knowledge, and to form an opinion as to its methods and its limitations. On such a subject it would be unwise to pronounce dogmatically; but if the investigations of our previous chapters have not led us astray, we shall be compelled to renounce the hope of finding philosophical proofs of religious beliefs. We cannot, therefore, include as part of the value of philosophy any definite set of answers to such questions. Hence, once more, the value of philosophy must not depend upon any supposed body of definitely ascertainable knowledge to be acquired by those who study it.

What two reasons does Russell give for philosophy’s lack of “answers”?

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find, as we saw in our opening chapters, that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

If philosophy is not very good at giving us answers, then what does Russell say is its true value?

Apart from its utility in showing unsuspected possibilities, philosophy has a value—perhaps its chief value— through the greatness of the objects which it contemplates, and the freedom from narrow and personal aims resulting from this contemplation. The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests: family and friends may be included, but the outer world is not regarded except as it may help or hinder what comes within the circle of instinctive wishes. In such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophic life is calm and free. The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins. Unless we can so enlarge our interests as to include the whole outer world, we remain like a garrison in a beleaguered fortress, knowing that the enemy prevents escape, and that ultimate surrender is inevitable. In such a life there is no peace, but a constant strife between the insistence of desire and the powerlessness of will. In one way or another, if our life is to be great and free, we must escape this prison and this strife.

One way of escape is by philosophic contemplation. Philosophic contemplation does not, in its widest survey, divide the universe into two hostile camps—friends and foes, helpful and hostile, good and bad—it views the whole impartially. Philosophic contemplation, when it is unalloyed, does not aim at proving that the rest of the universe is akin to man. All acquisition of knowledge is an enlargement of the Self, but this enlargement is best attained when it is not directly sought. It is obtained when the desire for knowledge is alone operative, by a study which does not wish in advance that its objects should have this or that character but adapts the Self to the characters which it finds in its objects. This enlargement of Self is not obtained when, taking the Self as it is, we try to show that the world is so similar to this Self that knowledge of it is possible without any admission of what seems alien. The desire to prove this is a form of self-assertion, and like all self-assertion, it is an obstacle to the growth of Self which it desires, and of which the Self knows that it is capable. Self-assertion, in philosophic speculation as elsewhere, views the world as a means to its own ends; thus, it makes the world of less account than Self, and the Self sets bounds to the greatness of its goods. In contemplation, on the contrary, we start from the not-Self, and through its greatness the boundaries of Self are enlarged; through the infinity of the universe the mind which contemplates it achieves some share in infinity.

For this reason, greatness of soul is not fostered by those philosophies which assimilate the universe to Man. Knowledge is a form of union of Self and not-Self; like all union, it is impaired by dominion, and therefore by any attempt to force the universe into conformity with what we find in ourselves. There is a widespread philosophical tendency towards the view which tells us that man is the measure of all things, that truth is man-made, that space and time and the world of universals are properties of the mind, and that, if there be anything not created by the mind, it is unknowable and of no account for us. This view, if our previous discussions were correct, is untrue; but in addition to being untrue, it has the effect of robbing philosophic contemplation of all that gives it value, since it fetters contemplation to Self. What it calls knowledge is not a union with the not-Self, but a set of prejudices, habits, and desires, making an impenetrable veil between us and the world beyond. The man who finds pleasure in such a theory of knowledge is like the man who never leaves the domestic circle for fear his word might not be law.

The true philosophic contemplation, on the contrary, finds its satisfaction in every enlargement of the not-Self, in everything that magnifies the objects contemplated, and thereby the subject contemplating. Everything, in contemplation, that is personal or private, everything that depends upon habit, self-interest or desire distorts the object, and hence impairs the union which the intellect seeks. By thus making a barrier between subject and object, such personal and private things become a prison to the intellect. The free intellect will see as God might see, without a here and now, without hopes and fears, without the trammels of customary beliefs and traditional prejudices, calmly, dispassionately, in the sole and exclusive desire of knowledge—knowledge as impersonal, as purely contemplative, as it is possible for man to attain. Hence also the free intellect will value more the abstract and universal knowledge into which the accidents of private history do not enter, than the knowledge brought by the senses, and dependent, as such knowledge must be, upon an exclusive and personal point of view and a body whose sense-organs distort as much as they reveal.

The mind which has become accustomed to the freedom and impartiality of philosophic contemplation will preserve something of the same freedom and impartiality in the world of action and emotion. It will view its purposes and desires as parts of the whole, with the absence of insistence that results from seeing them as infinitesimal fragments in a world of which all the rest is unaffected by any one man’s deeds. The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth, is the very same quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable. Thus, contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists man’s true freedom, and his liberation from the thralldom of narrow hopes and fears.

Thus, to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy: Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination, and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

(Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, 1912, published by Project Gutenberg, 2004)

Having explored in this introduction the scope and value of philosophy, we turn next to its earliest period in the West, the era of the ancient Greeks, and to its most famous advocate, the Athenian philosopher, Socrates.

Taking it to the Streets…

Ask 4 or 5 friends to offer a list of the 3 most important questions in life.

What does each friend’s set of questions tell you about his/her values?

Were certain questions shared by all you asked?

Do any of these questions have a clear, undisputed answer?

Arguments For and Against the Study of Philosophy

On the one hand,

  • Philosophy is the realm of the most important questions that have preoccupied humans since ancient times. Without philosophical inquiry, many would argue that our lives would lack depth.
  • Philosophy is home to those questions that human beings feel we might never find an answer to but still need to explore. It gets to what is at the heart of being human.
  • Many of the most useful, practical, and material fields of study that exist today would not be possible if they had not had their start in philosophy.
  • Students who study philosophy in university consistently outpace their colleagues in the workforce because of their training in critical thinking, close reading, and clear writing.

On the other hand,

  • Many have argued that philosophy is not always accessible to the general public or non-student due to the difficulty of much of the literature and the fact that philosophy often avoids definitive answers and has a less obvious practical, material application.
  • Philosophy has been accused of being a discipline of “dead white men,” and there is much to say in favor of this criticism.  Only recently has the field of philosophy begun to engage the thought and writing of women and non-whites.
  • Philosophy deals with uncertainty and ambiguity and asks questions more than it provides answers, which can make many people uncomfortable.
  • Some might ask, how can we justify our pursuit of philosophy when societal needs for scientists, engineers, and other more practical workers are pressing?   Philosophy is only beginning to take seriously its need to defend its relevance in the workplace and its role as a positive force for the common good.

[1] Why Study Philosophy? | Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method (lse.ac.uk)

[2] https://dailynous.com/2015/09/04/salaries-of-philosophy-majors-over-time/



Works Cited

Buzz Blog. “Best Majors for GRE Scores in 2013: Philosophy Dominates.” PhysicsCentral, APS Physics, 29 July 2013, https://www.physicscentral.com/buzz/blog/index.cfm?postid=5112019841346388353.

Weinberg, Justin. “Maturity Curves: How Experience Affects Pay.” DailyNous, DailyNous, 4 Sept. 2015, https://dailynous.com/2015/09/04/salaries-of-philosophy-majors-over-time/. Accessed 18 Mar. 2022.


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PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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