Why Study Philosophy?

What really is a fact?
Where do values come from?
What is truth?
What is reality?
Is justice possible?
What is the good?
How can we rationally justify the claims we make?

Philosophy’s central questions are always controversial and always timely. Philosophers think clearly and deeply about the fundamental questions that arise for us as human beings. They ask how we can rationally justify the claims we make about the world.

Why is Philosophy Important, Now More Than Ever?

But philosophers do not only think about the world we live in. They also intervene in this world. Philosophy is more than theoretical knowledge; it often has practical consequences and implications for generations to come. Democracy would not exist without philosophers—from Plato to Locke to Kant to Rawls into the present—thinking about justice, freedom, liberalism, and equality. New technologies, such as the widespread use of algorithms, artificial intelligence, and rapid advances in the biomedical sciences, raise ethical and moral questions for society that philosophers are best equipped to address head on. Developments in neuroscience and the cognitive sciences—two areas with which philosophy always had a close relationship—change our understanding of what consciousness is, how the mind works, and how we can think of our moral psychology.

What Is Philosophy?

Philosophy (φιλοσοφία, the “love of wisdom”) is different from all other disciplines, and yet it is what brings all fields of knowledge together, because it focuses on the foundations of morality and politics, of science, logic, and the mind, of culture and the arts. Many of the fields and disciplines that shape the modern research university, and that shape the modern world, historically developed out of philosophy: psychology, medicine, physics, biology…Not surprisingly, every field of knowledge and every discipline—from the visual arts to engineering, from psychology to politics, from architecture to neuroscience—will eventually lead to philosophical questions:

• What is the nature of knowledge and truth (epistemology)?
• How can we distinguish between what really is and what only seems to be (metaphysics)?
• What is consciousness (philosophy of mind)?
• What is the right thing to do (ethics)?
• How should we live with others in society (political philosophy)?

To practice philosophy is to wonder seriously about questions like these, and to look hard for rational answers in dialogue with others. Philosophy begins with wonder (Plato) and with reason (Kant).

Dealing with these questions makes philosophy a challenging subject. For instance, to consider how we should live, we also need to think about what a person’s well-being consists in, and about how this relates to what we morally ought to do. These topics are tied intimately to further questions, such as: what sort of government would be best? What is good in art? How are values possible? But asking about personal well-being can lead us also to wonder just what makes someone a person at all—and how this is connected with consciousness, free will, moral responsibility, and one’s biological, social, and historical nature. We may wonder how we can know anything about these and other matters, and how we can justify our beliefs.

Why Study Philosophy?

Philosophy classes will challenge you to empower your reason and open your imagination. You will be asked to critically examine your own beliefs and experience, together with findings in various fields of study, and join a conversation of creative thinkers that goes back more than 2,000 years, and that engages with the sciences and cultures of today’s world.

1. Philosophy touches everything.

To learn about philosophy is to expand your understanding of the culture in which you live, since the sciences, arts, religion, and politics are all deeply influenced by it. Philosophical issues arise everywhere. Whether it be mathematics, physics, biology, neuroscience, religion, or art, there is a “philosophy of” each of these needed to deepen and complete their study.

Students often combine philosophy with other subjects, and philosophy courses play a central role in a number of interdisciplinary programs at Rice, such as Politics, Law & Social Thought, the Study of Women, Gender & Sexuality, Cognitive Science, Neuroscience, and Medical Humanities.

2. Philosophers are everywhere.

Philosophy provides training in critical and constructive thinking, skills that are valuable in any professional field as well as in life. Thinking critically and clearly is what makes our students successful in their careers and it is also what makes them responsible citizens in an increasingly complex world. Philosophy allows you to reach the right decisions, that is, decisions that can be justified rationally and with evidence.

Philosophy majors go into law, finance, medicine, business, public policy…they are everywhere.

3. Philosophy majors perform exceptionally well.

Philosophy majors score much higher than most other majors on the LSAT and GMAT, which provide access to law schools and business schools.

Philosophy majors tend to score higher than any other group on the verbal sections of the GRE for graduate school admission, and much higher than many other majors on the quantitative section.

And: humanities majors score higher on the MCAT for medical schools than students in the biological sciences—and among those humanities students, philosophy majors have the highest scores.

Whatever you do after college, you must be able to formulate and clarify problems, to analyze potential solutions, and defend your approach in a clear and rational way. All these abilities are greatly improved by exercise in philosophical argument. What makes students of philosophy so successful is not simply their professional training, but it is their commitment to challenging themselves to think about the big and fundamental question of human life and existence.

Further questions? Contact the Director of Undergraduate Studies: Charles Siewert, charles.siewert@rice.edu, or any faculty member of the Department of Philosophy. We are here to answer your questions.