Why Study Philosophy: Isn't Philosophy just a lot of abstract thinking about things that don't matter?

Let me make two responses to this common objection. First of all, the objection has force only for people who care little for truth and learning and who care little for how to live rightly. Moral Philosophy or ethics is concerned with how we should live. Epistemology is concerned with what we should believe. Metaphysics is concerned with fundamental questions about the nature of the world we live in. Logic tells us how to think correctly. But philosophy is also concerned with the fundamental assumptions and concepts of various academic disciplines. For example, philosophy of law is concerned with asking about the nature of law and its relationship to morality. Philosophy of science asks what is science and how does it differ from other types of rational inquiry. What is a scientific theory, and when is it confirmed? Anyone who has a love of truth will find the investigation of all these inquiries very exciting.

Now for the second response. You should think of philosophy not as a subject matter but as a way of engaging in rational inquiry. In other words, philosophy is something you do; it is not a body of truths to be learned. Philosophy begins by asking questions and trying to reach a deeper understanding of the subject matter under investigation. This means that the methods of philosophy can be applied to any subject matter whatsoever. Let us call the methods of philosophy critical- analytical methods. Broadly speaking we can characterize these methods as an attempt to think clearly, systematically, and in-depth about the subject matter under investigation. Thus one of the primary concerns of the philosophy major is to help students acquire these critical and analytical thinking skills. Even if a student is not interested in a philosophy major, just taking philosophy courses as electives can aid immensely in developing thinking skills.

Why is it important to have these thinking skills? On one level we can say that with these skills one will be more likely to have true beliefs rather than false beliefs.

On a more practical level, success in many areas of life depends upon the ability to think clearly and analytically. For instance, it is often thought that success in law school is heavily influenced by what body of knowledge you bring to the law school enterprise. But this is quite wrong. As one who practiced law for 6 years and taught in law school for 5 years, I can say that having a body of knowledge about a specific subject matter will have little influence upon how well a student does in law school. The main determinant of how well you do in law school, aside from hard work, is your ability to think critically and analytically. You will be asked to analyze what judges have said in their opinions and to critically reflect upon their statements and arguments. For you see, the judges are putting forth arguments, and your job will be to analyze the cogency of their arguments and also to see how their statements square with what other judges have said. If you decide to practice law, you will find yourself using these thinking skills every day. Your success in law practice depends upon your doing it well.

As I have already suggested, thinking skills are valuable in every area of life. If, for example, you are going to seminary to study theology, as did all three philosophy faculty members, you will find it very helpful, and indeed essential, to be able to spot a lack of clarity of thought or to uncover flaws in the arguments of theologians. More broadly, you will find confusion of thought and flawed arguments no matter where you go and no matter what you study. If you can spot these deficiencies, you will be miles ahead of everyone else who does not have these thinking skills.

If you have any interest in philosophy, whether it be to investigate the major or the minor or just to take a course to see how you like it, you may contact Dr. Trammell, Dr. DiQuattro, or myself. We will be delighted to talk with you.

Dr. Garey B. Spradley
Professor of Philosophy, Theology, and Law