The Philosophy Major

Like a lot of Penn freshmen, I came into college vaguely committed to being pre-med, a choice which my parents were also quite satisfied with; they were less happy when I told them that I was not, in fact, planning on going into medicine or even the field of the sciences at all, and that I had declared a major in philosophy. When they learned that I was doing an additional degree in behavioral economics in Wharton, though, they were relieved. Unlike a philosophy degree, bio-with-a-premed-track and business degrees are pre-professional degrees, whose sole purpose is to prepare you for the career you’ll have after college. This makes them helpful and quite practically useful – but as I continued to take class after class, I began to see ways in which such classes left me technically prepared but intellectually impoverished. 

This blog post is, essentially, a manifesto for the philosophy major. The humanities tend to take a bit of a beating from STEM, business, or even social science majors, who view them as less rigorous or relevant. But speaking as someone who has taken classes in all those fields, they tend to lack something that philosophy is able to provide: the knowledge of how to think, not just what to think.

Broadly speaking, modern philosophy is split into two schools. One, analytic philosophy, is centered around the tradition of philosophy as practiced in Britain and the United States. The expectation there is that you will be precise and clear; that your claims will be specific, well-organized, and consistent. As the name suggests, it teaches you how to think analytically, to address problems and present your views in a structured manner.

Continental philosophy, in the European tradition, is quite different. Things are often very hard to understand, and are written to be so; more literary than its Anglophone counterpart, continental philosophy often seems centered around the process of interpretation, focusing not just on what the words say but how you read them. I personally think of it as more fertile and boundless than the sterile precision of analytic philosophy. The two are difficult but fascinating to switch between, and provide quite different forms of exercise for your brain.

The familiar saying goes, give a man a fish and he’ll be full for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll be full for life. The same, I think, goes for knowledge. It is useful to learn the ideas themselves, once someone else has reeled them in – but far more useful to learn how to catch them yourself.

-JinAh K, C'18