Philosophy as Profession
What is Philosophy, anyway?
The word "philosophy" derives from the ancient Greek word philosophia, which is
translated as "the love of wisdom." For most of recorded history, those who have
investigated questions about human experience have been called philosophers. As
satisfactory descriptions and working definitions were formulated to resolve some
of these questions, the individual sciences branched off and became separate disciplines.
The questions that remained unanswered constitute the subject matter of philosophy
as it is currently studied.
Questions about existence -- What kinds of things exist? Do minds exist? Do bodies
exist? Does God exist? Do atoms exist? -- comprise that branch of philosophy traditionally
known as metaphysics. Questions about what we know, what we can know, and how we
may know constitute the area of philosophy known as epistemology or the theory of
knowledge. Ethics is that part of philosophy that deals with questions of human
conduct -- What constitutes the good life? What actions are we obligated to do,
or to refrain from doing? What responsibilities do we have to others and to ourselves?--
The study of social and political philosophy asks questions about what constitutes
a just society or a just state.
Philosophers also ask questions about special areas of human experience and specific
types of injury. Thus, within the study of philosophy, one finds logic, aesthetics
or the philosophy of art, the philosophy of science, the philosophy of history and
the philosophy of religion.
Traditionally, the professional philosopher has become a university professor. Such
a position normally requires a doctoral degree, which usually entails four or five
years of graduate education beyond the Bachelor's degree. For those who have the
interest, ability, and dedication to pursue this degree, philosophy can be one of
the most rewarding, enjoyable, and intellectually stimulating careers of all. However,
the university professor is no longer the only professional philosopher.
As American education evolved, so has the profession. Increasing numbers of philosophers
teach in junior or community colleges, sometimes with a Master's degree as their
highest level of education. Some high schools are beginning to offer philosophy
courses, opening up new job opportunities to philosophers without doctoral degrees.
Recently, philosophers have used their training to help solve problems in areas
such as biomedical ethics, environmental ethics, and social planning. Philosophers
also work in hospitals as bioethicists, and serve as consultants to corporations
and governmental agencies.
As professional philosophy positions have become more diverse, so have the backgrounds
and cultural heritages of the philosophers. In the past, the philosopher, like almost
all of the professional educators in colleges and universities, was virtually certain
to of Caucasian heritage and from a middle-class family wealthy enough to afford
a university education for its sons (though usually not for its daughters). The
advent of affirmative action programs and non-discriminatory fellowships and scholarships
has encouraged both women and minorities to enter the profession.
Other jobs for Philosophers
Not all philosophy majors become professional philosophers. In fact, most do not.
A philosophy major receives a broad and comprehensive education that is preparation
to deal intelligently with any number of situations. Such a person is suited to
any of the occupations that require no special technical knowledge. These include
a variety of jobs in both business and government – the major sources of employment
opportunities today. Many students majoring in philosophy have not yet planned a
career. They are interested in acquiring knowledge for its own sake. Such students
fit naturally into a philosophy major where they can study the most persistent and
basic questions that arise in human experience.
The rewards of Philosophy
A few words about non-economic reasons for studying philosophy follow. If there
is any quality common to almost all philosophers, it is the urge to know and understand
ideas, concepts, and methods. It may seem bizarre, then, that they enter a field
of study wherein there is little consensus on major questions and issues. The reason,
of course, is that answered questions are comparatively uninteresting – suitable
for memorization and practical use, but presenting little difficulty or intellectual
Furthermore, the questions of philosophy are among the most basic and universal,
concerning the nature of man and God, mind and matter, and appearance and reality.
Humankind has felt the pull of these questions. All of us have wondered about the
value of existence and its meaning. Philosophers may spend their lives grappling
with these most important, compelling, and interesting of all questions.
Some philosophers find answers that are acceptable to them, and many do not. The
struggle in the journey is sufficient reward. In dealing with life's most important
questions, in sharpening ones logical and creative abilities, and in studying crucial
cultural texts and documents, one develops the highest regard for the type of human
inquiry that constitutes philosophical thinking at its best.