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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 stimulation.

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.