What you can do with a philosophy degree.

| April 14, 2008 | 9 Replies

Philosophy majors are not getting rich, but they’re able to buy enough food to allow them to sit around and ponder things.   Truth be told, philosophy majors are at the bottom of the list in starting salaries.  As someone who majored in philosophy, I found these statistics to be of interest.   In my junior year of undergrad, majoring in philosphy, I panicked. What was I going to do next?  My brother-in-law (a lawyer) suggested I go to law school.  This didn’t sound like a good idea at the time, because my self-image didn’t involve wearing a suit or carrying a briefcase. 

Nonetheless, I ended up going to law school, which is not uncommon for philosophy majors, according to this article. [I don't actually wear a suit or carry a briefcase as much as I worried I'd be doing.  Most work days, even for trial lawyers like me, occur back at the office, not in court.]  If you don’t want to go to law school, here are some other things you can do with a philosophy degree.

Despite the potential financial drawbacks, I’m glad I majored in philosophy.  To the extent that I’m able to think clearly, I attribute some of that ability to my training in philosophy.  There are many sites that describe the various benefits to studying the allegedly “worthless” subject of philosophy, including this page from the website of the University of South Dakota:

Philosophy is in a sense inescapable: life confronts every thoughtful person with some philosophical questions, and nearly everyone is guided by philosophical assumptions, even if unconsciously. One need not be unprepared. To a large extent one can choose how reflective one will be in clarifying and developing one’s philosophical assumptions, and how well prepared one is for the philosophical questions life presents. Philosophical training enhances our problem-solving capacities, our abilities to understand and express ideas, and our persuasive powers. It also develops understanding and enjoyment of things whose absence impoverishes many lives: such things as aesthetic experience, communication with many different kinds of people, lively discussion of current issues, the discerning observation of human behavior, and intellectual zest. In these and other ways the study of philosophy contributes immeasurably in both academic and other pursuits.

The long-range value of philosophical study goes far beyond its contribution to one’s livelihood. Philosophy broadens the range of things one can understand and enjoy. It can give one self-knowledge, foresight, and a sense of direction in life. It can provide, to one’s reading and conversation, special pleasures of insight. It can lead to self-discovery, expansion of consciousness, and self-renewal. Through all of this, and through its contribution to one’s expressive powers, it nurtures individuality and self-esteem. Its value for one’s private life can be incalculable; its benefits for one’s public life as a citizen can be immeasurable.

In spite of the above benefits, I must admit that articles in modern philosophy journals tend to drive me batty.  These authors too often publish for the sake of publishing rather than writing because he or she is passionate about the topic.  A clue that I am correct about this is to notice the incredible amount of esoteric hair-splitting characteristic of such articles.  And do we really need the 180,000th article about Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative?  This is especially frustrating in that several professional philosophers have confessed to me that they don’t ever refer to the teachings of moral philosophers when deciding personal moral challenges.

For me, the challenge has been to learn to apply the critical thinking skills in practical ways to real world problems.  In short, I refuse to think that the study of philosophy itself is the end game.  My faith is that there are real-world applications and consequences for those classroom lessons.  Even if trying to apply one’s philosophy readings and writings to the real world is like emerging from the academic Cave and being blinded by the bright light of the real world. 

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Category: American Culture, Economy

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (9)

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  1. Marlon says:

    The few philosophy classes that I took were definitely among my favorites. To realize that things I sat around and pondered had been pondered for hundreds of years by really bright minds was an eyeopener for an 18-20 year old. Pondering is good. More people should try it. (This is probably the first four times that I have ever typed the word "pondering")

    Anyway, as my grandpa used to say, "Sometimes I sit and think, and sometimes I just sit."

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    Philosophy as taught in college has always seemed an empty exercise to me. One learns to argue very precisely about the meaning of terms with no practical referent. That is, there seems to be a very careful avoidance of defining the terms being used in any concrete way.

    As Erich points out, the ideas bandied about are so vague that thousands of distinct papers can be written about a particular idea without ever approaching a verifiable conclusion about what a given term might actually mean or how it should properly be applied.

    Science is a branch of philosophy in which one first defines terms unambiguously before working with them. Every term has a precise logical and/or mathematical relationship to an everyday noun or verb. As in other branches of philosophy, the terms might resemble words in common usage. Like "theory" or "weight". But in science the meaning of these words is very specific.

    Or the term is posited to become specific. If experiments fail to cause a term to converge on a concrete idea, then the term is discarded. "Phlogiston" and "aether" are a couple of losers from previous centuries, whereas "string theory" and "dark matter" are still working on finding a solid definition. Odds are, at least one of these two will be replaced. But each term has in its definition the seeds of its own demise; how it can be eliminated.

    But who can begin to try to eliminate "categorical imperative" or "essential essence" from the philosophical vocabulary? Or who can define them in such a way that everyone can agree on what they mean?

    Perhaps a primer in semantics should be a prerequisite for other philosophy courses. Better yet, teach semantics in high school. I've had many an argument with people who could not differentiate a word from an idea, an image from an object, or a map from a territory. This is the block that makes algebra word problems hard for people.

    But semantics is another branch within philosophy. And around we go.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Dan: I sometimes imagine putting 100 of the most dedicated Kant scholars in a single big room and telling them to apply the Categorical Imperative to figure out the proper answers to major moral conundra such as abortion, U.S. involvement in Iraq or whether it's OK to use marijuana. If the CI is meaningful, all those philosophers should be able to resolve their differences peacefully.

    My guess is that there would be long heated arguments and that none of the philosophers would change his or her personal opinion by reference to the categorical imperative.

    The question, then: What real life value is the categorical imperative?

  4. JESSE says:

    You can serve french fries to people on their way to ski trips.

    Worst mistake i ever made was majoring in philosophy.

  5. Stephen says:

    JESSE, I'm worried that you thought philosophy might be a great financial investment rather than choosing a major for it's academic and intellectual allure. I began my undergraduate as a pre-med student, changing to pre-law, and finally ended up a philosopher. It was one of the best decisions I've ever made. I didn't get a great job after graduation, but I know how to decipher what words mean when they are placed in a specific order. You'd be surprised how many people don't know what a necessary condition is.

    Back to my point – studying philosophy is more rewarding mentally and (dare I say spiritually) intellectually. I understand salary should be a top 3 concern when looking for a career after graduation, but those other top 2 should be enjoyment of the job and meaningful work. Philosophy allows people to tease out meaning in abstract. I can tell that my dead-end job (that pays pretty well) means nothing to me. Imagine how happy many people could be if they could find meaning (or lack-) in a job field?

  6. lisa rokusek says:

    Philosophy was the very best thing I could have studied – it taught me to think. I learned to assess ideas and situations and gave me techniques to question assumptions. These skills help me do every job better, even if those traits were less welcome at the dead end jobs at the beginning of my work life.

    Now that I am less on the bottom of the employment food chain my philosophy studies serve me even better – and in truth, I have never stopped honing them – nor do I want to.

    While a philosophy degree doesn't equal buckets of cash – it doesn't necessarily hurt, though taking the lessons learned to heart might make one question the need for all the buckets of glitz.

  7. Heidi says:

    All,

    Nearing graduation with my BA in Philosophy I find that I emphasize my minor when looking for a job. However, my major is what I am the proudest of. My professors, as well as my fellow classmates, and all other philosophy majors will agree, this is not a discipline for the faint of heart. You can't just brush important and valuable life questions off with uninformed assumptions, at least not if you have interest in succeeding.

    Philosophy is not a job, it is a skill. It is a challenging endeavour that is not to be written off as airy or unimportant. Philosophers are who shape the world into what it is, or at least what we think it is; if not what we want it to be.

    Great philosophers influence the world in the most valuable ways, this is why we study it. Not because we want to make more than the marketing majors. We are more creative and thoughtful than that anyway. :)

  8. tanya says:

    Sounds like you have a personal issue with philosophers….what’s your answer to life?? GOD???….Oh yea…the god that exists but there is absolutely no proof of!!!!….lmao…..good luck!

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