XIA: The misconception about philosophy

During a zip-lining trip last summer, my tour guide chatted with me as he readied my gear, and asked the question college students hear so often: “What are you majoring in?”

I told him I wasn’t sure, but I was seriously thinking about philosophy.

“Oh come on!” he said, chuckling. “Are you just doing that for the chicks?”

This is one of many off-putting responses I get when I tell people I’m interested in being a philosophy major. Some people caution me, saying that philosophy is impractical and doesn’t lead to any decent jobs. Other people express a veiled disgust, implying that philosophy is a useless and self-indulgent amusement. Sometimes when I tell my friends that I have to write a difficult philosophy paper, they say, “Psht, you can easily write anything for those.” Among all of these reactions is the common misconception that philosophy is somehow an illegitimate — or, at least, less legitimate — area of academic study.

I find this ironic because philosophy is one of the most important and influential fields; just look at history. But, in responding to these mistaken views, I think it is better to first clarify what studying philosophy actually means.

Philosophers are not self-entitled dilettantes who play intellectual games from the comfort of their armchairs. Philosophers are not eccentric idealists who have hopelessly lost touch with reality.

I assume philosophy has a bad name partly because the public generally sees philosophy as defined by crazy, abstract ideas not grounded in immediate reality. Yes, some of these ideas are a part of philosophy, but they are not its focus.

Philosophers specialize in how to think more than what to think. I rarely complete a philosophy course or finish a philosophical book feeling like I have learned any hard facts — unlike I feel after a science course. Instead, I gain an understanding of how and why this philosopher argued this specific idea in this specific way. It’s the how and the why that matter the most in philosophy.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no room for nonsense in real philosophy. Essays must be highly analytic: before advancing original claims, one must demonstrate that he understands the idea he is responding to. This involves taking apart the text piece by piece and unraveling the underlying logical structure. It involves resolving obscurities and making controlled inferences. Philosophy does not provide an opportunity to say whatever you want, arguing using random, subjective ideas. It is a process that demands careful, disciplined thinking: one in which you often spend more time thinking about what to say than actually saying it.

I met with Shelly Kagan my first week here and talked with him about free will. I thought I was well-prepared: I had read the books, watched the lectures and thoroughly thought about the ideas myself. But everything fell apart in my mind when I started chatting with Shelly. He took apart my assumptions, exposed the flaws in my arguments and showed me how I was philosophizing with a bad approach. This came as a shock because I had consciously tried to avoid all of the above. But I was also inspired because I experienced firsthand how serious Yale’s Philosophy Department, and philosophy in general, is — how philosophers hold themselves and their students to such high intellectual standards.

Philosophy underlies every academic discipline — the complete opposite of what many think. I encounter explicit mentions of philosophy in all of my other classes. My chemistry professor often brings up Occam’s razor and a priori knowledge. My English professor uses the Greek topoi, or generative questions, as a way to direct our writing. My biology professor connects physiological concepts about life to a grander picture of humans as subjects to the physical laws of the universe.

Being a philosopher means having the ability to apply philosophical methods and ideas to other fields. It means having the intellectual pragmatism to bring ideas out of the abstract realm and into the real world. Philosophy doesn’t just exist in its own separate sphere, apart from everything else.

So, the answer is no: I’m not just interested in philosophy to impress girls. I’m not just interested in philosophy because it’s an easy major to breeze through. I’m interested in philosophy because I want to sharpen my intellectual skills, make a significant impact on the world and most importantly, simply because I love it.

Harvey Xia is a freshman in Berkeley College. Contact him at harvey.xia@yale.edu .

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