Philosophy: Far more than a witty remark

Studying philosophy equips you with an adaptable mind and vital life skills, writes Russ Thorne

“Philosophy,” wrote Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “teaches us to bear with equanimity the misfortunes of others.” Those people who think there’s a little more to it than that will be encouraged to learn there are plenty of undergraduate courses available at universities throughout the UK to help them investigate.

Universities generally offer a single honours degree course in philosophy as well as a number of dual honours degrees. Dual honours subjects complementing the core philosophy option can range from the scientific to literature, language and other humanities.

Individual course modules might cover standard subjects such as ethics or the history of philosophy, but students could equally investigate the philosophy of film, or even sex.

These are all are options at Sheffield University. Professor Stephen Laurence, head of department admissions, says: “Philosophy is vital to today’s world. Philosophical problems arise in all areas of enquiry and new philosophical problems arise in response to changing global conditions. Studying philosophy allows students to explore some of the deepest questions we face as humans in a rigorous and systematic way.”

Students approach these questions – about the basis of morality, the conditions for legitimate government and the value of art, for example – through the works of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Nietzsche, and many other thinkers up to the present day, explains Dr Naomi Goulder, senior lecturer and convenor for philosophy, at the New College of the Humanities (NCH). “The importance of this activity should be recognised by anyone who values free thought over prejudice.”

In practical terms this intellectual interrogation of ideas might take place in lectures, seminars and through group work and essay-based discussion. NCH also offers workshops covering topics from the nature of beauty to the origins of the universe, adds Goulder.

Contact time with academic staff demands preparation and students should expect to put the work in beforehand to get the most from the process, says Professor Tom Stoneham, head of the department of philosophy at the University of York. “As we say to students: there is no point asking a question you could have answered for yourself by reading a book. Do the reading first and ask the questions in class that you need an expert to answer.”

Students can expect assessment by exams, but also longer pieces of writing. Some courses, such as those at the University of Warwick, give students a degree of choice over how they are examined. “We understand that some students prefer exams and some prefer longer pieces over a period of time,” says Dr Angela Hobbs, associate professor in philosophy.

This level of variety in tuition and assessment benefits students once they move beyond their undergraduate programmes, according to Stoneham. “Our teaching methods require students to speak in public, to engage in constructive debate with peers and defend their opinions when challenged by experts. A student who thrives in the face of these challenges will be able to do well in a huge number of different careers.”

“It’s very good all round mental training,” adds Hobbs. “Employers appreciate that they’re going to get people who can think and write clearly.”

Depending on the exact course they choose, graduates might go on to find work in fields as diverse as teaching, technology, law, finance or even the intelligence services. They might also pursue further academic study.

Whatever path students choose, academics are keen to stress the personal and social benefits that go hand in hand with the subject. “Given how fast the world is changing, it’s extremely important that we have adaptable citizens and leaders with the sorts of transferable skills that good philosophy degrees impart,” says Professor Laurence.

Dr Hobbs is more emphatic. “I strongly want to make the case for philosophy in terms of adding to the worth of both an individual human life and of national life. The benefits are very profound, we’re asking questions about what it is to live a good human life and how we can best live together; things that are helpful for people to reflect on.”

Philosophy is far more than a Wildean witticism. According to Hobbs it’s personally and professionally fulfilling. “There’s a perception our students will simply float off to Glastonbury, and it’s true, many of them do go. But they’ll come back, wash up and go off and do very high powered jobs.”

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