FAQ’s about Philosophy

What good is a philosophy major?

  • Through their work at PSU, philosophy majors learn valuable critical thinking and communication skills, as well as how to analyze and apply abstract ideas to real life situations. The skills and knowledge possessed by philosophy majors make them well-suited to a number of different career paths, including academia, law, social work, business and many other fields.
  • People from a broad spectrum of life have been philosophy majors, including comedian Steve Martin, journalist Charlie Rose and Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard.
  • Read the New York Times article, “Philosophers Find the Degree Pays Off in Life and in Work.”

Does a philosophy major require many courses?

  • The philosophy major is the lightest of the PSU majors in terms of required courses. Students must complete 11 requirements, which allows students to minor in a complementary subject (e.g. business, history or English). Some students have taken advantage of this feature of the philosophy major to complete a dual major such as Philosophy and English or Philosophy and Psychology.

What are the basic areas of study in Philosophy?

  • What is truth? How or why do we identify a statement as correct or false, and how do we reason?
  • Is knowledge possible? How do we know what we know?
  • Is there a difference between morally right and wrong actions (or values, or institutions)? Which actions are right and which are wrong? Are values absolute or relative? In general or particular terms, how should I live?
  • What is reality and what things can be described as real? What is the nature of those things? Do some things exist independent of our perception? What is the nature of space and time? What is the nature of thought and thinking? What is it to be a person?
  • What is it to be beautiful? How do beautiful things differ from the everyday? What is Art?

In Ancient Greek philosophy, these five broad types of questions were respectively called analytical or logical, epistemological, ethical, metaphysical and aesthetic. They are not the only subjects of philosophical inquiry. Aristotle, who was the first to use this classification (as he believed that to call himself a sophist—literally, wise one—was immodest), also considered politics, modern-day physics, geography, biology, meteorology and astronomy as branches of philosophical investigation. The Greeks, through the influence of Socrates and his method, developed a tradition of analysis that divided a subject into its components to understand it better.

Motives, goals and methods

The word “philosophy” is derived from the ancient Greek philosophia which may be translated as “love of wisdom.” It suggests a vocation for questioning, learning and teaching. Philosophers are curious about the world, humanity, existence, values, understanding and the nature of things.

Philosophy can be distinguished from other disciplines by its methods of inquiry. Philosophers often frame their questions as problems or puzzles, in order to give clear examples of their doubts about a subject they find interesting, wonderful or confusing. Often these questions are about the assumptions behind a belief, or about methods by which people reason.

Philosophers typically frame problems in a logical manner, historically using syllogisms of traditional logic, since Frege and Russell increasingly using formal systems, such as predicate calculus, and then work towards a solution based on critical reading and reasoning. Like Socrates, they search for answers through discussion, responding to the arguments of others, or careful personal contemplation. Philosophers often debate the relative merits of these methods. For example, they may ask whether philosophical “solutions” are objective, definitive and say something informative about reality. On the other hand, they may ask whether these solutions give greater clarity or insight into the logic of language or, rather, act as personal therapy. Philosophers seek justification for the answers to their questions.

Language is the philosopher’s primary tool. In the analytic tradition, debates about philosophical method have been closely connected to debates about the relationship between philosophy and language. There is a similar concern in continental philosophy. Meta-philosophy, the “philosophy of philosophy,” studies the nature of philosophical problems, philosophical solutions and the proper method for getting from one to another. These debates are also connected to debates over language and interpretation.