Why I Majored in Philosophy Despite Everyone Telling Me Not to


In response to the casual question "so what's your major?" I often draw empty stares, confused gazes, and unmitigated skepticism. "What are you going to do with a philosophy degree?" Aside from attaining the requisite qualification for becoming a barista, earning a degree in the humanities is about more than preparing for the next stage of life; learning philosophy is a process of introspection and reflection about the world around us. I study philosophy not to become a marketable job-candidate, but to become a more whole human being.

Where I attend college, Wake Forest, we conventionally interpret the seal of our school, pro humanitate, to mean "for the service of humanity." We come to learn so that we may be better equipped to create and inhabit an ethical world. This translation however has received more keen attention from former Professor of Classical Languages Robert Ulery. As the Latin motto pro humanitate is inscribed under a shield containing the letters chi and ro meaning Christ, and alpha and omega ("I am alpha and omega, the beginning and the ending,") the emblem gains a distinctly theological meaning.

Professor Ulery's translation is this: "God in Christ for education and learning and the truly human virtue that arises from it."

Professor Ulery cites a 1936 essay by George P. Hayes in getting closer to the true meaning of humanitas: "A person becomes 'human' in Cicero's sense only as he masters the passions and places them in the service of reason.  'Humanity' is something to be worked for, to be achieved through moral struggle and self-discipline.  One has to be 'molded into humanism' or to 'learn how to become human.' To be 'human' is not a birthright, it is not a state or condition of the natural, undisciplined self; and it does not consist primarily in feeling but in reason, which guides the feelings to human ends or purposes."

The point of this passage is to realize a basic premise about education: I learn not solely so that I am better able to serve humanity (which is a nice benefit,) but so that I can "learn how to become human." 

Aside from existential questions (What is the purpose of life? Why are we here?) that brush some as being overly abstract, philosophy is probably the most practical subject there is, from politics, economics, history, science, to the more personal topic of ethics and religion. Philosophy knows no bounds.

Here is one example I love telling my business major friends: capitalism as we know it today was given its framework by a moral philosopher Adam Smith, who famously wrote The Wealth of Nations.

Further, an education in philosophy has made a significant mark on some of American history's greatest figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

For some of us philosophy majors, we are just genuinely curious about some notions in life that are often taken for granted. For instance, is our ability to have rational thought just a product of our brainwaves, the interaction of different neurotransmitters? Or is there something more going on, something "supernatural" that allowed humans the capacity for rational dialogue? Above all, philosophy seeks truth. The purpose of philosophy is to get at the truth of one's place in nature. 

More importantly than the relentless pursuit of truth, however, is the savoring of the opportunity to learn more about who we are as individuals. Such a process allows one to better locate his place in the community, and how he might best benefit that community. American psychologist and philosopher William James once remarked, "philosophy is the expression of a man's most intimate character." Learning what our views are about the existence of a god or gods, or the proper role of the state, allows contemplation that reveals more truly who we are as persons. 

Philosophy, while being an intricate pursuit into "the love of knowledge" (philo-loving, sofia-knowledge,) is only fruitful insofar as it opens one's mind. In an information-overloaded world chalked full of polarizing opinions, we could use a few more open-minded people.

But hey, is it really worth it to spend upwards of $60,000 a year to read books that will still be around after graduating? Well, for some with eyes for graduate school it may be.

(Credit: Pleas and Excuses

Philosophy majors tend to be imaginative thinkers (surprise, surprise) but also rooted in logic and sound argumentation. Defending philosophical positions requires both the ability to grasp tough concepts and the capactity to lucidly write on behalf of those stances. Unsurprisingly, then, philosophy majors tend to perform well on the LSAT as well.

(And it should be noted that despite the nay-sayers law school appears to be a sound economic investment in the long run.)

So why did I major in philosophy? Besides my agreement with Thomas Jefferson's statement "I cannot live without books" and an intense curiosity about the nature of reality, God or gods, and what constitutes an authentic life, I prefer to spend my college years searching, exploring, and wondering, as opposed to training to become an "asset" in the file cabinet of a "human resource" department. Rock on fellow baristas, rock on. As Nietzsche said, "God is dead," but that doesn't mean the humanities have to follow suit.