Sheoli Lele ‘26 is a prospective math and philosophy double major. She uses her free time to paint, take photos around campus and debate. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.
The ancient Mesopotamians must have spent some of their free time thinking about whether altruism and selfishness can coexist. However, a quick Google search will tell you that philosophy originated in the 6th century B.C. with the ancient Greeks. Surely, something that has lived on for more than 26 centuries must bring us some sort of continuing benefit. Why else would the state spend hundreds of thousands annually to keep it alive in our college curriculum?
My heart breaks to think of the widespread opinion of the term “philosophy major,” which has become synonymous with “future unemployed homebody who strokes his overgrown beard and contemplates the cosmos all day.” I cannot speak for all philosophy majors when I say that this scenario is not my life’s plan, but what I will say is that immersing myself in classes that are focused on critical thinking and speculation will serve me better than many other majors would.
If I do my job right, I will convince you to think beyond the stereotypes of the present and to at least consider getting into the discipline that blows my mind. Here are four benefits to studying philosophy at the College of William and Mary.
First, philosophy applies to anything and everything. I have tried and failed to name something that could be better understood without the tools of philosophy. From poverty to artificial intelligence, the discipline helps inform our understanding of every dimension of life.
Before moving forward, it is necessary for me to distinguish between what I call “content majors” and “skill majors.” Degrees in content majors confirm that a graduate has a certain body of knowledge about a topic; biology is a good example. Degrees in skill majors verify that a graduate has developed a skill in college. The latter subgroup of majors is too often subject to criticism and condescension. This is because they guarantee less; having an English degree does not mean you have read all the world’s literature, but having a biology degree guarantees that you know the Krebs Cycle. Philosophy, for another example, is a “skill major” because it teaches us how to think, not what to think. Its methods are transferable to every field. That being said, I do acknowledge that my two-category system is overly simple — all majors require some combination of content knowledge and skill building.
Now to continue on, I believe that philosophy is a particularly good pairing with a hard science major. While science is our primary tool for gathering knowledge about our surroundings, philosophy provides the wisdom with which we can better navigate it. There is a reason that a core requirement of the College’s data science major is ethics in data science; it is dangerous to arm students with tools as powerful as machine learning without installing an understanding of its right and wrong uses.
Philosophy can also apply to your own life. During the spring semester of my freshman year, a friend told me about a rough patch she went through. Her father, instead of sending words of affirmation or showing up to campus to provide support, had sent her some books on stoic philosophy. My distaste went unexpressed.
A few weeks later, I found myself in a similar mess. Strangely, I felt that my friend’s father’s method was worth a try. Stoicism teaches us to develop strength of mind as a way to overcome hardships and not concern ourselves with what is out of our control. If you’re interested in this school of thought, I recommend that you check out Ryan Holiday’s “The Daily Stoic,” or “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius. Like many aspects of philosophy, stoicism is ancient in its origins yet applicable today.
The study of philosophy also helps with the navigation of day-to-day information. With the Age of the Internet, separating truth from fiction is a daily challenge. Unless we stay away from our phones and laptops (and friends), we cannot control what information we are exposed to. This need not be a bad thing if we can improve how we interpret and filter this information influx.
Philosophy presents us with an excellent way to deal with this: critical thinking. This term is constantly heard and rarely understood, but it can be defined as the evaluation of available facts through a questioning lens. It discourages us from accepting all that we hear. If we apply critical thinking, we can stop falling prey to information meant to take advantage of our biases.
You can also become a more interesting person by employing and studying philosophy. It is no surprise that the “deep talks” we chase in all of our relationships have philosophical roots. The questions that fuel these late-night introspections are the same ones that are broached more rigorously in philosophy classes. I feel a new awe every time I walk out of a philosophy course having discussed the origins of skepticism, the nature of personal identity or whether machines will ever match us in consciousness.
Now, I want to be clear: I do not seek to convert anyone who has taken and despised a philosophy class to major in it. To those who are interested in philosophy but are discouraged by what people say: I’m not asking you to give up anything else. The years of philosophical discussions with classmates (and hopefully, friends) are something that reading online posts will simply not give you.
And then there’s the many well-meaning relatives who will tell you to expect a future job at McDonald’s when you tell them you want to major in philosophy. Even though that will happen, all I ask is that you don’t let negative comments like these be the reason you knock a philosophy major off the table.