Getting Started in Philosophy

What is Philosophy?

Philosophy is unlike other academic disciplines, which typically have specific objects of study (biology is the study of living things, economics is the study of markets and voluntary exchange). Philosophy is defined instead by the questions it asks, which are typically demands for deeper explanations or justifications. How do we know what we claim to know? How do we tell right from wrong? What is there, ultimately, in the universe? How should we live our lives, and why? To do philosophy is to pose and appreciate the force of questions like these. 

Philosophical questions can be raised in any area of life, and thus about the objects and methods of any of the other disciplines. How do we know what those objects are, and how we should relate to them? Philosophy thus has a potential relation to any other discipline. For any discipline X, there can be a course on "Philosophy of X."


Why Study Philosophy?

In one sense, to do philosophy is just to be a reflective human being who wonders what matters in life. But to study philosophy as an academic discipline is to engage critically with the best reflections that human beings have produced about what truly matters. That means entertaining those reflections as arguments, as attempts to convince any rational person of some deeper truth. Argument is not the purpose of philosophy, but it is the method through which philosophy works. One studies philosophy to understand and critically evaluate the arguments that important philosophers have made.

Beyond the inherent intellectual interest of those arguments, philosophy is a demanding liberal arts discipline which sharpens your reading, writing, and thinking skills. These are the skills that employers of all sorts say they want, and it is certainly true that if you can understand what Plato, Kant, or Heidegger is saying, and why they are saying it, you are going to be able to understand any organization's business plan, and thus be in an excellent position to help advance it. Philosophy majors typically score very well on graduate admissions tests like the GRE and the LSAT. Because of the mutual emphasis on argumentation, many philosophy majors go on to law school, but the truth is that philosophy is excellent preparation for any advanced professional degree. 


What Courses Should I Start With?

Any of our 100-level courses is appropriate for a student with no prior classes in philosophy. If you have any thought of being a major or a minor, or even if you don't, a natural place to start is PHIL 101, Introduction to Philosophy, which gives you a sense of the different areas of philosophy. We also offer a number of course in practical or applied ethics: biomedical ethics, environmental ethics, ethics and sports, and the philosophy of sex and gender. Students in any major can benefit from Critical Thinking, or informal logic course. All of these courses provide general education credit in the humanities. For an alternative, you might consider Symbolic Logic, which studies the nature of argumentation in a formal way, and which provides general education credit in the humanities.

 

What If I Want More?

Once you have taken a course at the 100-level, here or elsewhere, you are ready for any 200-level course. (You will need to take at least two courses in philosophy before you can take a 300-level course.) You should strongly consider PHIL 201 or 202, our surveys of the history of ancient and modern philosophy, or PHIL 207, 208, and 209, our surveys of ethics, epistemology and metaphysics, and political philosophy. Philosophy of Law (PHIL 270) and Aesthetics (PHIL 280) are also very popular classes.

If you are ready to keep going beyond two courses, you might consider becoming a minor (six required courses) or even a major (eleven required courses, a relatively low number). Our major is flexible, and quite easy to combine with a second major or a minor. Majors should consider the option concentration in Philosophy, Politics, and Law, a joint program with Political Science that can be completed by adding only one extra course to your major program.

 

What if I Have Questions?

If you can't find the answer elsewhere on this website, just contact the department chair, Larry Krasnoff, by email at krasnoff@cofc.edu.