Explaining the Philosophy Major

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For someone who doesn’t feel very comfortable with small talk, college has been a great help. By the time eleventh grade rolled around, conversations with strangers were easy. Why? Because I didn’t have to start them.

“What schools are you looking at?” “Have you applied?” “Have you gotten in?” Once I entered college, the questions changed only slightly: “What’s your major?” “What dorm are you living in?” “Are you in a sorority?” “I bet you love it there!”

 

And so on. But all this changed when I chose to major in philosophy. Now, all questions have narrowed to one: “What are you going to do with that?”

I’m never sure how to respond. Is this more small talk, or do they want a real answer?

Here’s the truth: With philosophy, I am going to do absolutely everything.

The word “philosophy,” at its Greek root, means “love of wisdom.” This love, at first glance, seems entirely impractical — maybe even a bit selfish. Why spend our precious time in pursuit of something so abstract? Philosophers aren’t going to save the world, we’re told, so what good do they do sitting around thinking?

I would respond that philosophy is actually the most practical subject one can study. This does not mean that other fields are insignificant or irrelevant, only that philosophy is the root of all subjects. Really a scientist at his core, the philosopher seeks to understand. While the hard scientist spends time studying (say) how a leaf grows, the philosopher begins with more fundamental questions: Why and how is the leaf there at all?

Philosophy is human curiosity at its most human level. Animals can perceive and comprehend certain things about the world, but they will never ponder why the world is here. Only humans have the ability to love and seek wisdom; in that way, philosophy is the most human of the humanities. Indeed, all the humanities have a bit of philosophy within them.

 

In my case, I chose philosophy after switching from music to religion to drama to creative writing to English to psychology to anthropology . . . and back around again. I settled, finally, because I realized that my attraction to all of those things was rooted in my love of wisdom. I’ve always felt drawn to express myself and what I’ve come to know about the world (however foolish and naïve those thoughts might have been). I have always questioned, always wondered, always asked. I was a born philosopher, and so that was what I had to pursue.

I am now a third-year student at the University of Georgia, and lovers of wisdom are in short supply. The overwhelming mentality here is directed toward the practical and immediate — why “waste time” exploring the nature of suffering when there are real people suffering all over? I understand the objection. Philosophy is a patient endeavor, and it doesn’t produce results right away. The world needs biologists and doctors and businessmen and lawyers. But what if that’s all there were? Would we not be a sad bunch of automatons, doing and doing, living as long as we might like and as comfortably, but without much meaning? Philosophy doesn’t replace the other fields of study — rather, it holds them up, just as a foundation sustains the house built upon it.

Of course, the study of philosophy has its risks. When you take your first steps toward Lady Wisdom, she quickly draws you in. Once enchanted, there’s no going back. She will demand more of you. She will sometimes make you uncomfortable, anxious, confused — even doubtful. She won’t help much with the resume and is unlikely to land you a high-paying job. She’s not going to make you look cool at parties (generally speaking) and will probably make you a few enemies. But like all true loves, she’s worth it.

That’s why I’m a philosophy major. Some of my classes are frustrating and less like pursuits of wisdom than exercises in relativistic indoctrination. But I have learned that it doesn’t ultimately matter. If I am a philosopher — a true lover of Wisdom, reading the works of those who have loved her, too — I will see through any counterfeit the world puts before me. The lover, after all, recognizes her beloved.

By

Elizabeth Hanna is a third year philosophy student at the University of Georgia.

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