Updated on Friday 1 March 2013
Unlike almost every other career field, philosophy is one that remains a total mystery for most people. International students who may want to study philosophy in the U.S. probably have many questions about the field, like, "What is philosophy?" and "What do philosophers do?" Students who want to study philosophy in the U.S. find that they benefit greatly from learning more about the field and the tough questions philosophers ask.
Most people have no answer for the question, "What is Philosophy?" International students who are considering graduate and undergraduate degrees in the United States probably wonder, just like everyone else, "What is philosophy?" Unlike other fields, philosophy is a topic that most people know little or nothing about. The average person has no idea what philosophers do or why they do it. But, students who are trying to figure out what degrees, minors, and courses to pursue should have an idea of what their options are, which is why this article will answer exactly that question, "What is philosophy?"
Most students, when looking through a degree catalogue have a pretty good idea what each degree does, what kinds of jobs one can get with the degree, and what people in the field do. For instance, there is little question as to the general purpose of a degree in engineering, computer science, or business. Although one may not know the specifics of the coursework, there is still little mystery as to what the general purpose, goal, and career path are for those degrees. Philosophy, however, seems to be a total mystery to most students. International students are often more aware of what philosophy is, but they may not know how philosophy is approached in the United States and what they can do with a degree in philosophy from the United States.
So, "What is philosophy?" Philosophy is a word that we have inherited from the ancient Greeks. Philosophy translates into "The love of wisdom." It is generally agreed that philosophy started with an ancient Milesian Greek named Thales. Thales was one of the first people to try to theorize and understand what the fundamental nature of the universe is. Thales was not the first person to make claims about the fundamental nature of the Universe, but what made Thales special was that he made no claim to divine or revealed knowledge. For example, in the Theogony another ancient Greek, Hesiod, explains the creation of the universe, but he does not try to justify his explanation. Hesiod just tells the reader that the Muses divinely inspired his knowledge. Thales, on the other hand, tries to use the evidence around him to explain his answer—his answer isn't assumed, it is justified.
The origin of philosophy involves very difficult questions like, "Where did the universe come from?" One might argue, "But that's a scientific question!" And, they would be right, it is a scientific question. However, science started with philosophy. For example physics started when a philosopher named Democritus asked the question, "How many times can something be divided?" and came up with the idea of an atom as the smallest possible particle. When he came up with the idea of the atom, many of his students and fellow philosophers disagreed with him and tried to provide evidence to prove him wrong. And that disagreement and dialogue is what makes something philosophy, not just the idea, but a dialogue.
Philosophy is, most fundamentally, about dialogue. It might be the dialogue that a person has in her head, with herself, when she tries to answer a difficult question, or it might be the dialogue that she has with others when she tries to understand or disagree with an idea. But, when Thales came up with this idea and then his student Anaximander disagreed, philosophy was born, because the ability to disagree and improve an idea is something that we can do with every idea. Sometimes, people are so sure that what they believe is true, or inspired, that there is no room for conversation, as in the case of Hesiod. But the power of philosophy, and often the challenge, is that every idea and claim is up for disagreement. This is why international students studying philosophy in the U.S. are likely to enjoy philosophy, because their different and new perspectives are very welcome in a field that thrives on original ideas.
International students may find many aspects of philosophy fun and fulfilling. Philosophers not only enjoy different perspectives and new ideas, but much philosophy is written in languages other than English. So international philosophy students may find some original source documents more accessible than students native to the U.S. Additionally, philosophy offers the opportunity to focus on improving communication skills, both written and verbal, as philosophy requires a great deal of both. Most importantly, philosophy offers the opportunity for any student to focus on the most fundamental questions in life, "who am I?" "Why am I here?" "Where am I?" and "What should I do?"
For example, one major question that philosophers deal with is the question of, "What is right?" Ethics is an essential branch of philosophy. As a result, many people who study philosophy pursue careers in law, politics, or policy-making. Although most people think that figuring out what is right is easy, it is actually a very complex question. Consider a question like whether or not it is right to steal food to save a starving child, or a question like whether is it is right to lie to someone to make them feel better. Obviously, there are questions that are matters of life and death like, euthanasia, capital punishment, abortion, animal rights, and war. It is philosophers who struggle to come up with the best answers to difficult ethical questions.
Because the questions are so difficult, international students, as well as everyone else will struggle greatly with them. However, that is the joy of philosophy; there are always more difficult questions to answer. And every answer leads to new questions. "What is philosophy?" … Philosophy is a lifetime of questioning, discussing, and thinking. The rewards to this life are greater insight, deeper knowledge, the ability to think more deeply and critically, and the knowledge that one will never get bored. Any international student who is interested in improving in critical thinking and challenging him or herself with the most difficult questions humans have been able to conceive, should think about studying philosophy. Even just one philosophy course may radically affect how a person thinks about how life and how she views herself and the world.