What exactly is philosophy?
Philosophy is the academic discipline devoted to the systematic study of questions through the use of conceptual analysis and logic. Conceptual analysis is when one attempts to clarify a vague or difficult concept. It turns out that many of the concepts that we use every day are actually confused and vague--and we don't even realize it until we start doing philosophy! Try for a moment to define the following everyday terms: free will, God, morally right, time, law, ought, happiness, objective, subjective, knowledge, etc. It turns out that it is actually very hard to say exactly what any of these things are.
Why does it matter? It matters because clarifying our thinking is necessary if we are going to be able to answer some of the most important questions of life. For example, you have to know what happiness is before you can answer the question "What can I do to be happy?" Once we have clarified our concepts, we then use logic to defend various positions.
Why study philosophy?
There are both personal and professional reasons to study philosophy. The main reason to study philosophy is that you just want to know! Does God exist? Can I prove that I am not in the Matrix? What is a just society? Studying philosophy will also deepen your character as well as your understanding of the world around you. It will teach you to question previously unquestioned assumptions and to "think in a straight line." Oh yeah, it is also a lot of fun! Professionally, studying philosophy will help you to look at old problems in new ways and to "think outside the box." This talent can help you in almost every area of life and work. This is why many people who do not want to go to graduate school in philosophy nevertheless pick up philosophy as a second major.
Why study philosophy at Eastern?
There are a bunch of good reasons to study philosophy with us at Eastern Illinois University. First, philosophy majors are a small and extremely talented group. So you can get as much personal attention as you would like. This is not a small thing because philosophy is a discipline devoted to dialogue and debate. So the ability to debate with professors on a regular basis is essential for a good philosophical education. Second, the faculty at Eastern are all respected and accomplished philosophers. Many have published books with top presses and articles in leading journals. While academically strong, the faculty are also diverse. Pretty much no matter what your interests are, there is someone in the philosophy department to talk to about it. Third, the philosophy department seeks to promote an informal environment with maximum discussion and debate. Thus, professors are regularly hanging out in the department office and attend the weekly departmental lunches and meetings.
What if I am interested in something that is not regularly offered as a course?
That is no problem. Just speak to one of the professors about doing an independent study. There are often many independent studies going on during any semester. These are one-on-one courses where one student works closely with one professor on some topic of mutual interest.
I am reading a really cool philosophy book about X, who can I talk to about this?
That is great! We encourage students to go their own way and discover things for themselves. If you want to find someone to talk to about it, please feel free to stop by the department office during the semester to attend one of the philosophy department lunches.
By informally poking around students and faculty will quickly be able to direct you to the most knowledgeable person.
Are there any "wrong answers" in philosophy?
Actually, the answer is "yes." Some beliefs are just wrong. If I believe that I am Napoleon when I am not (perhaps I have taken some unfortunate mushrooms), then my belief is false. If I believe that 654 + 537 = 3475, then I am wrong. This is true also in philosophy. Consider, for example, the existence of God. Either God exists or he (perhaps, it) does not exist. If he exists and you think that he doesn't, then your belief is false. If God does not exist and you think that you does, then your belief is likewise wrong. The whole reason that we spend so much time thinking and debating about the existence of God is that some of us *are* wrong. The hard part is finding out which view is the wrong one.
Notice how easy everything would be if simply believing something made it so. Then I could bring God into existence just by believing in him. I could also make myself a billionaire by simply believing it. I would decide, "I believe that I am a billionaire" and *poof* billions of dollars would suddenly find their way into my bank account. Alas, this is not the case! So believing something does not make it true. We have to work hard to find out what the truth is.
Now in philosophy class you will never be graded on whether or not your views on controversial questions (such as, the existence of God) agrees with the professor (perhaps, after all, you are right and the professor is wrong!) Instead in philosophy classes the grade is based on how well you understand the readings, the clarity of your thinking, and the logic of your arguments.
Why read old books?
Philosophy is steeped in history. No matter what philosophical question you are currently interested in, there are likely many great thinkers who have also pondered the same question. Philosophers always begin by studying and debating with these old maters. Why? For a few reasons:
- First, these great thinkers are some of the smartest people that ever lived. Their thoughts are almost always interesting and profound.
- Second, one of the best ways to progress on a philosophical problem is to debate with a great mind. So start arguing against Plato, Aristotle, or Berkeley and the likely result will be some pretty good philosophy.
- Third, given our place in history there are certain prejudices that are so common we don't even notice them (concerning science or relativism, for example). Reading older thinkers (who do not share these assumptions) can help to reveal one's own prejudices. In some sense to only read contemporary authors is to be temporally parochial--it is like living in a small town and never taking to anyone outside of it. What are the odds that the best philosophers ever are living today? What are the odds that the best thinkers in the world live in your town?
How does philosophy relate to science?
Some people say things like, "Modern science can answer all questions." But a moments reflection reveals that this can't be right. Whether God exits is not (and cannot be) a scientific question. Whether abortion is immoral is not (and cannot be) a scientific question. Whether I should become an artist or a lawyer is not (and cannot be) a scientific question. There are many important questions which cannot be answered through scientific means.
Furthermore, scientists themselves make (sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously) philosophical assumptions when they are doing their work. Whether these assumptions are right or not cannot itself be a scientific question.
Having said that, scientific results are sometime relevant to philosophical questions. So philosophers are regularly talking to scientists about their work to try and find information that can help them solve philosophical problems.
How does philosophy relate to literature?
Many of the greatest authors were also important philosophical thinkers in their own right (consider, for example, Dickens, Dostoyevesky, or T.S. Eliot). These authors often thought hard about some of the great minds and their literary work shows it. Thus, if you are interested in literature then a knowledge of philosophy can be a huge asset. Furthermore, if you are a writer then studying philosophy can help you to deepen your views and "find your own point of view." Many students choose to major in English and philosophy for just this reason. Many of our students also go one to English graduate programs or become English teachers.
What are the major areas of philosophy?
There are four major areas of philosophy (Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, Logic) and four major historical time periods (Ancient, Medieval, Modern, Contemporary).
Important work in each of the major areas was done in each of the historical time period (thus, there is Ancient Metaphysics, Medieval Logic, Modern Ethics, etc.) Below is a short description of each area and time period:
- Metaphysics - These are questions related to the nature of reality. What ultimately exists? Is everything material? Does God exist? Do I have a soul? Does time "flow"?
- Epistemology - These are questions related to the nature of knowledge. What is the difference between simply believing something and knowing it? Is there anything we can know with certainty? Could I be in the Matrix?
- Ethics - These are questions related to what we *ought* to do. Is abortion immoral? What is the difference between morally right and morally wrong acts? Is killing worse than letting someone die? If so, why?
- Logic - These are questions related to what inferences are valid. For example, for the claim that "Socrates is a man" and the claim that "All men are mortal" one can validly infer that "Socrates is mortal." There are many inferences, however, that seem valid but are not. Logic is concerned with identifying complicated chains of valid inferences. All areas of philosophy employ logic.
- Ancient - This time period covers roughly 500 b.c. - 500 c.e. in Western philosophy. Namely, from the height of Greece to the fall of Rome (which formally took place on 476 c.e.). Some of the major thinkers in the ancient world were Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Seneca, and Boethius.
- Medieval - This time period covers roughly 500 c.e. - 1500 c.e. in Western Philosophy. Namely, from the fall of Rome to the Scientific Revolution. Much of this philosophy is interested in combining Christianity with Ancient Philosophy (esp., Plato and Aristotle). Some of the major thinkers in the medieval world were Aquinas and Augustine.
- Modern - This time period covers roughly 1500 c.e. - 1900 c. e. in Western Philosophy. Namely, from the beginning of the Scientific Revolution to the Twentieth Century. The word "modern" is used somewhat differently in philosophy to pick out the distinct way of thinking that begin with Descartes, Montaigne, Newton, and others. Some of the major thinkers in the modern world were Descartes, Spinoza, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche.
- Contemporary - This time period is what is happening now. Contemporary philosophy also generally includes Twentieth Century Philosophy (many of these trends continue to develop today.) Contemporary philosophy roughly divides into two schools: Continental (French, German) Philosophy and Analytic (American, British) Philosophy. Continental Philosophers are primarily interested in questions related to finding meaning in life and Analytic Philosophers are primarily interested in the analysis of concepts (esp., scientific concepts.) Major Continental thinkers include Heidegger, Derrida, and Deleuze. Major Analytic thinkers include Wittgenstein, Quine, Austin, and Putnam.
What can one do with a philosophy degree?
There are many things one can do with a philosophy degree. Some philosophy students are "free spirits" who travel, read, and seek to live a non-traditional life. Many students travel in Europe after graduation for a year or two before entering the workforce. Many others go to law school. Still others study philosophy for a few years and then go directly into the workforce and use their philosophical talents in solving "real world" problems in business. Others go on to do graduate work in politics, English, philosophy, or any number of other subjects. Many students also double major in philosophy and something else (such as, physics, mathematics, English, education, business, etc.) and use their philosophical education to work creatively within these related fields.
In short, philosophy is a flexible major and whatever you want to do with your life – especially if you don't yet know – studying philosophy can help you live a richer and more rewarding life.
Can I add philosophy as a second major?
Absolutely! Many of our majors are also majoring in other subjects (such as, English, physics, education, or business). The requirements for the major are not too extensive (only 39 hours) and there is a great deal of flexibility. Thus, the major can be adjusted to suit the interests of each student. See our Major/Minor page
for more on this topic.
I am interested in law school, should I be a philosophy major?
Yes, you should probably seriously consider picking up a Philosophy Major. Philosophy majors are some of the most successful students in law school (because they have spent four or five years learning logic and critical reasoning skills.)
Furthermore, there are at least two professors (Sterling and Waller) who have serious interests in Philosophy of Law. Also we have been extremely successful at getting our students into good law schools. See the Philosophy Department Homepage for a list of schools that recent graduates have attended.
I am interested in graduate school in philosophy, what should I be doing now?
There are many good philosophy programs (for both the M.A. and Ph.D.) and many good reasons for going to graduate school. Some students go because they want to solve a certain problem or deepen their thinking before going on to something else. Others want to professors of philosophy. Whatever your reasons for wanting to go onto graduate school in philosophy you should know that it is not easy. Philosophy is a competitive field and there are many more applicants than their are spots in graduate school.
Thus, things that you should be doing now:
- Get good grades. You GPA will be a very important part of your application.
- Study for the GRE. This is a the Graduate Records Exam. There are books that will help you prepare for this exam. You should study for this exam for probably 6 months to a year. Your score on this exam will probably be the single most important factor when getting into graduate school. Score in the top 5%-10% and you will have many more options.
- Write papers for as many philosophy classes as you can. You will need a good writing sample.
- Get to know at least three of your professors. You will need three letters of recommendation.
- Get advice from your professors about what programs are right for you.
How many philosophy majors/minor are there at Eastern?
At any one time there are usually about 30 majors with around 50 minors. Given these small numbers everyone gets to know everyone else. Thus, the philosophy majors tend to be a tight knit group that not only studies together, but also hangs out together.
Have any of the philosophy faculty written any poetry about salty lunch meats?
Funny you should ask! Prof. Brian Beakley has published two Haiku about Spam that are included in the collection Spam-Ku: Tranquil Reflections on Luncheon Loaf
(Harper Perrenial, 1998). The poems in this book were called "Clever, funny ... [and] profound" by the New York Times.