Studying Philosophy at NYU

Welcome to the study of philosophy at NYU.

These notes will tell you a bit about what to expect in your introductory course and how studying philosophy can contribute to your education and your career. Philosophy examines foundational questions — questions whose answers are presupposed in almost everything we think and do. For example: we assume that there is a difference between appearance and reality, between meaning and nonsense, between knowledge and ignorance, between right and wrong, between men and women, and that we understand these differences more or less. We assume that each of us is a conscious, rational being with a remembered past and envisioned future. We assume that the universe runs on laws that we can discover, and that society ought to run on laws that we collectively adopt. Philosophers expose and probe such assumptions, seeking a more explicit understanding of things previously taken for granted.

Philosophy belongs to the humanities and shares with the other humanities disciplines a focus on human concerns, but it also differs from the others in some respects. Some areas of philosophy can seem more like social sciences such as psychology or linguistics than like English literature or art history; some areas of philosophy are a bit like math or physics. All areas of philosophy require techniques of reading, writing, and speaking that are not specifically taught in any other discipline, inside the humanities or out.

Experienced philosophy students find these skills extremely valuable across the curriculum and in their later careers as well, as we will explain below. For the beginning student, however, they require patience. In considering foundational questions, we quickly get lost if we don’t formulate the questions clearly, spell out our reasoning systematically, and take care to say exactly what we mean. Don’t be surprised if at first you get indifferent results with the reading and writing skills that have served you well in other disciplines. With practice, you will get the hang of it.

One of the best ways to speed your progress in the subject is to participate in class. Class discussion is your opportunity to learn how to do philosophy by trial and error — that is, by putting philosophical ideas into your own words and seeing what happens. What happens can sometimes seem discouraging: philosophy proceeds by argumentation, and some people find philosophical discussion a bit too argumentative. Don’t deprive yourself of the opportunity to sharpen your skills by participating. You will get better at it, and your smarty-pants fellow students aren’t as smart as they think.

You may initially find the assigned readings difficult. Philosophical prose is slow going, for good reason. The author has put very careful thought into each sentence, the logical connections between sentences, and the arc of a continuous argument across many sentences and paragraphs. You will often need to read assigned selections more than once or twice, taking notes. With your feet on the floor. Without the help of loud music. Or beer.

When you start to write your first paper in philosophy, you may find it useful to consult some of the guides available on the Internet:

Note that the first two on this list are by NYU professors.

Finally: be prepared to feel like you don’t understand even when you do. Sometimes you will follow a piece of philosophical reasoning as it goes along but suddenly feel mystified again after it’s done. For a moment there, the clouds parted and all was clear, and then the sky clouded over again. Don’t conclude that you’ve failed: this is often what understanding philosophy is like. You will come to take satisfaction in your ability to puzzle afresh through matters that never stop puzzling you.

We hope that you will want to follow up your introductory course with further study in one or more branches of philosophy. The main branches include metaphysics (questions about the structure of reality); ethics (questions about the good, the right, and the virtuous); epistemology (questions about knowledge, truth, and inquiry); philosophy of mind (questions about cognition, consciousness, and emotion); philosophy of language (questions about meaning and its linguistic expression); political philosophy (questions about justice, liberty, and the state); and the history of philosophy, which enriches the contemporary study of all these questions with the contributions of great thinkers from other times and places.

In addition to these purely philosophical fields, there are interdisciplinary fields in which philosophers tackle foundational questions from other disciplines. These fields include philosophy of science (including philosophies of physics, biology, cognitive science, and the social sciences); philosophy of mathematics; philosophy of art; philosophy of law; and philosophy of religion. Many academic disciplines that are now well established as mature fields of inquiry in their own right began as branches of philosophy. Among philosophy’s most important tools is logic—another field of inquiry originated by philosophers.

The philosophy curriculum is not sequential in the manner of math or economics. After taking an introductory course, you can take further courses in almost any order (with the exception of the highest-level, “Topics” courses, each of which carries one additional pre-requisite in a relevant area). Although there is no prescribed order of subjects, we can recommend logic (PHIL-UA 70) and the basic courses in the history of philosophy (PHIL-UA 20 and 21) as useful next steps after your introduction.

Those three courses fulfill requirements for the major in philosophy. Additional requirements are: a course in metaphysics, epistemology, or the philosophy of science; a course in ethics, political philosophy, or the nature of value; a course in the philosophy of mind, language, or consciousness; a “Topics” course; and two further electives, in any area. Note that History of Ancient Philosophy, is taught only in the fall and History of Modern Philosophy only in the spring. Courses satisfying the other requirements are available every semester.

A minor in philosophy requires only three courses beyond your introduction: one in the history of philosophy; one in ethics, political philosophy, or value; and one in metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, or logic. What is a philosophy major good for? Of course, it’s a good start on an examined life — a life of continued reading, reflection, and conversation about fundamental issues. But students are right to wonder how their choice of a college major will affect their career prospects. Not to worry: research shows that majoring in philosophy is excellent preparation for a wide range of careers. Most philosophy majors go on to law school, medical school, or careers in fields such as journalism, public affairs, or the arts; a few go on to graduate programs in philosophy. Philosophy majors consistently get the highest average scores of any majors on the verbal and analytical reasoning scores of the GRE2 they rank in the top five of majors on the LSAT and GMAT2 and they have a higher mid-career median salary not only than all other humanities majors but than many science majors as well, including those in biology, chemistry, and geology. Indeed, those earning in the 75th percentile of philosophy majors at mid-career earn more than those in the 75th percentile of majors in computer science, aerospace engineering, and all pure sciences other than physics.3 In a world where many college graduates will have more than one career, and specific job skills will continually become obsolete, employers increasingly value the all-purpose skills of analysis and expression that are taught in philosophy.

If you have further questions about the Department or its programs, you can contact the Director of Undergraduate Studies, who is listed on the Department’s home page.  

 


1 The statistics are published annually by the blog Physics Central. Statistics for the year 2014 are at http://physicsbuzz.physicscentral.com/2014/08/best-gre-scores-by-major-2014-edition.html.

2 In 2013, Philosophy ranked second among fields with at least 500 majors taking the LSAT: http://excessofdemocracy.com/blog/2014/4/the-best-prospective-law-students-read-homer. Philosophy scored fifth when fields with as few as 200 were included (sixth including Classics, with only 190 test-takers). For the GMAT, see http://blogs.lmu.edu/philosophy/the-most-important-reason-to-study-philosophy/philosophy-majors-rule-the-tests/mean-gmat-scores-by-major/(source data at http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED543174.pdf).

3 http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/info-Degrees_that_Pay_you_Back-sort.html. At the 90th percentile, philosophy majors earn as much as majors in electrical engineering.