Many people have this impression that philosophy is all about pointless musings and abstractions, headachy nit-picking and really out-there topics. And it absolutely can be at times. But there is also a huge underestimation of philosophy’s benefits. Studying philosophy is by no means a waste of time, whether you’re doing it at an undergraduate, Masters or PhD level.
What you learn in your philosophy classes can end up translating into unique advantages in both your work and your life in general.
The Importance of Critical Thinking
One of the major skills you pick up in philosophy is critical thinking. This is the ability to interpret, analyse and evaluate ideas and arguments in order to gauge their proper merit. As people, we get things done through communicating our thoughts to others, whether in the workplace or in any of our other vital human interactions. Bad ideas are destructive in very real and tangible ways, while good ideas are the embryonic potential that can make life safer and more pleasant.
It cannot, therefore, be emphasised enough how important it is to be able to discriminate between bad ideas and good ideas.
The Benefits of Philosophy to Your Career Path
If you become the kind of person who is apt at discerning whether ideas and arguments are rational and logically justified, then you will be in a much better position to excel in your job. Work-related decisions often require the weighing up of benefits and risks and the ability to assess the evidence at hand. Critical thinking is central to effective oral and written communication, strategic planning, troubleshooting, problem-solving, and project management.
Being able to think clearly, logically and analytically is of great use to many professions. For example, critical thinking could benefit the development of your role as a teacher, barrister, solicitor, psychotherapist, journalist, civil servant, local government officer and marketing executive.
The study of ethics is another highly relevant aspect of philosophy, with definite applications in the workplace. Developing a particular interest in – and proficiency at – ethical reasoning can make you a suitable candidate for work in the charity sector. More broadly speaking, being ethically minded can make you a valuable asset for many organisations, as increasing numbers of companies are placing a high value on corporate social responsibility (CSR). Studying ethics as part of your philosophy course could make you want to make a real difference in the world by improving the social and environmental impact of businesses.
Prioritising what is morally right and wrong can also shape our career path and motivate us to follow professions or work for companies that we find highly meaningful and fulfilling. It nudges us towards organisations that seek to make a positive, lasting difference in the world and away from industries with more pernicious effects. Having a moral framework can instil the drive and passion that makes you want to excel at your work every day.
Seeing Things Clearly (or as Clearly as Possible)
When it comes to navigating through the multifarious complexities and nuances of life, having unclouded vision is of the utmost importance. While we may not realistically be able to attain some ideal of pure clarity, where we understand life situations perfectly, attempting to think as rationally as possible will lead to better decisions.
The Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2016 was ‘post-truth’. The term refers to a culture in which facts and truth are deprioritised and superseded in the shaping of public opinion in favour of personal belief and appeals to emotion.
The Irish President, Michael D. Higgins, has said that we live in a post-truth society, and believes that the study of philosophy will enable citizens “to discriminate between truth language and illusory rhetoric”. This is essential in our current times, where we are seeing a rise in anti-intellectualism, which is feeding populist movements.
Critical thinking – the ability to spot good arguments from bad ones – can help us realise who is trustworthy and dependable. This applies to our personal lives, as well as our political lives. Philosophy emphasises the resolution of problems through carefully articulated thoughts and justifications, rather than violence or verbal abuse.
Logic is another core component of philosophy. Having the capacity to sort out good arguments from logical fallacies is especially useful when it comes to the world of politics and the media. Just because an argument is fallacious doesn’t mean it won’t persuade us and move us in a certain direction. It takes a certain level of skill and awareness to notice the faulty reasoning at play.
In post-truth politics, emotion is used instead of facts, evidence and reason in order to win an argument. An argument based on this is a logical fallacy known as an appeal to emotion (argumentum ad passiones). Emotions significantly influenced both the Brexit vote and Trump’s campaigning strategy that won him the presidential election.
We have seen how political debate has degenerated into talking points, rather discussions about the details of policy. When voters aren’t familiar with what constitutes a logical argument, it makes it so much easier for the worst among us to get into positions of power.
Other logical fallacies that are worth being mindful of include argumentum ad populum: appealing to the masses. It is also called the ‘bandwagon fallacy’, and it’s when the merit of an argument is based on how many people believe it. Obviously, just because the majority of people believe something is true, this doesn’t make it so. This sort of argument drives populism.
Argumentum ad hominem is the rebuttal of an argument based on the character of the person making the argument. Political debates are often ugly insult-slinging matches, rather than calm, collected and careful considerations of the arguments being made. Trump relied heavily on ad hominem attacks in his campaign. How much support would Trump lose if we could all see how truly flawed his arguments were?
A straw man is another commonly deployed logical fallacy. It involves misrepresenting, distorting or exaggerating someone’s position in order to make it easier to attack, and thus give the impression that you’ve refuted their argument when you haven’t actually done so. One of the best and most recent examples of this is the interview that Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News conducted with Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. In this viral interview, Newman made a remarkable number of straw man arguments, betrayed by the fact that she kept saying “So what you’re saying is…” while proceeding to twist what Peterson was actually saying.
People put words into each other’s mouths all the time. The problem is that this unclear way of communicating with people creates divisiveness, tension and antagonism that doesn’t need to be there. Understanding is what we should be aiming for and promoting if we want to excel at life.
Living an Ethical Life
The pursuit of an ethical life can also aid us in all the various dilemmas, moral quandaries and lifestyle options that we face. There are countless ethical issues in the world, some of them pertaining to existential threats, such as nuclear warfare and climate change. Philosophical ignorance will be to our detriment when we – as individuals, groups, leaders and societies – consider key arguments that have the interests of present and future generations at stake; human and non-human alike. In a more narrow sense, caring deeply about virtue, compassion, moral value, and moral duty can make us care more deeply about our interpersonal relationships. Striving to be a moral person reliably benefits those around us, as well as ourselves in the process.
Philosophy is by no means elitist – or at least, it shouldn’t be. Being able to spot irrational, unethical and poorly thought out arguments and actions is an essential life skill. Philosophy is a subject that can enrich all of our lives, and the sooner we understand why the better.