Why Study Philosophy
This page is designed for:
(i) school-leavers arriving at UCD, or
(ii) first-year students already at UCD.
(iii) parents of students interested in studying philosophy!
Philosophy is unfamiliar as a subject, since it is not taught in very many secondary schools. This is ironic, because it’s actually the oldest university subject of them all! The first universities in Athens, 2000 years ago, only taught philosophy – and we still study the works of the great Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle to this day, since they were asking the same questions that we are.
Philosophy is about nothing less than the biggest questions of life: How do I know what is real? What is the point of the world? How can a bunch of neurons be conscious? If an event is in the past, where has it gone? Does God exist?...
All right, so those questions are pretty big. Where do we start? Well, one place is to take a complicated thing and ask what it means, exactly. Take 'knowledge’. What does it mean to know something, exactly? Of course we all use the word ‘know’ in plenty of everyday contexts, we all know what knowledge is. But the philosopher asks: “what’s going on here?” The philosopher tries to look beneath the surface of our objects and words and practices.
What are the different types of knowledge? What are the different sources of knowledge? What is the difference between the idea of knowledge and a similar idea like ‘belief’ or ‘faith’? How do I know that I know something? What is the difference between knowing that this chair is blue, knowing that Canberra is the capital of Australia, knowing that 37+42=79, and knowing that theft is morally wrong? These are questions that have troubled some of the greatest minds in history, and we study their attempts to answer them.
Philosophers are interested in difficult things from all areas of human life and enquiry: time, consciousness, miracles, freedom, emotion, causation, authenticity, evil, beauty… In that sense we overlap with every other subject in the university! We have a philosophy of art, a philosophy of science, a philosophy of history, a philosophy of mathematics, a philosophy of economics, among others.
In doing philosophy, you develop certain critical skills in reading and listening, in writing and speaking, and these skills will help you in whatever career you go on to do. With a philosophy BA in your back pocket, you'll be able to smell a bad argument from a politician a hundred paces away! Some philosophy students also find deeper answers to questions about how to live, about what to aim for, and even about the meaning of life!
Philosophy is often a question of temperament. Some people are interested in these sorts of questions, some people are not. Some people find philosophers annoying, and call them pedantic, bloody-minded, nit-pickers and hair-splitters! We prefer to think that philosophers do admirable work in clarifying complex situations, in spelling out assumptions and implications, in speaking truth to power.
It is hard to describe philosophy from scratch. It is much better to watch it in action. Come along to one of the first-year lectures in the first week of the semester and see for yourself. We might not be able to answer all your questions -- but we can question all your answers!
For another discussion see the following: