What can students learn from Philosophy?

A student asked:

What can students learn from Philosophy? It seems like a really interesting topic but many students outside that major will say things like: “They ask questions about why is the sky blue? Why does god exist?” Are these speculations true? Is it possible to give a brief overview on what does NUS Philosophy teach? I’m genuinely very curious and interested to know more about this!

Here’s my reply:

It’s important to understand the history of academia. Philosophy is the mother of all subjects. Before you had the natural and social sciences, there was only philosophy. So the people who explored the workings of the world were also the same people who explored ideas and concepts. Hence you had questions like, “Why is the sky blue?”, which in our modern context would be regarded more of a science question.

Questions like “Why does god exists?” are important to philosophers because of the implications if a god exists. Here’s a simple scenario: If god exists, then perhaps there is meaning and purpose independent of my own decisions, and thus I have to discover what those are. But if god doesn’t exist, then meaning and purpose do not come from outside me, but are chosen by me. In which case, it is not about discovery, but making a resolution about what matters. There are what we call, normative implications, i.e. it affects how we should live.

Philosophy is the love of (philo) wisdom (sophia). But what is wisdom? It’s the ability to make right judgements for yourself. Academic philosophy doesn’t train you in wisdom, but gives you a lot of resources to develop wisdom yourself. What do I mean? Well, for starters, you learn how to think and justify in a sound, logical manner. Sadly, not everyone who can think can actually think in a sound logical way. And I can tell you, from grading so many assignments, that a lot of our FASS students cannot reason in a sound logical way. And if you can’t do that well, you are way more prone to making mistakes in your thinking, in your own judgement and evaluation of yourself, people, and things.

I personally think the value of philosophy is in its ability to liberate your mind by exposing you to possibilities you never even thought possible about things (e.g. multiple opposing but valid schools of thinking about what is right and wrong, or thinking about what makes something scientific or not-scientific). And for that matter, liberation of your mind by thinking about higher-order things (e.g. the philosophy of social science will talk about meta-level problems in the social sciences). These things will not only blow your mind, but give you very profound insights into issues that few people in those areas think about. It gives you an edge because you get a perspective that makes you painfully aware that everything is premised on conceptual flaws, and so you learn to assess things more critically. The methods you acquire along the way will also teach you how to reframe problems. Reframing is only possible with higher-order (meta-level) thinking.

You may not appreciate it now, but a lot of issues that senior-management have to deal with are philosophical problems. I know this because I used to interact (in my previous job) with top academics in the sciences and ambassadors/policy-makers/economists from around the world. The problems become very philosophical in nature because you need to define the problems before you can work out the objectives and the corresponding strategies that help to address the problem. At a senior level, the problems are conceptual in nature (e.g. If you are Provost or Dean – What is the purpose of the university?; or if you are the Minister of Health – What is the purpose of healthcare?)

It feels like we all can be philosophers and engage in such deep discussions, but I can tell you that there’s a stark difference between amateurs who like philosophy versus people trained in philosophy. These amateurs only know how to regurgitate ideas by philosophers or have superficial discussions about those ideas. But they don’t know how to even begin with dissecting these ideas or creating new ones (or even seeing the subtle nuances between different but similar ideas). A training in philosophy will teach you the fundamentals to do all that.

I know it can be scary since it’s probably alien to you, but we can’t always live in fear. Give it a try and challenge yourself. My journey in philosophy has been amazing, and I am sure it will be just as incredible for you too. :)

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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