What do you study in Philosophy? What is you favourite thing about Philosophy?

A student wrote to me, asking:

What do you study in Philosophy? What is you favourite thing about Philosophy?

Philosophy is different things to different people. I’ll say that one thing common to all areas of philosophy is that it is a critical reflection on what we believe and what we do.

Within the purview of philosophy itself, we usually cover things like value theory that covers ethics (Why is X right/wrong? Or how do we know what is the right thing to do?) and aesthetics (Why do we derive pleasure from watching shows that make us miserable (e.g. horror/tragedies). We also cover areas like metaphysics that challenges you to rethink how you think about well… everything. Issues like why am I me. If I’m constantly changing through time, am I still the same person? Or things like how we think about time and space and our relation to it. We also do things like existentialism that deals with the meaning of life, or the lack of it, or how to make meaning if there isn’t any meaning to our existence.

We also do meta-level stuff, basically, anything that’s a critical reflection of the beliefs, assumptions, and methods we employ to do a variety of things.

Take the social sciences, for example. If you put into practice what you’ve learnt in the social sciences, you’re a practitioner. But when you begin reflecting on the methods used, or consider the limitations and drawbacks or even the problematic assumptions underlying the methods employed, then you are doing the philosophy of social science.

The same can be said about anything that is the philosophy of X. We are reflecting critically about the methods and assumptions employed. So we have the Philosophy of Science, the Philosophy of Social Science, the Philosophy of History, the Philosophy of Literature, the Philosophy of Technology, the Philosophy of Law, Political Philosophy, the Philosophy of Economics, the Philosophy of Music, the Philosophy of Film, etc. The list goes on.

What I like about studying philosophy is the mental flexibility it gives me. It allows me to understand a belief thoroughly as if I’m a believer without necessarily having to subscribe to it. Furthermore, my training in academic philosophy has taught me how to unearth assumptions underlying the things people say and evaluate them. And when you couple that with the study of meta-level things that I have done, I am very aware of the kinds of disciplinary/cultural assumptions that are prevalent in daily discourse. All these helps me to be avoid being chained to the ignorance of my own assumptions as I try to reframe problems. As someone who has done philosophy and interacted with many people from all walks of life, I can tell you that a lot of people are enslaved by their own cultural/disciplinary assumptions without being aware of it, and their thinking is limited by their ignorance of the assumptions that hold them back.

My favourite thing about philosophy is the fact that I never stop getting mind blown. And a conversation with any philosopher will always make you walk away going wow. It has been the case since I was an undergraduate student, and it continues to be the case today. It’s a wonderful experience to have.

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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