Opinion: Philosophy courses teach important perspectives to view the world

The field is often misunderstood, but it can be useful to anyone willing to be open-minded.


Roman Slabach

The Old Capital from the roof of UIHC in Iowa City, Iowa on March 25, 2019.

Riley Moore, Columnist

I frequently spend time around my department’s professors as a philosophy major at the University of Iowa. During office hours with UI Philosophy Visiting Assistant Professor Keith Harris, he relays stories from those who misunderstand his field. “Philosophy — is that like poetry?”

This confusion of what philosophy entails rears its ugly head nearly every time the four-syllable word is pronounced. I wager every student who returned home for the holidays — informing their distant relative of the “ethics” course they participated in — was greeted with an eye roll. “You’re going into debt for that?”

Many people still don’t know what philosophy encompasses, and everyone can profit from knowing more about it.

To begin, philosophy is a banner which many subjects huddle underneath. It’s analogous to “sports” or “drugs” as umbrella terms for complex topics. There is little in common between ingesting ibuprofen and methamphetamine. With this in mind, philosophy of mind, or philosophy of politics, or philosophy of metaphysics, share less in common than supposed.

Of course, there is plenty of intersection within philosophy. For instance, your ethical framework may inform your political alignment, or, unfortunately, your political alignment may inform your ethical framework. Phrases such as “it implies that…” or “it follows from…” have technical definitions, and, once learned within a philosophy course, will reorient your thinking from the mundane to the profound.

For instance, the concept of free will is a common theme touched on in philosophy classes. Nearly everyone pursues their daily pleasures as a subjective “I,” dictating what decisions to make and when. Upon further consideration, the so-called freedom one exercises is based off thoughts one did not author, yet adjudicated the result of their action. To have agency over one’s thoughts, one would have to think their thoughts before they thought them. Confusion, understanding, boredom, all emotions resulting from reading the prior sentence — these emotions are not a choice; they are simply occurring.

Discussions and thought experiments such as these occur frequently within philosophy courses. Professors engage directly with students in a respectable manner, and build within the student an effective mode of holding conversation. I do not wish to suggest philosophy is a different, yet related version of a literature course. In demonstration, one of the classics within the philosophy library is Plato’s Five Dialogues. The focal point of the discussion is not the resulting answer. It is found in the questions — precisely where philosophy flourishes.

Ideas gleaned from philosophy courses can be easily exported to other domains of knowledge. According to the University of Missouri-St. Louis, philosophy majors earn the highest average scores on the GRE, which tests preparedness for graduate programs. These data points convey half the story. Enrolling in philosophy courses reasonably challenges existing beliefs in religion, responsibility, personal identity, right and wrong, and so on.

To answer the misguided question concerning if philosophy is like poetry, one should reply, “No, it’s like philosophy.”

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.