One need not spend too much time on a college campus before someone, inevitably, criticizes certain majors. Usually, the majors are criticized either for their difficulty (in which case people may well hate their own) or for their apparent post-college uselessness. It seems, today, that anything not related to science and/or business is considered useless, trivial, and a waste of time. We (regrettably) live in a world in which people derive their self-worth from their marketability, so this is to be expected. Résumés have replaced authentically discovered confidence, and the study of the humanities has been crippled as a result.
I cannot speak to all majors that are, today, labeled useless. I expect they are not useless, but I am not familiar enough with these fields of study to have anything of value to say.
I can, however, speak in favor of the study of philosophy.
Philosophy is consistently ranked as one of the most useless majors there is — the primary deciding factors being earnings and unemployment rate. Some will come to the aid of philosophy by saying it helps with the LSAT. This is true, but it is not the reason I chose to study philosophy.
Arriving at college having no idea what you plan to study can be an intimidating experience; much of the student body knows what they are studying before their freshman year begins. Miraculously, they also know where they'll live, the person they'll marry, how many children they'll have, what their family vacation spot will be, and what exactly they will do on their 46th birthday. Then there was me, with no idea what I wanted to do with my next four years, let alone my life. It did not take long for me to learn that many of these talkers were just that: talkers. They did not really have a detailed plan. Some people get nervous and intimidated by a new environment, and pretend to have everything in order by saying everything is in order. Regardless, the discussion of that observation is for another day. Most of these people did know what they were going to study, and the majority stayed faithful to their initial idea. Some did not, to be sure, but most did.
I did not officially declare my double major in political science and philosophy until I was about 25% of the way through my sophomore year, but at the time of the formal declaration, I had known my plan was to study philosophy for around six months. I was convinced, as one may expect, by my Intro to Philosophy class.
When many people think of their Intro to Philosophy experiences, they think of exceedingly boring lectures about the ideas of dead men, a disinterested and scruffy graduate student sleepwalking through the aforementioned lectures, and the one student who thinks he’s Socrates in the flesh and asks questions every three minutes (I was that guy, by the way). First impressions are important, and if a person does not enjoy their Intro to Philosophy class, it stands to reason they will have no reason to ever consider pursuing it as a major, a minor, or even to just take a class in which they are interested. However, at the same time, discussion with my friends and peers led me to discover that the negative first impressions are not always attributable to the “annoying front row” guys like me, nor the person giving the lectures. Rather, the content of the course and its lectures is what makes philosophy unattractive. Learning this stunned me. It seemed as if I was finally learning about the important questions of life. It seemed as if I was finally dedicating time, both in and out of the classroom, to contemplating questions about the nature of morals, the purpose of government, and the composition and origin of the world in which we live. How could anybody be bored by the discussions of what it means to be good, or how we understand the concept of truth?
One of the most common responses to that question is, in short, “there is no answer.” Many of my peers’ frustrations stemmed from the fact that many of these questions have been on the table for over 2,000 years and no answer has been found. People, often academics, continue to debate over these concepts, but no satisfactory solution is ever reached. These people ignore (or do not know) the fact that many theories (for example, many metaphysical theories of the Presocratics) have been put to rest, being labeled as false or being redeemed for their relative accuracy, despite the lack of science that would facilitate such a theory.
I was not about to change these peoples’ minds, however. The lack of definite answers made the study of philosophy unattractive to them. I cannot change peoples’ fundamental preferences and inclinations. All I could hope to do was explain to them why the study was not so “in the clouds” or as useless as they thought. This is what I am still aiming to do.
Most people have at the very least heard names such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Nietzsche, and many are familiar with the Latin phrase cogito ergo sum, or, “I think, therefore I am” uttered by René Descartes. For their names to be uttered so long after their deaths, these people had to have done something right. Those who toil in uselessness are seldom given attention so long after their deaths. The reason for continuing relevance of these names is either philosophy’s greatest bane or greatest beauty, depending on perspective. There remains no definitive answer to the questions they asked—true enough. But there’s more to it than that. There are many questions to which we have no answer and, consequently, do not ask. Yet people do elect to keep many of these fundamental questions alive. Of course, these questions differ in their wording and structure, but for the sake of space and time, the fat can be cut away. How can I be good? Do I have a soul? Is there a higher power? What makes something an objective truth? How ought I define good and evil, beautiful and ugly, true and false? There is much more to it than that, but these questions serve as an excellent start.
I do not expect these questions can ever be definitively answered (though that certainly has been said quite a lot throughout history), but that is, to me, the point. Answering these questions once and never coming back to them again is conducive to an intellectual and moral apathy that can cripple the mind. These questions may aid you in the workplace (that divine place for which we seem to be making all of our current decisions as undergrads), or they may aid you outside of the workplace (perhaps when making decisions about how to spend your free time and your money, with whom you associate yourself, and how you will live and behave in certain settings). The questions and their contemplation are important, and they affect our lives. Whenever you face a moral decision and consider which course to take, you are asking these basic questions. In an extremely fundamental manner, you are doing philosophy. When you consider your values—what is important to you and why—you are doing philosophy. These questions, and the study with which they are associated, are not useless. Odds are you ask them quite a lot.
Of course, the formal study of philosophy is by no means for everybody. I could dedicate a few sentences to say that we need variety, but I think that would be unnecessary. It goes without saying. What needs to be said is that it is by no means useless to always be asking these questions without readily available answers. Studying theories of the past and synthesizing them with each other and with our observations of the world allows us to arrive at our own, unique systems of belief and values. You may not want to dedicate as much time to it as others in your college studies, but don’t call it useless. If it were useless, you wouldn’t engage in the activity yourself (be it consciously or not) so often.