Why Study Philosophy?
6th May 2020
Philosophy is a scary word. With it comes connotations of exasperated Greeks and convoluted Frenchman which is enough to put anyone off. It is a subject which, from the outside, can seem so laden in terminology that it is utterly inaccessible. Indeed, I hadn’t even considered it as an option for university study until only a couple of weeks before the UCAS deadline. Encourage by my dad who insisted it was the ideal subjected for someone who was torn between the sciences and the humanities, I finally plucked up the courage to read a book called Paradoxes by R.M Sainsbury and from there I was absorbed. The book itself is not especially noteworthy; it goes through some simple and familiar quirks of logic. What got me gripped though was the method. The precise and careful prose with its analytic ruthlessness and attention to detail struck me as just the right way to go about thinking: consider all options, cover all bases and slowly but surely work out which ones make most sense.
Over the course of my undergraduate degree in Philosophy at Cambridge, my understanding of the subject got broader and broader. Starting with a strong foundation in formal logic and methods of analytic thinking, I was taught that this approach needn’t just be limited to the austere realm of logic. In my first year alone, I wrote essays on moral responsibility, the ethics of killing, personal identity and theories of causation. This, for me, highlights the chief selling point of philosophy as a subject; once you’ve understood the rudiments, you can apply its distinctive way of approaching a problem to almost any question you are faced with.
Philosophy is also a subject which suits the Cambridge University system perfectly. In one-on-one supervisions every week, you are given the opportunity to speak to experts in the field. I should warn you, it is a process that can be as frustrating as it is rewarding. Philosophers tend towards what’s known as the Socratic method of teaching which is essentially a constant barrage of questions which can leave you questioning almost everything. Once you get used to it, though, it’s fascinating to try and find a new way of thinking without so many of the things you took for granted to be true.
One of the things I enjoyed most about my subject was the constant opportunity to discuss. Coming from a reasonably strict school, I was used to being told that the only work worth doing involved having your nose pressed to a book in complete silence. I was stunned, therefore, when my Director of Studies’ advice to me at the end of my first term at Cambridge, was to talk more... Speaking to coursemates always proved the best way of coming to understand a new topic. The other great thing was that even people who didn’t do the same subject were always interested to hear about what I was studying. After all, the subject matter of philosophy is all stuff that applies to almost everyone.
I enjoyed my undergraduate degree so much that I ended up staying to do an MPhil (which is a research Master’s degree) at Cambridge University. This was my opportunity to apply all that I had learned in my undergraduate degree to the topics I was most interested in. As I was given complete choice over what I studied, I was able to write essays on topics that haven’t had much work done on them which was fascinating. I wrote on the interaction between ethics and art, the problem of sexual racism and the idea of autonomy in the context of bipolar disorder. One of the great features of the MPhil at Cambridge was the weekly seminar with all of my coursemates. Not only was this an invaluable avenue for feedback on my work, it was also a perfect example of the breadth that philosophy allows and even encourages. Indeed, the topics studied by my peers ranged from effective altruism, to Karl Marx to theories about how language and maths works.
Essentially, whether you are more interested in politics and ethics or maths and logic, there are fascinating areas of philosophy for you to explore. (I'm sure you could even get out an essay on the meaning of that sign on the left!) I strongly recommend anyone who likes thinking and being challenged to pick up a copy of Simon Blackburn’s Think or Edward Craig’s Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction and get stuck in!