What is Philosophy?


Philosophy concerns those fundamental questions about reality, knowledge, and how we should live that fall outside the scope of the sciences. Very roughly, it can be thought of as comprising five main areas:

Metaphysics (the nature of reality): Does God exist? Does an objective world exist independently of our minds? What is the relation between the mind and the body? What is the nature of personal identity? Is free will compatible with determinism? What is the nature of causation?

Epistemology (the theory of knowledge): What is knowledge? How do I know that I am not now dreaming or hallucinating? Can we have knowledge of things we have not observed, such as an electron or the distant past? Can we have knowledge of the future?

Ethics, Political Philosophy, and Aesthetics (value theory): What is the nature of morality and justice? What are the correct principles of morality and of justice? What sorts of legal and social institutions are just? What is beauty? What makes an object a work of art?

Logic and Philosophy of Language (the study of the main tools of philosophy): What makes an argument valid? What is truth? How do linguistic terms refer to objects in the world?

History of Philosophy: the study of the great philosophical works of the past, such as works by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche.

Philosophy addresses questions about the ultimate nature of reality including our place in it. It does this through careful analysis of concepts, claims, and arguments. It clarifies meanings, challenges assumptions, and questions inferences.

Philosophy majors receive a solid liberal arts education that stretches and sharpens their minds. The most basic benefit of studying philosophy is that it increases one's ability to think, read, and write critically. These skills are essential for almost any career or profession. A second benefit is that it deepens one's understanding of our culture. By challenging common assumptions about our beliefs, values, and practices, and by studying the classic texts of our traditions and others, one gains deeper insight into the nature of our society and alternatives to it.

Philosophy courses encourage students to think for themselves. In philosophy courses, you will strengthen and develop your ability (1) to think critically and to organize your thoughts in a clear and logical fashion, (2) to express yourself clearly and forcefully in writing and conversation, and (3) to read complicated and difficult material with genuine understanding. Philosophy students develop these skills to a very high degree, and this may help to explain why they do better than most other majors on a wide range of admissions tests used by graduate and professional schools: including MCAT (medical schools), LSAT (law schools), GMAT (graduate schools of business), and GRE (used by most M.A. and Ph.D. programs).

Because there is no graduate program in philosophy at VCU, undergraduates here get the full attention of their professors. Upper-level classes typically have 10-20 students and involve a great deal of classroom discussion and feedback from the professor.

A philosophy degree, like most other liberal arts degrees, provides a broad education that prepares you for a wide variety of careers. Philosophy is among the most useful undergraduate liberal arts degrees because it so heavily emphasizes critical thinking, reading, and writing. Average scores on graduate and professional admission tests by philosophy majors are (1) higher in verbal skills than all other majors except classical languages (Greek and Latin), (2) higher in analytic skills than all other majors except mathematics, physics, and related mathematical disciplines, and (3) higher in quantitative skills than all humanities and social science majors except classical languages, architecture, and economics.

Some philosophy majors go on to graduate study in philosophy and careers as philosophers, but most go into areas such as law, medicine, theology, business, government, and public service. Any career that requires skills in thinking and reasoning, as these do, is one for which philosophy majors are well prepared.

The Division of Philosophy offers an undergraduate major in Philosophy, as well as minors in philosophy, and the philosophy of law. Some graduate courses are also offered in moral theory and philosophy of science.

The Philosophy Division offers a full range of courses in the main areas of philosophy. Our graduates have attended some of the best graduate and law schools in the country. Many students take some philosophy courses for general education requirements or simply to insure a well-rounded education that includes an emphasis on improving reasoning and writing abilities.

Our mission: The Philosophy Division is committed to teaching courses that (1) develop students' abilities to think critically and systematically about philosophical problems, both abstract and practical, and to write clearly and cogently about them and (2) give the students knowledge of the history and current state of philosophy. We would expect that the above would enable students to think more clearly about current political and social issues and help them to appreciate a diversity of viewpoints, cultural, political, and religious, as well as purely philosophical.

Click here to download the philosophy department's curriculum-map.

Click here to view the philosophy department's expected student outcomes and measures.