See the latest updates and information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, including a list of University contact information at semo.edu/covid19.
Philosophy is one of the core liberal arts disciplines. The value and importance of the study of philosophy lies in the first instance in the habits of thought it inculcates, the breadth of vision it encourages, and the perspective it gives us on ourselves, our activities, and our lives among others. Philosophy is by its nature one of the purest of the intellectual disciplines. Its concerns are very abstract. It is not a trade (though teaching philosophy, for which graduate study prepares one, is a trade). Its interest and value lies in its helping us to understand ourselves and our world better and more deeply than we otherwise would, and in permanently altering our approach to our lives and our relations to others through encouraging a lifelong habit of reflection on them. This is rather more of an achievement, perhaps, than anyone could hope that a university education could provide--but the study of philosophy can be the beginning of a process whose continuance can immensely enrich one's life, and can open to one views that would otherwise be closed or overlooked.
To say that in the first instance the value of the study of philosophy is not practical (in a narrow sense) is not to say that it has no practical value. Philosophy is harder than the evident importance and attractiveness of many of its central questions can lead one to expect. But precisely for that reason its serious study can greatly enhance one's analytical, critical, and interpretive abilities, as well as one's ability to express oneself clearly and to formulate and respond to arguments in speech and writing. Philosophy provides one with general problem-solving skills, skills in analyzing concepts, definitions, arguments and problems. It enables one to organize ideas and issues and to extract what is central to an issue from a mass of information. It helps one both to make fine distinctions and to find what is common ground between opposing positions. It also encourages one to synthesize or bring together a range of different views into one more comprehensive and coherent position. Philosophy improves one's communication skills, through improving one's ability to present ideas in well-constructed, systematic arguments, to express what is unique about one's views, and to explain difficult material. These skills in presenting well-thought-out arguments, clear formulations, and apt examples, in turn lend one's arguments persuasive power. And the give and take of philosophical discussion, which is a part of any good program of study in philosophy, improves one's ability to think on one's feet, and to indicate why one's own views are to be preferred to others. Ideally, it aids one also in recognizing when and in what respect one's own views may be incorrect, and what must be revised or discarded and what can be retained. Writing is taught intensively in philosophy courses, with an emphasis on clarity and rigor of argument, the apt use of example and illustration, and sensitivity to the strengths and weaknesses both of views one is examining and of one's own view. Philosophy also, more than many other majors, encourages students to aim to develop their own views on the questions and problems they study, rather than to absorb uncritically material presented as the current state of a subject.
Philosophy offers one of the best opportunities in the curriculum for pursuing the goal of improving such skills. These general intellectual skills are applicable to any subject matter, or any sort of problem, practical, or theoretical, one may be faced with. The cultivation of such general intellectual skills is one of the most important goals of a university education. This prepares one not just for particular professions, but to learn new skills and knowledge as needed in later life, both in employment and in the larger arena of political and community life which binds us together with common goals. No one learns everything he or she needs to know at the university (let alone in kindergarten!). Philosophy makes one intellectually agile, prepares one to meet challenges one has not been specifically trained to meet, and prepares one for serious citizenship. Philosophy is, in addition, good training for professional school in journalism, law, medicine, and business, as well as for graduate study in philosophy. As in the case of other liberal arts majors, it provides the kind of well-rounded education and general intellectual skills that are prized in management in both the private and the public sectors of the economy.
The main traditional areas of philosophy are ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, logic, and the history of philosophy. Ethics is the study of practical reasoning and the normative questions which it gives rise to, as we have seen above. Branches of ethics are political and social philosophy. Existentialism also falls within the domain of ethics. Among other important branches of ethics is applied ethics, which includes bio-ethics, biomedical ethics, business ethics, and environmental ethics, among others. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and justification, and of the family of concepts which are involved in our assessing claims to knowledge or justified belief. 'Metaphysics' (literally 'after' + 'physics') was originally the title of those books in the collection of Aristotle's works that came after the Physics. (Note: what you find in a non-academic bookstore under the label 'metaphysics' is usually not metaphysics in the academic sense at all.) In its most general use, 'metaphysics' covers any inquiry that raises questions about reality that lie behind or beyond those science is capable of answering. In this sense, 'metaphysics' and 'philosophy', as characterized above, are pretty much synonymous. However, more narrowly, metaphysics is usually taken to comprise mostly questions about ontology (i.e., about what there is, what things exist), and about a set of basic concepts such as those of existence, truth, causation, time, thought, substance, property, and the like. Metaphysics is also the traditional location of comprehensive philosophical systems, such as those of Spinoza, Leibniz, or Hegel. Logic is a branch of epistemology which deals with valid arguments, either inductive or deductive, particularly with respect to the forms of such arguments. It plays an important methodological role in philosophy, since philosophy is in part concerned with how much argument can establish a priori. In this century, the importance of logic in philosophy, especially formal logic, has grown greatly. The benefit of this is that it has facilitated the precise expression of both philosophical problems and of proffered solutions. But this has also had the disadvantage of putting much philosophical research beyond the reach of the general public, contributing to the (mistaken) perception that academic philosophy has lost touch with the big questions of philosophy and is irrelevant to the lives of most people. The history of philosophy, the last major traditional area in our list, bears a special relation to philosophy which the history of most disciplines do not bear to their current practice. It is not merely that studying the work of great philosophers in the past is valuable as history, or as the history of ideas, but that a proper and deep understanding of the history of philosophy is necessary for an adequate appreciation and understanding of contemporary philosophy--and because, in part due to the nature of philosophical inquiry, there is much that the great philosophers of the past still have to offer in our continuing attempts to grapple with some of the great unsolved problems of philosophy.
These traditional areas of philosophy are supplemented by a number of additional areas of intense study in philosophy centered around philosophical questions that arise about one or another fundamental aspect of human activity. A partial list includes the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of action, decision theory, the philosophy of language, philosophical logic, aesthetics, the philosophy of culture, feminism, the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of science and its sub-disciplines, such as the philosophy of the natural sciences, which includes the philosophy of physics and the philosophy of biology, and the philosophy of the social sciences, which includes the philosophy of history, the philosophy of psychology, and, a recent addition, the philosophy of economics, and the study of the philosophical thought and systems of other cultures--e.g., ancient civilizations such as those of India and China, traditional societies such those of the Amerindians, and contemporary cultural and social systems such as those of Latin America. It should be emphasized that despite the division of philosophy into these different fields, it is almost impossible to undertake the investigation of any philosophical problem or question without having to raise and address questions in other fields of philosophy. Thus, for example, in considering questions that arise in ethics, one is often led to questions in the philosophy of mind, action, and language, all of which raise fundamental questions about our natures as rational agents. In addition to these subject areas, particular historical figures are subjects of intense study, such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Mill, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein, Sartre, Quine, and many other major figures. Likewise, more recent philosophical traditions are often subjects of study in their own right, notably the 20th century traditions in continental and analytic philosophy.
This list of areas of philosophical study is not exhaustive or static. The core disciplines of philosophy are unlikely to shift, but philosophical inquiry is responsive and responsible to the society and culture in which it takes place. For example, new technologies can give rise to new areas of applied philosophy. Bioethics is a relatively recent field of applied ethics which has arisen specifically in response to developments in biotechnology which enable people to manipulate the biological features of organisms to a hitherto unprecedented degree. Similarly, philosophical inquiry has responded to practical social and political problems which have given rise to questions relating to gender, race, international relations, and differing cultural traditions. Many of these new areas of philosophy are represented in courses offered in philosophy at the University of Florida.