COVID-19 Information

See the latest updates and information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic at

The Philosophy Major's Handbook

Table of Contents

The Nature and Uses of Philosophy

Philosophy as a Subject

Philosophy is an ancient subject. Important philosophical traditions arose in all of the major civilizations of the ancient world, from China, to India, the Near and Middle East, and the early civilizations of the Mediterranean basin. The philosophical tradition specifically in the West is traced by most scholars back to the first attempts by the ancient Greeks around 600 B.C. to provide a comprehensive account of the origin and nature of the world based on observation and reasoning. From a consideration of the nature and origin of the world, attention soon turned to human beings and their place in nature, and to the relation of people to each other. These two broad concerns, central to all philosophical traditions, still characterize philosophy today.

The word 'philosophy' is derived from the combination of the ancient Greek 'philos', which means 'love', and 'sophia', which means 'wisdom'. In its broadest and original use, 'philosophy' means the systematic study of the world and our place in it. This may today sound like the project that many people associate with science, and, indeed, in some places the dividing line between philosophy as a contemporary discipline and science becomes unclear. But they are still quite distinct disciplines, as anyone who has done a bit of both will readily recognize. However, originally there was literally no line at all between the two: science and philosophy began at the same time and sprang from the same source, the desire for a unified account of the whole of the world based on reason. This is reflected in the history of the term 'philosophy'. Even up to the end of the 19th century, what we now call 'natural science' was known as 'natural philosophy'; the rest of philosophy, traditionally conceived, was divided into 'moral philosophy', dealing with human beings and human action, and 'metaphysical philosophy', dealing with the ultimate origins and principles of explanation of things. This is also reflected in the title of the highest academic degrees offered at universities, the Ph.D., or Doctor of Philosophy. (The term 'science', too, until recently, was used more commonly in a broader sense than today; from the Latin 'scientia', the state of having knowledge, it was widely used to mean simply 'knowledge' or, more specifically, 'a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study'.)

The terminological division between science and philosophy, then, has been recent. However, there have always been at least two different kinds of activities pursued in attempts to provide a unified account of the world and our place in it. Both of these activities have been present from the very beginning, though they have not always been clearly identified and distinguished. On the one hand, some things, very general things, usually, which we can say about the nature of the world, are (relatively) a priori in character (before experience). What this means is that, by and large, we don't have to investigate the world very much, if at all, to discover that these things are true. For example, no investigation of the world is required to know the truth of fundamental principles of logic, such as the law of the excluded middle, that for any proposition p, either p is the case or it is not the case. Similarly, many people would accept a priori that it is wrong to cause harm needlessly, and that for every right someone has, there is a correlative duty. On the other hand, there are many other things we can know about the world only by observing it and perhaps formulating theories about what we observe to explain it. Such knowledge is called 'a posteriori' (after experience). For example, we can know the number of the planets only a posteriori. Likewise, we can know the number and natures of elementary particles, if at all, only a posteriori. This distinction allows us to give a rough characterization of the distinction between philosophy and science, as that is understood today: philosophy, by and large, is concerned with what can be known relatively a priori; science with what can be known only at least in part a posteriori. Science, even in its most abstract theoretical reaches in physics, rests ultimately on observation and experiment. Philosophy, even in its least theoretical aspects, is concerned with what can be known largely through a consideration of how our concepts structure our thinking about the world, and, if the world is a way that we can think about, with the correlative structure of the world itself.

It should be noted that this distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge is itself the subject of philosophical investigation. (It belongs to a field of philosophy known as 'epistemology' or 'the theory of knowledge'.) It should be thought of here only as a rough way of characterizing the distinction between philosophy and other disciplines. There are (at least) two reasons for this. First, there are a variety of theoretical characterizations of the distinction, and many philosophers regard the distinction as better thought of as a matter of degree than a strict dichotomy. Second, while philosophy is characteristically general and is not an experimental subject, it is also not indifferent to empirical knowledge. Many areas of applied philosophy, e.g., rely heavily on empirical knowledge, and even general philosophical systems may have a variety of clearly empirical assumptions at their foundation, assumptions, for example, about human nature and its limitations.

Even apart from these qualifications, the distinction between relatively a priori and relatively a posteriori disciplines is not enough by itself enough to capture what distinguishes philosophy from other intellectual disciplines. For instance, mathematics is also a highly a priori discipline, but is not philosophical in character (though philosophical questions arise in considering the foundations of mathematics, which is also a concern of the field of philosophy known as the philosophy of mathematics). And it would also be a mistake to suppose that a priori questions of the sort which philosophy often seeks to answer are not also sometimes of crucial importance in empirical science. For example, one of the greatest theoretical advances in physics, special relativity, was accomplished by Einstein's careful analysis of the concept of simultaneity. Philosophy is also distinguished by the kinds of relatively a priori questions it raises. Philosophical questions and problems arise when we investigate various fundamental categories of human activity and thought at the deepest level possible. We can say that philosophical questions are framework questions, in the sense that they are questions that arise about the framework of our thought about one or another fundamental area of human investigation.

Philosophy has also given rise historically to global and comprehensive accounts of the nature of the world and of the relation of human beings to it. Comprehensive philosophical systems are a natural outcome of the desire at once to exhibit the universe as ultimately intelligible and to carry out the investigation at the most general and fundamental level possible. System building on this grand scale was once the central activity of philosophy. In this more skeptical age, it is not as widely pursued as it used to be. But it tends to remain the sole province of philosophy, since other intellectual disciplines define themselves by how they limit their object of study.

These general remarks provide at best a framework for thinking about philosophy. The best way to get a real sense of the nature of philosophy is to consider some examples of the sort of questions that philosophers have attempted to answer. Many of these questions are both ordinary, and pressing questions, and ones which are deceptively simple. A question which every person faces is, 'How ought I to live?' This has been said to be the most fundamental question of ethics (from the Greek ethos, 'character'). Since this question is not about the sort of life one does live, or even the sorts of lives most people live, it cannot be answered by describing the way one actually lives or the way others live or have lived. An answer to the question 'How ought I to live?' is intended to help one to guide one's life; what we want in answer to it is a prescription, a model, or a norm or ideal to which we can compare our lives, and on the basis of which we can modify our lives to bring them into accordance with the ideal we hold up to ourselves. For this reason, this is called a 'normative question'. A full answer to the question 'How ought I to live?' will involve a system of normative principles which govern one's reasoning about what to do in various circumstances. In attempting to answer this question, philosophers have also been led to raise questions about many of the central concepts involved in practical reasoning, such as those of good, right, duty, obligation, virtue, rationality and choice, as well as second-order questions about the objectivity or subjectivity of claims made using these concepts, and whether the truth of such claims is relative to cultures or social systems, as well as questions about the extent to which we are in a position to offer well-grounded answers to normative questions.

Another, connected, traditional question of philosophy is whether our actions can be considered to be free or not. This is traditionally called 'the problem of freedom of the will'. When a leaf falls from a tree, the time of its fall, the path it takes, and the place it comes to rest, are determined (so far as they are at all) by the laws of nature and the particular conditions present in the leaf's environment. It does not choose to fall, and if it did, its choice would make no difference to its movements. Let us say someone moves her hand in a gesture of farewell. What distinguishes this movement from the movement of the leaf? What makes the gesture an expression of agency? What, if anything, makes it free? Is it required that she could have refrained from the gesture? If so, how could this requirement be met compatibly with recognizing ourselves as natural objects just as much subject to the reign of natural law as the leaf? And if our actions are not free, can we make sense of our practices of assigning praise and blame?

These questions illustrate some of the most important philosophical questions that arise from reflection on our nature as agents. Similarly fundamental philosophical questions arise in other areas of inquiry, and at the meta-level of theorizing about the nature of rational inquiry itself. Here are a number of examples which illustrate the broad range of philosophical questions. Consider first a subfield in the philosophy of physics, the philosophy of space and time. One of the most difficult questions is one of the most simply stated: What is time? Do points of time exist, or is this merely a convenient way of speaking? Do three-dimensional objects endure through time, or is this an illusion, and are all objects, rather, contrary to common sense, actually four-dimensional objects? Can this latter view be reconciled with our ordinary ways of thinking about ourselves and the things we interact with? Turning to the philosophy of mind, what makes some states and events mental states and events? How is it possible to think about the most distant objects in the universe, or the future or the past, or merely possible things, like a unicorn or a winged horse? How can a physical object, constructed of bone and flesh and sinew, and ultimately out of elementary particles, be conscious? In the philosophy of language: what makes the sounds one utters when one asks a question, or makes a statement, mean something, and mean what they do in particular? What distinguishes language from other sorts of organized social activity; what distinguishes speech from the dance of a bee that directs members of its hive to the location of nectar? In metaphysics: what is the nature of causation? When does one event cause another? What are the fundamental categories into which things fall (what is the correct ontology)? Are there events, as well as objects, are there states of affairs and facts? Are some kinds of things more logically fundamental than others? Aesthetics: what makes a thing beautiful? What makes something a work of art? Why is it important, if it is? Are judgments of artistic value objective? What is the relation between art and emotion? Epistemology: what is knowledge? What are we justified in believing? How do we know things about our own minds, the world around us, the past, the future, and the minds of others? Can there be a rational and objective ground for belief at all? In the philosophy of culture: what is our status as social beings? How are our most fundamental features affected or determined by our social and cultural environments? Is it possible to achieve a culture independent perspective on the nature of our natural and social environments?

It is characteristic of philosophy also, as some of these questions suggest and as noted above, that the nature of philosophy itself, its methodology, and the existence and intelligibility of the special kind of knowledge, a priori knowledge, which traditionally has been seen as the result of philosophical inquiry, are themselves subjects for philosophical inquiry and criticism. Philosophy is a peculiarly self-critical enterprise. While philosophy has traditionally presented its results as timeless truths, there has always been a skeptical strain in philosophy as well, which doubts the pretensions of philosophy to provide us with timeless, absolute truths. Both in ancient times, and since, some philosophers have wondered whether the ideal of philosophy is not simply an empty hope. Recently, some traditional philosophy has come under attack as presenting as timeless truths what were in fact theories and principles which, dressed up in the garb of reason, served merely to perpetuate contemporary social or power structures. (This, of course, is not to say that there are not a priori truths, but rather that the label 'a priori' has been abused.) However, that philosophy is in this way a self-critical enterprise, far from indicating any fundamental weakness, is in fact one of its strengths, since it is only by such continual reexamination of the most fundamental assumptions we make in inquiry that we can ultimately satisfy ourselves about its soundness (if, indeed, this is possible).

From the list of questions above, and from our earlier remarks, it is clear that philosophy is not characterized by its subject matter. Its subject matter is everything. It is rather characterized by the kinds of questions which it raises and attempts to answer. It is concerned with the most general theoretical questions that can be raised about any subject. That is why for any fundamental domain of human inquiry there is a philosophy of that subject. The most general questions are those that have to be settled (largely) prior to empirical investigation, because they are instrumental in fixing the subject matter of empirical investigation and the framework within which it takes place. Furthermore, there seem to be some subject matters the proper method of inquiry into which is necessarily a priori. Normative questions, as we have seen, seem to be of this sort, because of the independence of their answers from how people actually live or behave.

[Back to Top]

Areas of Philosophy

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.

[Back to Top]

The Uses of Philosophy

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.

[Back to Top]

The Study of Philosophy at Southeast

Programs Available

The department offers a B.A. major in Philosophy and minors in both Philosophy and Religious Studies.

Requirements for the B.A. major in Philosophy

The major in philosophy requires 31 credit hours to complete. Of those hours, 22 are required.

Required Courses
Area Courses
Logic PL120 Symbolic Logic I or PL330 (advanced) Symbolic Logic II
History PL300 Ancient Philosophy and PL310 Modern Philosophy and PL390 Contemporary Philosophy
Value Theory PL203 Aesthetics and the Arts or PL204 Ethical Theory or PL245 Social Philosophy
Seminars PL400 Topics of Philosophy and PL450 Methods and Movements in Philosophy
Research PL481 Practicum

The area requirements of the major are designed to ensure that students acquire the skills in analysis and writing that are required for the serious pursuit of philosophy. The required subject courses are designed to ensure that students have a good grounding in the history of philosophy, which is essential for an adequate understanding of contemporary philosophy, and a core competence in ethics and epistemology, the study of which play a foundational role in the study of many other subjects in philosophy. In general, students should aim to take skills courses early in their studies, and aim to finish subject courses before their senior year.

The remaining 9 hours required for the major are electives, which students may use either to pursue a particular interest in some depth, or to gain additional breadth in philosophy. At least 3 of the 9 elective hours must be at the 300 or 400 level, and may include departmentally approved courses bearing the UI (interdisciplinary studies) prefix. Students should discuss their interests and plans with an advisor in the philosophy department in choosing electives. Students wishing to prepare for postgraduate or professional work, in particular, should meet with the undergraduate advisor to discuss what program would be most appropriate.

Minor in Philosophy
Required Courses - 9 hours
  • PL120 Symbolic Logic
  • PL300 Ancient Philosophy
  • PL390 Contemporary Philosophy
Choose one from among the following: (3 hours)
  • PL110 Readings in Philosophy
  • PL203 Aesthetics and the Arts
  • PL204 Ethical Theory
  • PL245 Social Philosophy
  • RS101 World Religions

Choose 6 hours of PL courses (300-400 level) or any departmentally approved UI courses

Minor in Religious Studies
Required courses - 9 hours
  • PL499 Independent Study in Philosophy
  • RS101 World Religions
  • UI336 Religion in America
Choose one from the following (3 hours):
  • LI222 Mythic Dimensions of Literature
  • RS201 New Testament Literature
  • RS202 Old Testament Literature
Choose 6 hours from the following:
  • AN375 Primitive Religions
  • PL340 Philosophy of Religion
  • RS350 Religious Topics and Issues
  • SO350 Sociology of Religion
  • UI415 Science and Religion
Double Majors

Students should also be aware that it is possible to have a double major in philosophy and another area. In fact, the vast majority of students majoring in philosophy at Southeast are double majors. Recent double majors have included Philosophy and Physics, Philosophy and Psychology, Philosophy and Mathematics, Philosophy and Political Science, Philosophy and Computer Science, Philosophy and Education, and Philosophy and Agriculture. In most cases, with some care in planning, students should experience no great difficulty in completing both a philosophy major and another major.

[Back to Top]

Philosophy and Preperation for Further Study

The following are lists of recommended courses for philosophy majors interested in pursuing one or another particular post-graduation career path. It should be emphasized that it is not required for success in any of the areas listed that a student take all or any of these courses. They are rather courses which students will by and large find helpful in pursuing one of these post-graduation career paths.

Preparation for graduate school

Students who intend to prepare for graduate study in philosophy should aim to maintain a GPA of 3.5 or higher, especially in philosophy courses, to write an honors thesis if eligible, and to consider taking courses from the following list:

  • Advanced Logic
  • Theory of Knowledge
  • Ethical Theory
  • Philosophy of Language
  • Metaphysics
  • Philosophy of Science

Competition for graduate school in philosophy is keen in the best departments. Students should plan ahead, and talk to both the undergraduate and graduate coordinator about their plans.

Preparation for law-related professions

Students who are pre-law or studying for law-related professions should give serious consideration to:

  • Epistemology
  • Symbolic Logic I
  • Ethical Theory
  • Feminism
  • Political Philosophy
  • Philosophy of Law

Students considering pursuing law school after an undergraduate degree may wish to visit the American Bar Association's web page on preparing for law school.

Preparation for medicine-related professions

Students who are pre-med or studying for medicine-related professions should give serious consideration to:

  • Ethical Theory
  • One or more courses in Applied Ethics in relevant fields (e.g., Ethics and Ecology)
  • Philosophy of Science
  • Epistemology
  • One or more courses in areas dealing with gender and life issues, such as Feminism or Existentialism.

Student's considering health related professions may wish to visit the Association of American Medical Colleges web page.

Preparation for journalism

Students studying for a career in journalism or for a professional degree in journalism should give serious consideration to:

  • Philosophy of Law
  • Ethical Theory
  • Media Ethics
  • Epistemology
  • Philosophy of Language

[Back to Top]


Carnahan Hall 211
Department of Political Science
One University Plaza, MS 2920
Cape Girardeau, Missouri 63701