“I am a citizen, not of Athens, or Greece, but of the world.”

— Socrates (Fifth Century B.C.)

No one in Jeffrey Jackson’s family was surprised when he chose to major in philosophy at Emory.

“They saw it coming–they had all seen me toting around Plato’s Republic the summer before college began,” Jackson says. “The two things I love doing more than anything else are writing and arguing, so for me, it was a perfect fit. I declared my major the first week at school and haven’t looked back.”

But what exactly does one do with a major in philosophy?

Anything one wants, apparently.

Undergraduates who major in philosophy are likely to attend graduate or professional schools and to score well on the GMAT, GRE, and LSAT. Philosophy majors go on to become lawyers, doctors, corporate executives, teachers, historians, and authors.

“You can teach data and techniques, but they become outmoded,” says Charles Howard Candler Professor of Philosophy Rudolf Makkreel, who chairs Emory’s department. “However, if you prepare students to really think, they can deal successfully with changing circumstances.”

Indeed, an article by C.M. Cropper in the New York Times business section says philosophy degrees pay off in life and in work.

“In an age of MBAs and computer scientists, more than four thousand American college students graduate each year with a bachelor’s degree in the ancient discipline. Sometimes, their parents and friends wonder what will happen to them. One thing is certain: Not many of them will go on to make a living as philosophers.”

Yet, Cropper writes, philosophy majors appear to do remarkably well in a variety of careers.

This is good news for Emory’s 103 philosophy majors, who make the College’s program one of the largest at comparable private universities.

“The ability of the department to engage students who are considering so many different paths for their future is one of its strengths,” says Rosemary Magee ’82G, senior associate dean of the College. “Through their study of philosophy at Emory, they begin to understand the origin and development of ideas that are at the basis of contemporary life.”

Philosophy literally means “love of wisdom” in Greek, the original language of the discipline, which surfaced some twenty-five hundred years ago. Then, as now, philosophy encompassed logic, ethics, and metaphysics–from contemplating the nature of being or reality (ontology) to the nature of knowledge (epistemology).

Various philosophers have pondered their way into the public consciousness: Socrates posed dialectic questions, searched for the golden mean, and pronounced that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” Descartes declared, “Cogito, ergo sum.” (“I think, therefore I am.”) Hume harbored skepticism, while Leibniz leaned toward optimism. Kant set forth the categorical imperative: What if everyone did as you do? Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto. Sartre embraced existentialism.

What do the works of these long-dead philosophers have to teach contemporary students? Plenty, as it turns out.

“The study of philosophy has provided me with the necessary tools to give my life meaning,” says Nermin Ghali ’05C, a philosophy major and star Emory debater. “And it has helped me to answer questions about the existence of God, the criteria necessary for a certain belief to be considered truth and knowledge, and many other political issues such as the ideas of affirmative action, the death penalty, and laws that protect minority rights.”

While some may think of philosophers as wise old sages “meditating apart from the world,” today’s philosophy students debate current issues, says Makkreel, as evidenced by courses on medical or business ethics and the philosophy of law. “The whole idea is to take moral responsibility and be rational human beings, rather than just react to events. Abstractions from Plato and Kant can be applied to concrete situations that students today might encounter.”

Alumni of the program say they obtained the abilities to think critically, see through facile arguments, and use solid reasoning in their own decisions–both personal and professional.

“There is no other major that could have better prepared me to be where I am,” says Christopher Murell ’03C, a law student at New York University. “My degree has been incredibly useful in a lot of respects, academic and otherwise.”

For example, French philosopher Michel Foucault’s analysis of power has been a major influence on Murell’s political and social activism. “His work led me to rethink the nature of activism and the strategies to employ. As a result, I feel that I have been far more effective as an activist and have a far greater understanding of social movements in general.”

Stephanie Jenkins ’03C is in her first year of a Ph.D. program in philosophy at Pennsylvania State University. A philosophy education, says Jenkins, “doesn’t end at the classroom doors. It encompasses a way of life. If my Emory philosophy professors had not been so effective in getting me so passionate about philosophy, I might be somewhere warm right now.”

Michael Lewis ’04C says that by this time next year, he will be in either law school, a master’s program in philosophical theology, or a think tank in Washington, D.C.

“The analytical skills philosophy develops can help prepare for anything,” he says. “But people forget that philosophy is an end in itself for many who study it seriously. Philosophy is about exploring concepts that usually do not have right or wrong answers. The ultimate goal is to consider questions such as ‘How should we live? What can we really know? What really exists? What does it mean to be rational?’ And so on.”

Ad infinitum.–M.J.L.



© 2004 Emory University