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Why study philosophy? Learn critical thinking skills for life

What is truth? What is knowledge? Do people have free will? What makes our actions or personality traits good or bad? Is there a God? These are just some of the brain-bending questions you might ask as a student of philosophy.

‘Questions like these might look straightforward, but when you start to explore them it’s clear they’re really complicated questions that require careful and thoughtful argument to try and get some answers,’ says Associate Professor Patrick Stokes, a senior lecturer in philosophy at Deakin.

Philosophy teaches critical thinking skills that will help you navigate life and work. And in the age of fake news and post-truth, the study of philosophy is especially important, says Assoc. Prof. Stokes.

‘Knowing who to believe and who to listen to, and being able to tell a good claim from a bad claim or a good argument from a bad argument, is more urgent now than it’s ever been.’

Here are some of the most compelling reasons to study philosophy and ask those big, bold questions.

Learn to think critically

Philosophy is an activity of thought more than a body of settled knowledge, so much so that even questions of, ‘what is philosophy?’ and, ‘what does philosophy mean?’ are themselves philosophical questions. ‘One of the fun things about philosophy is philosophers can’t even agree on what it is,’ Assoc. Prof. Stokes says.

So what is philosophy according to Assoc. Prof. Stokes? Here’s his take: ‘Philosophy is a discipline that rigorously investigates some of the deepest and most fundamental questions of human existence – questions about the nature of being, right and wrong, and good and bad. It’s concerned with a number of really basic problems that other disciplines might generate but can’t answer.’

Studying philosophy not only involves asking the big questions – it also teaches important critical thinking skills as you work to find the answers. Assoc. Prof. Stokes says seminar teaching is one of the most important modes of learning in philosophy because it’s an opportunity for students to debate, argue and workshop ideas.

‘A lot of students are initially a little surprised that when we study philosophy, we want to know what you think. We want you to articulate your own view as a philosopher and, crucially, we also expect you to be able to defend that view and to argue for your position.

‘You come into the classroom as a philosopher, pretty much from day one.’

'Philosophy is a discipline that rigorously investigates some of the deepest and most fundamental questions of human existence – questions about the nature of being, right and wrong, and good and bad.'

Associate Professor Patrick Stokes,
School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University

Channel intellectual curiosity

There’s perhaps no better answer to the quandary of why study philosophy than ‘sheer intellectual curiosity’, says Assoc. Prof. Stokes. ‘It’s a really open, broad field for anyone who wants to stretch their legs intellectually and try out some new things.’

Philosophy degrees will introduce you to the many and varied philosophy schools of thought, like ethics and logic. What is ethics in philosophy? What is logic in philosophy? These are complicated and intriguing questions, says Assoc. Prof. Stokes.

‘Ethics is concerned with how we should live and what should govern the way in which we behave in relation to other people and to ourselves. It centres on questions of right and wrong, good and bad.’

Logic is the study of principles of reasoning. ‘It’s about trying to find the necessary, almost mathematical, structure of argument and reason, and trying to explain why certain statements have to be true and why certain statements can’t be true,’ Assoc. Prof. Stokes says.

Other fascinating branches of philosophy include phenomenology – the study of human experience – and stoicism, which examines strategies to ‘live a good life by making ourselves less vulnerable to suffering’, says Assoc. Prof. Stokes.

Kickstart your career

If you’re wondering why study philosophy in a practical, career-focused sense, there are a lot of less abstract benefits.

‘Regardless of which profession you go into or which career path you end up choosing, critical reasoning skills, the ability to identify and interrogate assumptions, being comfortable with challenging your own assumptions, spotting a bad argument, being able to construct a good argument – all of these things are really important life skills and really important employability skills,’ Assoc. Prof. Stokes says. ‘They will all carry you through whatever you choose to do in life.’

He says many philosophy students study the discipline as part of an arts degree, and there’s a significant cohort from other backgrounds like creative arts, nursing and teaching.

‘Students like the idea that philosophy will give them a greater ethical grounding and a deeper understanding of different cultures and fundamental assumptions about the way the world is, which will help them in their chosen field of work.’

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Assoc. Prof. Patrick Stokes
Assoc. Prof. Patrick Stokes

Associate Professor of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

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