Dr. Andrew Davis: The importance of philosophy in college
Many college students today are unsure if their degree will benefit their future lives and careers. For those who need time to discover their professional passion, there are more versatile areas of study.
The Belmont Vision sat down with Dr. Andrew Davis, an associate professor of philosophy at Belmont, to discuss the benefits of learning to love knowledge for its own sake. He presented a case for the study of philosophy as a meaningful option for the college years.
BV: When did you begin your pursuit of philosophy?
AD: Well, I went to college with the intention of studying creative writing, but I took a philosophy of literature class in my second year of college, and something woke up in me when I took that class. I found that the philosophy classroom space was very different in small but meaningful ways.
It was an interesting mix of what you’d expect in terms of the rigors of a more science-oriented classroom and the creativity and room for expression that you’d expect in literature, humanities-oriented classrooms. I really responded to this mixture, what I think Sophocles calls in Ephedrus “serious play.” No idea was off the table, but as soon as you put an idea up it was going to get examined, and if it was no good people would tell you.
BV: What does the average college student think when they hear someone studies philosophy?
AD: I think philosophy is rumoured to be useless, which it is in the sense that it is a human activity that is done for its own sake – not a means to an end but an end to itself. We do it because it is something humans do.
You can give an account of philosophy that says you can get critical thinking skills so you can then apply them to the business environment or the sciences. Philosophers have to make this case because college is increasingly seen as professional training or as having to make a direct and useful contribution to a student’s future career.
What philosophy actually is can be rightly condemned as useless because it is becoming more and more invested in the activity of inquiry for its own sake and not necessarily because it leads somewhere.
BV: On that point, do you think students are intimidated by the philosophy department?
AD: Yes, especially students who start in upper-level classes and start in classes with philosophy majors.
You find that the very thing that I like about philosophy, which is that not everybody’s viewpoint is going to be considered useful and that we’re going to apply standards of reasoning and argument and persuasiveness and coherence to what someone has said, that very criticism that I find so productive and liberating and exciting is something that some people do not enjoy.
But sometimes even a silent student is still gaining from an atmosphere where the very intimidation that keeps them from talking actually gives them something to aspire to. If you don’t feel like you can talk to this person now, wouldn’t you like to be the kind of person that could someday?
BV: If, as you mentioned, college is increasingly viewed as professional training, why spend your college years studying philosophy?
AD: I’m confident that philosophy offers a lot to its students in that we teach articulateness, first and foremost through reading. We read hard stuff, things that if you don’t learn how to break it down bit by bit and really get clear on what it’s saying, you can’t get anywhere with it. It requires a special kind of literacy, and special kind of attention to detail, and when you begin to get it, it’s sort of like a skeleton key to books in general.
When you find yourself able to read things like Aristotle’s “Physics” and Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” and Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit,” these sorts of books that are famous for impenetrable obscurity in some ways, when you begin to crack the code, as it were, your fear of the written word completely disappears.
BV: Does philosophy offer a more versatile education to students who are unsure of what to pursue in college?
AD: I think philosophy is a great undeclared major. It should be a default major; if you don’t know what else you want to do, you may as well study philosophy because it’s going to bring about a lot of the basic skills that you want out of a liberal education.
But it has a problem: philosophy has this sort of insidious way of getting people to love it for its own sake, and it can be very difficult to move on to something else. You may have started philosophy maybe wanting to become a lawyer, but you fall in love with thinking for its own sake.
BV: How is the study of philosophy beneficial after graduation?
AD: The philosophical thinking that I’ve done stretches into every part of life and seems relevant to all kinds of things.
If what you want to do is talk about philosophy books, which is only a small part of philosophy, it’s hard to find the places where people will read these books with you. It isn’t difficult, however, to find some kind of help in working out your own life and problems. If they’ve done it right, I think philosophy makes possible the best sorts of human relationships and friendships.
If I’m going to wax lyrical, the greatest contribution that philosophy can make to the human life is to make genuine love possible.
I think that’s why being an educated person is important. Philosophy is uniquely suited to support that because it is the only human activity willing to question every single assumption, every premise including its own.
That thoroughness is a real advantage when it comes to establishing common ground with people. It means really wanting to share in a vision of the good and the beautiful. It has had a tremendous impact on my life and the way I have relationships with people.
Before I studied philosophy I valued people that pandered to me rather than people that examined me, and now I really value people who disagree with me productively. That seems like a healthy shift to me, and to some extent I blame philosophy.
Interview and introduction by James Mixon.