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What is Philosophy?

Philosophy is sometimes described as the study of the true, the good, and the beautiful, but a more useful characterization might describe some of the standard areas of philosophy. Metaphysics studies what there is and the role of humans in the structure of things. Does God exist? Are minds and thoughts real and basic, or are we merely bodies and brainstates? Does everything have a cause, and if so do we have free will? What is the nature of personal identity? These are examples of metaphysical questions. Epistemology is the study of knowledge: what we can know and how we know it. Can we really know anything? Is the world really the way it appears to us? Do other minds exist, and are their experiences like mine? How can we ever know the truth of a universal scientific law, based on our finite experience? Ethics considers what is right and wrong, ideals of the good life, and what we owe ourselves and others. Do I have any reason to obey a moral code if it conflicts with my self-interest? Why should I obey the law? Are moral values objective, or are they simply matters of convention or agreement? Logic studies arguments, inferences, and reasoning. What is a proof? What is a good argument? What is rationality? Other areas include philosophy of art, philosophy of science, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of religion. Our department offers courses in all of these areas. We also teach courses in the History of Philosophy, which explore that the great thinkers of the past have said about these issues. In these courses, you will read the works of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Descartes, David Hume, Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others.

Would I have any interest in Philosophy?

This is a reasonable question. You probably have never taken a course in philosophy in high school, and you may not have read much philosophy either. Most thoughtful people your age or older, however, have wondered about philosophical questions, and probably you have had philosophical conversations with your teachers, friends, and family. Have you ever wondered whether God exists, whether life has any meaning, or whether we ever know what the world is really like apart from our experiences? Have you ever wondered if abortion or affirmative action is morally permissible, or whether moral disagreements can ever be resolved? Is anyone ever truly responsible for what they do? When do people deserve punishment or praise? Are human beings merely sophisticated computers? Is beauty something more than what somebody likes a lot? Have you ever wondered what makes some arguments good or valid and others not? Is a persuasive argument always a good one? If you have ever pondered questions like these, then you have done some philosophy or have begun a philosophical inquiry. Philosophy courses are aimed primarily at people who take such questions seriously, who find them important but troubling, and who want to know how to answer them and perhaps why they are so difficult to answer.

Is Philosophy useful?

This is also a fair question, and it deserves an honest answer. One could reply truthfully that philosophical training helps students learn to think logically, systematically, and critically. It teaches skills, for example, that help students who go into business, law, medicine, and science. One could quote statistics about how philosophy majors score far better than average on exams for law schools or medical schools, and how philosophy majors tend to excel in these other professions. While these would be truthful answers, they may also be misleading, for it may be that students who major in philosophy tend to be better than average to begin with. In truth, it is a mistake to look outside philosophy for the justification for studying it. Philosophy may not be practical, it may not make you happy, and it may not be a duty or a comfort. But if you want to know the implications of what you believe about yourself and your society, if you want to know whether your scientific concepts are meaningful and your reasoning cogent, if you want to know whether your ideals are confused or contradictory, if you want to know, in a word, as much as you can know about what it means to be rational, then you cannot escape it: you are a philosopher. And if you want to be a better philosopher, you will do well to study whatever there is that can be taught and learned about philosophy.

What Philosophy courses are offered at UMBC?

The Schedule of Classes tells you what courses are offered each term, and the Undergraduate Catalog gives the complete listing of courses. The requirements for a major or minor in philosophy are included under the Students¬†tab on the home page of our website. A complete list of Philosophy department faculty can be found under the Faculty/Staff¬† tab. If you have never before taken a philosophy course, you might think about enrolling in one of our introductory courses: PHIL 100 Introduction to Philosophy – introduces students to a range of the basic problems in philosophy and some of the classic writings on these subjects; PHIL 146 Critical Thinking – introduces students to principles of logic and teaches them to apply these principles to their own arguments and to detect the fallacies and faulty reasoning in the arguments of others; PHIL 150 Introduction to Ethics – introduces students to the nature of moral reasoning, the major ethical theories and their applications to some important moral problems, and issues about the objectivity of ethics. Most of the courses that the faculty teach beyond these introductory courses are connected to the professors’ research interests and to the questions that got them hooked on philosophy to begin with. Rather than repeat the information given in the Catalog, it might be more interesting for you to hear what some of the philosophy faculty say about their own philosophical interests and the courses they teach.
The philosophy major and minor emphasize critical analysis, problem-solving and the formulation and evaluation of arguments in oral and written contexts. Philosophy students learn to think logically and critically. The major also introduces students to a range of traditional philosophical issues and provides an opportunity to read carefully the works of some of the greatest thinkers in history.