So You Want To Be a Philosophy Major–Recommendations and Book List

Philosophy can be an exciting, challenging, and exhilarating field of study.  It often gets a bad rap for being an impractical (and not so cost effective) academic pursuit.  Why study philosophy?  Aside from extrinsic factors there is much intrinsic value in studying philosophy.  Bertrand Russell, a famous logician and philosopher, succintly writes about the value of philosophy.  Philosophy can be a fun intellectual enterprise, a great way to interrogate and fashion beliefs, and discover thyself.  Studies have shown that among the humanities disciplines philosophy students activate cognitive centers in the brain on par with their peers who study the “hard” sciences.

At the undergraduate level, most novice students find great appeal in the “big ideas” or “big themes”: Does God exist? What’s the meaning of life? What is the Good Life?  What’s the nature of justice?  What does it mean to be a moral person?  A student quickly learns that there are several divisions of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, language, logic, science, etc.  Then there are different approaches, methods, or practices of “doing philosophy.”  These approaches are often broadly categorized into two schools of thought: Continental Philosophy and Anglo-American Analytic Philosophy.  These schools are not entirely exclusive of each other.  Often “analytic” philosophers will study Continental thinkers, and vice versa.  Some of the best work in Continental Philosophy is happening in analytic departments.  However, many contemporary philosophers think the “analytic” and “Continental” divide is fairly silly and old hat.

A few Continental philosophers include (but are not limited to) folks such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Husserl, Habermas, Foucault, and Derrida.  A few analytic philosophers include (but are not limited to) folks such as Russell, Wittgenstein, Ayer, J.L. Austin, Strawson, Quine, Davidson, Searle, Burge, Rawls, etc.  Often within each school there are widely different views, approaches, and opposing viewpoints.  For example, among analytic philosophers an “internalist” such as Searle vehemently disagrees with the “externalist” Burge.  On the other hand, one of most hard fought debates of the late 20th Century was between two different approaches to studying language, Searle’s “analytic” approach versus Derrida’s “deconstruction.”

In the United States, I’d say that about 95% of philosophy departments are broadly construed as “analytic” in orientation.  But as I previously said, some of the best work in Continental philosophy is happening in analytic departments, such as at the University of Pittsburgh, UC Berkeley, U Chicago, UC Santa Cruz, U Texas–Austin, UC Riverside, Notre Dame, and Boston University.  Only a few departments are exclusively Continental in orientation, such as Emory, Duquesne, Loyola of Chicago and Boston, Boston College, Fordham, and Villanova.  If you’re in an “analytic” department and want to study Continental Philosophy, it may be wise to align your studies with analytic methods and coursework.

If you want to be a philosophy major, then I highly, highly recommend that you complete courses in basic logic.  It would be unwise to postpone or defer this course of study.  Enroll in logic classes right away.  They are somewhat like “boot camp” for philosophy students.  Helpful, beneficial, required.

Most philosophy majors are required to successfully complete a certain amount of logic, usually Introduction to Logic or Beginning Formal (Modern) Logic.  This is crucial and should be completed immediately in your academic plan.  I cannot stress enough how important logic will be in your studies.  Philosophers study ideas.  Ideas are expressed in arguments–claims and reasons.  Thus, in order to comprehend the details of ideas you’ll want to have a firm grasp of basic logic.  That means you’ll need a course that covers propositional and predicate logic. Categorical logic (Aristotelian logic) can be useful but in my estimation it’s much less useful than modern logic (propositional and predicate logic).  You’ll need to understand how to evaluate arguments by using counterexamples, truth tables (sometimes truth trees), and formal deductive proofs (direct, indirect, and conditional).

If you’re not a philosophy major, then I still highly recommend basic logic classes.  The instruction will have immediate and delayed (cumulative) benefits.  Your cognitive and critical thinking skills will improve.  Your writing and argumentation skills will improve.  Your reading comprehension skills will improve.  If you’ll ever need to take standardized exams for college admission or professional programs (such as the SAT, GRE, or LSAT), then logic is invaluable for success.  In other words, even if you’re not a philosophy major, then do yourself a favor and complete a logic class or two.  You’ll reap numerous benefits that will serve academic success.

How can I prepare to be a Philosophy Major?  

You can enroll in philosophy classes.  Support your local philosophy program.  Begin with logic.  In your “spare time” you may want to consult the following list of books (not comprehensive):

1) Copi’s or Hurley’s Introduction to Logic.  Standard in the field.  I’d recommend older editions.  Newer editions contain distracting pedagogical apparatuses.

[Free online logic book, Paul Teller]

2) Copi’s Symbolic Logic or Bonevac’s Deduction

3) Kalish and Montague.  Logic [not for the weak-willed].

3) Graff / Birkenstein.  They Say / I Say.  Learn the “moves” of argumentative academic writing–how to summarize views, quote and comment on them, synthesize ideas, and offer your own argument.

4) Adler /Elgin.  Philosophical Inquiry.  Inexpensive, good coverage.

5) Warburton.  Philosophy: Basic Readings.  Inexpensive, good readings.

6) Bertrand Russell.  History of Western Philosophy.  Biased perspective, good coverage, excellent prose stylist.  For a less biased presentation, try Frederick Copleston or W.T. Jones (each in multivolumes).

7) Bertrand Russell.  Problems of Philosophy.   [online version here].  You can’t go wrong with Russell.  Along with other qualities, he’s an excellent writer–remember, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

8) Cornman/Lehrer/Pappas.  Philosophical Problems and Arguments.  A “problem-oriented” (not historical) introduction to philosophy, not for beginners, but quite good, inexpensive).

9) Nagel.  The View from Nowhere.  Good coverage of various areas by a leading philosopher.

10) Hackett’s Introductory Texts and Dialogues and Readings in Philosophy.   John Perry’s dialogues are excellent.  For more information on John Perry, see his radio /podcast program Philosophy Talk (with Ken Taylor).


For those of you considering graduate work in philosophy, please read the following article.  Graduate studies in philosophy is not the same thing as studying the “big ideas.”  No more surveys and coursework in historical periods. You’ll need to find a specific problem or issue (narrow your scope and then narrow it down further).  Graduate work implies narrow, narrow specialization. The atmosphere can be brutal, unfriendly, and cut-throat competitive, depending on where you study (both faculty and fellow students). Think Social Darwinism–“survival of the fittest”–those who survive have above-average intelligence, wicked logic skills, and lots of drive and ambition. The overall financial outlook isn’t altogether bright. Best advice: gather information (take your time), talk to people in the field (graduate students, junior faculty, and advisors), and be realistic. Best wishes and get thinking!







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