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The value of studying philosophy

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Some commentators have judged a degree in philosophy to be `the most useless degree one can study for.` The number of students choosing to take this once vaunted and highly valued subject has been steadily dropping for decades in the UK. But how is it thats this nobel discipline, which was the progenitor of all the sciences, has come to be viewed as an `artsy hippie-esk` subject, whose certificates some say are not worth the paper they are printed on?

Philosophy was indeed the precursor to the separate sciences: physics, chemistry and biology. Indeed, during the middle ages, any intellectual pursuit that we now would deem to be adhering to the `academic method` was called Natural Philosophy.` The term `scientist` did not come into existence until the mid nineteenth century. The great scientist Sir Isaac Newton titled his magnum opus (published in 1687) `Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.`

As the three separated sciences became codified and classified as distinct subjects, philosophy itself concerned itself with a broader and more conceptual set of concerns. Epistemology, metaphysics and logic are just some of the branches of the subject. Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps the greatest philosopher of the 20th century stated that `Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.`

On the continent the subject of philosophy is held in much higher regard. In France it is a compulsory subject for students in the `terminale` or last year of high school. For those studying the humanities their schedule will include up to eight hours a week of philosophy classes. In Germany the subject is hugely popular, with the University of Albert Ludwig in Freiburg and the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, being so oversubscribed that they had to impose limits on the number of students attempting to enrol.

The continent also enjoys an intellectual climate that seems to be absent here. Professional philosophers are celebrated as venerable celebrities, and regularly publish their opinions on a broad range of matters, from the political, to the social economical, and aesthetic. Somehow he very notion of a public intellectual seems somehow to have negative and disparaging connotations in the UK - we will take `sage advice` from celebrities and business leaders, but not from academics.

In France the philosopher John Paul Sartre was outspoken on numerous political matters, and regularly engaged with the population in non academic maters. His opinions, along with his contemporary Michel Foucault ; were held in his esteem by the public, and they were regarded as intellectuals and spokesman for the masses. America has the great Noam Chomsky (even though much of the american media ignores him, or deigns to excoriates his `dissident` views); and Slavoj i ek, the Slovenian philosopher, whose books include Living in End times and Disparities, enjoys huge readership.

It seems we don`t have the same convivial relationship with our intellectuals here in the UK. Though we have our Stephen Hawking and our Brian cox, and not forgetting out much loved David Attenborough - these individuals, brilliant and engaging as they are, tend to focus their intellectual abilities within their own academic domain. Actually at the time of writing this article Stephen Hawking is challenging Jeremy Hunt over matters regarding the finding of the NHS - but this is a rare foray by a well known scientist into the world of politics.

Philosophy is perhaps the only subject outside of religion that allows students make inquiries into the really fundamental topics of life, such as the nature of time, theres of mind and language, consciousness and memory. The term philosophy itself means `love of wisdom` - and perhaps learning for the sake of knowledge itself is becoming ever more rare. The only time I can recall hearing someone referred to as a `scholar` was in reference to theology - someone with a sound knowledge of the Bible or the Quran. Of course if you study philosophy you are unlikely to find employment as a professional philosopher - but the same could be said of someone studying the classics, or the history of art, that they are unlikely to find a position that specifically relates to these subjects. Like those who study the humanities, students of philosophy will become culturally enriched. They will learn to reason and argue with logical clarity - for they will study logic and reason itself. They will study epistemology, ethics, aesthetics - and they will be enriched in numerous ways, both personally and intellectually.

7 months ago
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