Philosophy for the curious: why study Philosophy?

A new resource has recently been made available to people interested in studying Philosophy, “Philosophy for the Curious: Why Study Philosophy?” by Curious Academic Publishing (2015). Lisa Bortolotti was among the philosophers interviewed for this project. We report here an abridged version of the interview.

So, our curious students would like to know what actually the academic discipline of Philosophy is. How do you see the future of Philosophy in terms of career opportunities and options? Why should the students choose Philosophy as their undergraduate or postgraduate major?

Philosophy is at the same time a practice and a body of knowledge. As a practice, Philosophy invites us to adopt a critical attitude towards received opinions and by studying the subject we acquire the capacity to assess and develop arguments for or against a certain position. We learn how to spot weaknesses in an argument and build counter-examples to it, but also, more constructively, we learn how to avoid bad reasoning when we propose an argument for a certain position. Due to Philosophy as a practice, Philosophy graduates usually have excellent analytical, critical and problem-solving skills and they are sought after by employers for this reason. As a body of knowledge, Philosophy is about gaining an understanding of the issues that matter to us, and to which we apply the skills we have been talking about. What is consciousness? Does God exist? Is killing always wrong? In practical philosophy we investigate ethical and political issues and in theoretical philosophy we ask questions about the methodology of the sciences, the nature of reality, the complexities of the human mind, and the limitations of our knowledge of the world, among many others. Philosophy can also be thought of as a reflection on other disciplines, so we have philosophy of physics, philosophy of psychology, and so on, where we look at the conceptual framework within which empirical issues are discussed. As a body of knowledge, Philosophy does not translate into a career in a direct way, apart from preparing for teaching or research. But Philosophy graduates often get into politics and public policy, human resources, law, journalism and publishing.

Now, why should our prospective students undertake a research degree in Philosophy? Can you briefly discuss the research areas in Philosophy that the University of Birmingham is actively pursuing? Are practitioners generally less interested in taking advantage of academic research in Philosophy?

As with all research degrees, a research degree in Philosophy requires passion for the subject and a commitment to contributing to advancing a specific debate that strikes us as important. A PhD student in particular makes a very significant investment of time and resources to become an expert in the topic of her proposed thesis, and it is important to acknowledge that such an investment does not always lead to an academic job. We still have PhD students who have just finished their first degrees and Masters and continue to study because they aspire to an academic career. But we also have professionals who take time off to explore an issue that has emerged as interesting during their working life and aim to get back to their careers after their studies. In the area I am doing research in, the philosophy of the cognitive sciences and the philosophy of psychiatry, this is very common. In our department we do have specialisms in philosophy of psychology and psychiatry, but also in other areas of philosophy such as logic, metaphysics, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, ethics, global ethics and philosophy of religion. Not only do the themes vary, but also the methodologies we adopt. In my own research, I work closely with clinical psychiatrists and psychologists and my papers and books are often aimed not just at philosophers but at an interdisciplinary audience. Other areas of philosophical research are more self-contained.

Finally, would you like to share any best practice tips with our students and practitioners based on your observation on Philosophy education, research and practice in the UK?

When I teach I try hard to remember what it was like to be a Philosophy student and learn from my own experience. Different teaching styles and approaches can work equally well if the lecturer is enthusiastic about the topic of the lecture, well-informed, and ready to give students space to think and time to talk. My aim is to invite students to think about important issues, learn something new about themselves and the world they live in, develop their own coherent and sensible argument, fruitfully exchange ideas with each other, and ultimately engage in the debates currently shaping the field. They should always feel like active participants, not spectators. When I do research I try and adopt the same attitude of an eager student. I read as widely as time allows. I write, get feedback, and rewrite to make my prose clearer and my arguments tighter. I go and talk to other philosophers, but also the general public, about my work and hope it can make a difference, in a small way, to what we think and how well we live. I give talks at international conferences but I am also happy to use Facebook and Twitter to share new results, by myself and others, and promote discussion. Recently, I have started a group blog, called ImperfectCognitions, where research in my area is made widely accessible and new ideas can be discussed safely and productively. Contributors range from Masters students to Distinguished Professors, have different disciplinary backgrounds and are based in different parts of the world, but all share a passion for philosophy and a desire to keep the conversation going