Philosophy helps us answer big questions

Students should consider taking a philosophy class to increase their understanding of themselves and others.


The first time I read Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” in my existentialism class, I felt like so many of my feelings as a woman were validated.

The French philosopher’s characterization about how women are treated differently from men in society and about the ways in which femininity can be forced on women even by their own family resonated with me deeply.

I’ve had many epiphanies about myself in the various philosophy classes I’ve taken since then. I’ve also come to better understand how humans treat each other and why considering the viewpoints of others is essential when trying to solve the world’s problems.

For students looking to gain a similar type of understanding, I’d suggest considering a philosophy class during this fall’s add/drop period.

“We all ask philosophical questions over our lives, sort of big questions about, ‘What are we here for? What is the meaning of this all?’” said Miriam Solomon, chair of the philosophy department. “And I think it’s useful to have a little bit of training in college for when these questions come up in your life.”

Solomon said philosophy can help us contemplate the potential answers to questions many of us ask ourselves in daily life anyway — Is there life after death? Are there limits to human knowledge? When is war or conflict justified?

In my case, philosophy classes helped me put a name to experiences I’ve had and question my own beliefs.

Last spring, my political philosophy professor pushed our class to discuss whether eating meat is ethical. And after debating about power, consent and why there’s a distinction in which animals we feel comfortable eating, I’m still not sure of the answer or the morality of my own diet.

But in this class, I learned to question and defend my own beliefs and to listen and challenge others on theirs.

Solomon said these lessons are common to philosophy classes. Philosophy, she said, “encourages you to say more than just what you believe, but to go deeper into saying why you believe it and whether it’s important for other people.”

Lex Van der Gaag, a senior philosophy major and president of the Temple University Philosophy Society, said reading the work of philosophers she doesn’t agree with for class has allowed her to see how others rationalize points of view she doesn’t hold herself.

“There’s a bunch of philosophers that especially for their time are very misogynistic,” she said, referring to 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. “And I had to write essays on them and their ideas, and I’ve had to strengthen it, even though obviously I’m a woman, [and] it’s not something I agree with.”

Trying to understand the viewpoints of others and not writing them off if we disagree is essential, especially as national politics become more heated and personal.

In the wake of the violence by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia earlier this month, Van der Gaag said she has tried to contemplate how people may have developed such beliefs.

“That’s something that you got to do even though it’s really hard,” she said. “Like with neo-nazis and everything, I struggle to understand that and I know that it’s wrong, but you can’t just ignore people that you disagree with.”

I’ve also contemplated how people develop such hate for others, and I’ve likewise tried to think about how those on the receiving end of this hate must feel.

This contemplation is exactly the point of philosophy. And the incident in Charlottesville is just one example of a current event that philosophy can offer us a better insight on.

For topics that are this important, we need to gain understanding, so we can work to make our world a better place for everyone.

And though it may not seem grandiose, I think a philosophy class just might be the best way to start this mission.

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