Five BYU philosophy professors recommended philosophers they think would be most enriching for college students to learn about.
Philosophical discourse can be traced back as far as the sixth century B.C.E., according to research by the University of Pittsburgh, revolving around age-old questions of the soul, such as what it means to live a meaningful life, how the natural world works and the nature of humankind.
A study by Kutztown University shows philosophy has remained popular both as the discipline itself and as means of preparing students for exams for law school, medicine and various other graduate studies.
Undergraduate degrees in philosophy awarded in the U.S. rose steadily from 8,149 in 1971, reaching a climax of 14,338 in 2011. It remained relatively consistent but dipped to just 11,889 bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2020, as shown in a study by National Center for Education Statistics.
BYU even awarded 17 bachelor’s degrees in the 2019-20 academic school year, 0.3% overall compared to 12.8% of undergraduates in business and marketing and 11.6% in biological and life sciences.
Travis Anderson, Associate Chair and professor in the BYU Department of Philosophy, said philosophy will always remain relevant and for those looking for a good place to start, everyone should become familiar with Plato.
“His dialogues are not only stunningly original and insightful, but are beautiful works of literature,” Anderson said. “And of course, since Plato’s ideas have informed virtually all Western culture — if not global culture — then without an understanding of Plato, one cannot understand their own intellectual history and heritage.”
Derek Haderlie, assistant professor in the Philosophy Department, agreed. He said Plato plays the role in philosophy that Shakespeare plays in English literature.
“He sets the table for the incredible meal that is philosophy,” Haderlie said. “Plato is someone that I think anyone can get into and find interesting questions to ponder and interesting takes on how to answer those questions.”
Nathan Rockwood, another assistant professor in the Philosophy Department, agreed that Plato is an engaging philosopher to read, but he recommended learning about John Locke, having dedicated more of his life to studying Locke’s theory of knowledge and religious philosophy.
“I definitely think there’s a lot that college students can learn from his world view,” Rockwood said. “He was bold and relied on evidence. He found religious belief was justified by evidence and I think that’s worthwhile for people to be exposed to.”
If more soul-searching questions take precedence, BYU philosophy professor Justin White proposed spending time learning about insights from Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. White said both philosophers wrestled with what it meant to live a meaningful life.
“I think they have important insights about the state of our world and what it means to live as the sort of beings we are,” White said.
White explained that although the two philosophers are different — Nietzsche being against organized religion and Kierkegaard being a famous Christian existentialist — both philosophers have bilateral views of how they diagnose their present-day situation, giving similar counsel of how to live a rich life.
BYU philosophy professor Angela Faulconer said it is hard to pick just one philosopher. She said she believes it’s good to take the best insights from each. For a good study on how one develops virtuous traits, she recommended reading Aristotle.
“Aristotle has such good answers, saying that we become excellent people through action and we develop this through habit,” Faulconer said.
Faulconer said she would also add philosophers Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill to the list. She said they are from opposite ends of the spectrum, but when their teachings are used together, they can help create a holistic approach to making choices in life.
“He helps us understand that there are some things we should never ever do, that there are some bright ethical lines that shouldn’t be crossed,” Faulconer said of Kant. “John Stuart Mill’s insight is that we need to care about the consequences of our actions. We should be judging by asking, ‘Are we making the world a better place?’”
Rockwood said along with helping students confidently prepare for higher education, engaging in philosophical discourse and debating various opposing ideas can help students develop virtuous traits. A virtuous trait Rockwood hopes his students learn to possess is tolerance.
“I hope that my students will see the world from other people’s perspectives and recognize that, even though the students may not agree with another position, others might reasonably believe that position,” Rockwood said. “Even if you and I disagree, I can still respect your opinion and recognize that you are being reasonable in believing something different than what I believe.”
White said he believes philosophy and the questions that ensue lead to greater curiosity and openness to learning new things, which helps nurture intellectual humility.
“I think it’s very easy in general to become very confident that we have all the answers and that we understand everything,” White said. “I think it’s really important to be open to continuing to learn new things. For example, if we believe in continuing revelation, I think it’s a fundamental thing of our religious beliefs that our beliefs individually and collectively could continue to change and evolve.”
Haderlie said with the learning of new ideas, pursuit of truth and gaining of wisdom, philosophy can teach us how to exercise patience, to become less defensive and to learn from and listen to others.
“There’s a sense of, ‘Maybe there’s something we can learn from other people,’” Haderlie said. “They might be wrong about lots of things, but they might reveal in their objections — or ways that they challenge what I believe — some new perspective that I never considered that illuminates what I believe or, more preferably, illuminates whatever the truth is.”
Faulconer said part of being educated is learning to see nuance. The most important thing students can do, she pointed out, is to realize that while people have different views and beliefs, they can find beauty in these differences and recognize that not every set of beliefs is equal to each other in terms of quality. She advised students to be careful not to fall into the trap of moral relativism.
“That all can be hard but is super important,” Faulconer said. “We also have to balance it with an understanding that it’s not the case that every belief is up for grabs and every belief has the same truth as every other belief, because that’s not true.”
Along with developing virtues such as tolerance, humility, patience and wisdom when engaging in philosophy, Anderson also added gratitude. He said studying philosophy helped him learn how to engage with some of the brightest minds in history, to reason and gain deeper understanding of life and its challenges and how to live a morally excellent life. Anderson said all this gives him more appreciation for those he loves and works with.
“Anyone can appreciate those gifts without being a philosopher, but philosophy has taught me why those gifts are so valuable and how to use them to full effect,” Anderson said.