Harvard Shield

Department of Philosophy

Harvard University

    Harvard.edu | FAS | GSAS | HCL
Home | News & Events | Links | Site Map | Contact


Why Philosophy?

Famous Philosophy Majors | What is Philosophy? | Benefits
Harvard Philosophy Concentration |Graduate School? | Contact Us

Famous Philosophy Majors
Who majors in philosophy? The study of philosophy does not not necessarily limit one to a career in academia, though this is certainly an option.

You might be surprised to learn that many people have studied philosophy and gone on to success in a variety of careers, from comedy (George Carlin, Woody Allen, Steve Martin) to business (Carly Fiorina, George Soros) to acting (Harrison Ford, Bruce Lee) to literature (T.S. Eliot, Pearl Buck, David Foster Wallace) to politics (Václav Havel, Bill Clinton) to law (Hon. Stephen Breyer, Hon. David Souter, Hon. Beverly McLachlin) to the arts (Phillip Glass) to journalism (Stone Phillips) to social activism (Martin Luther King, Jr., Elie Wiesel) to sports (Phil Jackson, John Elway).

For a more extensive list, please click here.
Back to top
What is Philosophy?
Philosophy is the systematic and critical study of fundamental questions that arise both in everyday life and through the practice of other disciplines. Some of these questions concern the nature of reality: Is there an external world? What is the relationship between the physical and the mental? Does God exist? Others concern our nature as rational, purposive, and social beings: Do we act freely? Where do our moral obligations come from? How do we construct just political states? Others concern the nature and extent of our knowledge: What is it to know something rather than merely believe it? Does all of our knowledge come from sensory experience? Are there limits to our knowledge? And still others concern the foundations and implications of other disciplines: What is a scientific explanation? What is the status of evolutionary theory versus creationism? Does the possibility of genetic cloning alter our conception of self? Do the results of quantum mechanics force us to view our relations to objects differently?

The aim in Philosophy is not to master a body of facts, so much as think clearly and sharply through any set of facts. Towards that end, philosophy students are trained to read critically, analyze and assess arguments, discern hidden assumptions, construct logically tight arguments, and express themselves clearly and precisely in both speech and writing. These formidable talents can be applied to philosophical issues as well as others, and philosophy students excel in fields as varied as law, business, medicine, journalism, and politics.

Those interested in reading more about various ways of looking at philosophical practice may want to peruse some of the texts listed in this bibliography.
Back to top
Benefits of Philosophical Training

Philosophy is a discipline requiring skills in reasoning and writing. Thus, the study of philosophy helps a person to develop the abilities to:

  • Read texts closely
  • Analyze positions critically
  • Uncover tacit presuppositions
  • Construct cogent arguments, and
  • Explain and argue in clear persuasive writing.

These skills are extremely useful in many other disciplines beyond philosophy—and for a range of careers, such as law, computer science, business, medicine, writing, the arts, publishing, and many others. The abilities to write well and to "think outside the box" are in high demand from employers, and will serve students well in their post-college life, as the following articles indicate:

Back to top
The Undergraduate Concentration in Philosophy at Harvard
What are some of the unique aspects of this concentration?
The department has a large faculty-to-student ratio, so lecture courses are relatively small. Faculty members sometimes lead tutorials, and every philosophy concentrator is assigned a faculty advisor.

The Work in Progress Lunch Series allows students to talk with faculty and graduate students about their ongoing research.

The Harvard Review of Philosophy is an undergraduate-run annual journal that publishes articles by and interviews with prominent philosophers, runs weekly philosophical discussion groups for undergraduates, and organizes lectures and dinners with faculty.

Women in Philosophy organizes a lecture once a year by a local woman philosopher and organizes social gatherings for women undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty.

The Philosophical Psychology Lab allows students to explore philosophical problems of perception while collaborating with psychologists and running experiments. And students are encouraged to attend the frequent talks, receptions, and teas hosted by the department.
Do I have to write a thesis?
Students may concentrate in Philosophy with, or without, honors. Those concentrating without honors are not required to write a thesis. Those concentrating with honors, and those in the Mind, Brain, and Behavior track, are required to write a thesis.
Are there other options instead of a full concentration?
The Mind, Brain, and Behavior track allows students to pursue their philosophy concentration while taking courses in the life sciences. Students may pursue a joint concentration, with Philosophy as the primary concentration. Joint concentrators writing theses must write on a topic relating to both fields of concentration. Students may also pursue Philosophy as a secondary track and write their thesis in their field of concentration alone.
Back to top
Graduate School?
For some, the formal study of philosophy does not end with the completion of their undergraduate degrees. A small number of students continue philosophical training at the graduate level.

There are various reasons as to why people choose graduate study in philosophy.

For most, graduate study leads to obtaining the professional credentials necessary to teach at the post-secondary level.

For others, graduate study in philosophy is a time of career exploration.

Still others study philosophy at the graduate level so that they can apply the training to other types of work, such as law.

Undergraduate concentrators considering graduate study in philosophy may have many questions about the nature of graduate study, the various graduate programs, and the application process. How can they learn more?

One way is to attend the meeting held every fall by the Tutorial Office. During this meeting, seniors who are considering graduate schools in philosophy can learn more about the application process, as well as potential programs that would best suit their interests.

Another way is to speak with the Head Tutor, along with any of the graduate students or faculty of the department. They can help students:
  • Decide as to whether they want to apply
  • Discuss possible programs
  • Provide advice on how to approach people for recommendations.
  • Locate people who have attended, or taught at, schools of potential interest.
In short, students should not hesitate to avail themselves of the counsel and advice offered by the Department when considering graduate school and programs.
Back to top
Contact Us
We would love to hear from you. Drop by our offices in Emerson Hall, telephone, or e-mail:
Warrent Goldfarb
Head Tutor
Emerson 204
Emily Ware
Department Coordinator

Emerson 303
Back to top

This site is best viewed in a Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, or Google Chrome browser.

© 2011-2013 President and Fellows of Harvard College, Harvard University