BYU professors share their thoughts on philosophy

A BYU student reads a book on Plato. On average, students who major in philosophy do better in exams leading to higher education, according to a study by Kutztown University. (Julia Orellana-Funes)

Five BYU philosophy professors recommended philosophers they thought would be the most rewarding for students.

According to research from the University of Pittsburgh, philosophical discourse dates back to the sixth century BCE, and revolves around age-old questions of the soul, such as what it means to live a meaningful life, how the natural world works, and nature. of humanity.

A Kutztown University study shows that philosophy has remained popular both as a discipline itself and as a means of preparing students for exams in law school, medicine and various other studies. superior.

Undergraduate degrees in philosophy awarded in the United States increased steadily from 8,149 in 1971 to a high of 14,338 in 2011. It remained relatively constant but dropped to just 11,889 bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2020, as a study by the National Center for Education Statistics shows.

BYU even awarded 17 bachelor’s degrees in the 2019-2020 school year, or 0.3% overall compared to 12.8% of undergraduates in business and marketing and 11.6% in biological and life sciences. life.

BYU philosophy professor Travis Anderson recommends becoming familiar with Plato’s teachings. Other professors in the department say engaging in philosophical discourse helps broaden the mind. (Made in Canva by Julia Orellana-Funes)

Travis Anderson, associate chair and professor in BYU’s philosophy department, said pThe philosophy will always remain relevant and for those looking for a good starting point, everyone should familiarize themselves with Plato.

“His dialogues are not only incredibly original and insightful, but are beautiful works of literature,” Anderson said. “And of course, since Plato’s ideas have informed virtually all of Western culture – if not world culture – then without an understanding of Plato, one cannot understand their own intellectual history and legacy.”

Derek Haderlie, an assistant professor in the philosophy department, agreed. He said that 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 I think anyone can walk into and find interesting questions to ponder and interesting ideas 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 devoted most of his life to studying the theory of knowledge. and Locke’s religious philosophy.

“I really think students can learn a lot from his worldview,” Rockwood said. “He was bold and backed up by evidence. He found religious belief to be substantiated by evidence and I think it is worth exposing to people.

If more introspective questions take precedence, BYU philosophy professor Justin White has offered to spend time learning the ideas of Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. White said both philosophers struggled with what it meant to live meaningful lives.

“I think they have important insights into the state of our world and what it means to live as the kind 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 – the two philosophers have bilateral views on how they diagnose their current situation, giving similar advice on how to live a rich life.

Angela Faulconer, professor of philosophy at BYU, said it was difficult to choose just one philosopher. She said she believed it was good to get everyone’s best ideas. For a good study on how one develops virtuous traits, she recommended reading Aristotle.

“Aristotle has such great answers, saying we become great people through action and we develop that through habit,” Faulconer said.

Faulconer said she would also add philosophers Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill to the list. She said they came 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 certain things we should never do, that there are clear ethical lines that we shouldn’t cross,” Faulconer said of Kant. “The insight of John Stuart Mill is that we should care about the consequences of our actions. We should judge by asking ourselves, ‘Are we making the world a better place?’ »

Angela Faulconer, professor of philosophy at BYU, recommends reading Aristotle. Other professors in the department say the philosophy helps answer questions about how to live a virtuous life. (Made in Canva by Julia Orellana-Funes)

Rockwood said that in addition to helping students prepare confidently for higher education, engaging in philosophical discourse and debating various opposing ideas can help students develop virtuous traits. One virtuous trait that Rockwood hopes his students will learn to possess is tolerance.

“I hope my students will see the world from the perspective of others and recognize that while students may disagree 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 reasonable in believing something different from what I believe.”

White said he believes philosophy and the questions that arise from it lead to greater curiosity and an 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 we understand everything,” White said. “I think it’s really important to be open to keep learning new things. For example, if we believe in continuous revelation, I think it is fundamental to our religious beliefs that our beliefs individually and collectively can continue to change and evolve.

Haderlie said that along with learning new ideas, seeking truth, and gaining wisdom, philosophy can teach us to be patient, become less defensive, and learn and listen to others. .

“There’s a feeling of, ‘Maybe there’s something we can learn from others,'” Haderlie said. “They may be wrong about a lot of things, but they may reveal in their objections – or the ways they question what I believe – a new perspective I’ve never considered that sheds light on what I believe or, more preferably, illuminates whatever the truth is. ”

Faulconer said part of education is learning to see nuance. The most important thing students can do, she stressed, is to realize that even though people have different opinions and beliefs, they can find beauty in those differences and recognize that not all beliefs are different. are not equal in terms of quality. She advised students to be careful not to fall into the trap of moral relativism.

“It can all be difficult but it’s super important,” Faulconer said. “We also have to balance that with 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 it’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 to engage with some of the most brilliant minds in history, to reason and better understand life and its challenges, and to live a morally excellent life. Anderson said it all gives him more appreciation for those he loves and works with.

“Anyone can appreciate these gifts without being a philosopher, but philosophy has taught me why these gifts are so valuable and how to use them fully,” Anderson said.

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