Academics Blog

Archive for the Category Philosophy



Name: Edwina Picon

Year: Class of 2016

Hometown: Irvington, NY

Major: Philosophy and Psychology

Phi-lo-so-phy: The Love of Knowledge

People tend to underestimate just how much philosophy plays a part in the world around them. Many criticize philosophy, saying it’s the study of dead old men; however, while several of the authors do happen to be dead, philosophy couldn’t be more alive in the world around us.gblog4

Philosophy is prominent in politics and law – don’t we often criticize our politicians and lawyers for being immoral or illogical?

Philosophy is prominent in economics – don’t we wish that logic and decision theory played a larger role in fiscal policies?

Philosophy is prominent in biology, neuroscience, and medicine – it is because of ethics that we debate over abortion, eugenics, stem cell research, euthanasia, and countless other pertinent scientific issues.

Other students often ask me what I could possibly plan to do with my degree in philosophy. The answer? You can do anything.

Philosophy changes the way you look outwardly at the world and the way you look inwardly at yourself. I think at our age it is especially important to be introspective. Never do I feel as alive as when I leave one of my philosophy classes, my head full of new possibilities, of new thoughts, and of new ways of thinking entirely. Philosophy is universal and nonrestrictive; it has no limits because we are almost always thinking. You can be trapped on a desert island with no one and nothing and you can still practice philosophy (in fact that might be an ideal time to do it!). Philosophy is examining, it is questioning, and it is not taking things for granted or at face value. As Socrates famously said: “All I know is that I know nothing.” Philosophy might not make you rich, but it can make you more fortunate than money ever could by teaching you the meaning and value of happiness.

gblog2I applied to Johns Hopkins as a Classics major because of my interests in ancient Greece. However, after taking Introduction to Greek Philosophy taught by Professor Bett, I realized that it was the classical philosophical thinking I was most fascinated in. Even though Socrates, Plato and Aristotle thought over two millennia ago, their ideas are still the corner stones of modern thought and most people don’t even know it.

To be a philosophy major at Hopkins you need to complete at least one class in each of the three focal areas:

+ Logic, Philosophy of Science, or Philosophy of Mathematics

+ Philosophy of Mind, Theory of Knowledge, Philosophy of Language, or   Metaphysics

+ Ethics, Aesthetics, or Political Philosophy

This ensures that you will get a well-rounded philosophical education while also pursuing a concentration in the area you are most interested in. I am really glad that these requirements are in place because I might never have taken a metaphysics class such as Objectivity or a logic class like Decision, Games, and Social Choice, and these turned out to be two of my favorite courses at Hopkins.

gblog1 I also took a great class over the summer called Neuroethics. It analyzed the ethical implications that arise with advances in neuroscience, such as whether or not we should use lie detectors in criminal cases or judge the predisposition for crime or insanity using an MRI. And, in turn, whether or not philosophical reasoning can be attributed to chemical processes in the brain, raising questions about free-will and determinism.

What is great about the philosophy department at Hopkins is that it is intimate and supportive. Classes are small, sometimes only 5 or 10 students, and are often taught in seminar format. You have a chance to speak one-on-one with leading philosophers about what they are passionate. Instead of huge, anonymous lectures, many philosophy classes are taught using variations on the Socratic Method: prompting students with questions and allowing them to come to conclusions through critical thinking.

There is research in philosophy as well. It can be pursued as empirical/experimental philosophy (X-phi) or combined with fields such as sociology, psychology, and anthropology. So if you want to keep with the Hopkins research tradition you most certainly can! I am double majoring in psychology so that I can apply philosophical thinking to counseling and research, and to provide ethical grounding for psychological work. I am currently involved in psychology research on linguistic relativity: the idea that having [a] language crucially shapes one’s thoughts and world view.

While I am not pre-med, I have several philosophy major friends who are. The workload is manageable in tandem with pre-med requirements, plus the skills and outlook gained from studying philosophy are both useful in medical school and desirable for medical practice.gblog3

Prometheus is the name of both the philosophy club on campus and the undergraduate philosophy journal. The club meets every other week and we discuss topics chosen by popular demand.  Sometimes there is a presentation by a philosophy graduate student (and there is always great food!)  The journal accepts papers from students at Hopkins or other colleges, and you can get involved by being on the editorial board and evaluating the submissions. Even if you are not a philosophy major, it’s a great way to improve your critical reading and writing skills! There are also several philosophy colloquia throughout the year which allow undergraduates to hear renowned guest speakers and to participate in discussion. Johns Hopkins is even hosting its first ever philosophy conference this spring!

Philosophy isn’t superfluous. Personally it is what makes me feel most alive. Whether or not it’s your passion, philosophy will enrich your thinking and help you make sense of your experience on this planet. You won’t regret it while in school and you will be thankful later in life for having opened and exercised your mind.


Click here to access more information about the Philosophy Undergraduate Program of Study.

To further your exploration of this academic program and ask any question you may have of current students, be sure to visit the Hopkins Forums’ Academics: The Insider Perspective and Philosophy question thread.



Name: Matthew McCauley

Year: Class of 2014

Hometown: San Diego, CA

Major: Philosophy

“So What Are You Going to Do with That?”  

Who am I?

Hi, there!  My name is Matthew McCauley, and I am here to share my experiences as a 4th-year philosophy major at Johns Hopkins University.

(On a side note: I’ve never met anyone who knew before entering college that he or she was going to become a philosophy major. So, if you’ve read this far in the post without hitting the “go-back” button, I send you my sincerest thanks)

What is Philosophy?

As with many ordinary concepts – like ‘love’ and ‘beauty’ – philosophy is not easy to define. I heard one philosopher describe the discipline as the practice of thinking really hard about things. So, you might call philosophers ‘professional critical thinkers’.

“What do you do as a professional critical thinker?” Hey, I’m glad you asked! Most professional philosophers are university professors, and as such, they might do some of the following (beyond just teaching):

Socrates was a classical Greek philosopher who is famous for his influence on most of subsequent Western philosophy.  But as with most Greek philosophers, he is also famous for his beard.  Personally, I think his beard is the best.  Just look at those swirls.

Socrates was a classical Greek philosopher who is famous for his influence on most of subsequent Western philosophy. But as with most Greek philosophers, he is also famous for his beard. Personally, I think his beard is the best. Just look at those swirls.

  • Analyze concepts. Philosophers might ask some of the following questions: What is ‘freedom’? What is ‘consciousness’? And so forth.
  • Determine how a certain profession or academic discipline ought and ought not to be practiced. Philosophers might ask some of the following questions: Which domains of inquiry count as legitimate science? Is there a ‘scientific method’? What is ‘life’, and can we experiment on living things?
  • Think critically about life’s most important questions. Philosophers might ask some of the following questions: Who or what am I? How ought we to live? Is there a meaning to human life? – and if there is, what is it?
  • Address issues within the various subdomains of philosophy. These subdomains include ethics (the philosophical study of right and wrong motives, character, and so forth), metaphysics (very broadly, the philosophical study of the nature of reality), and epistemology (the study of knowledge, rationality, and justified/unjustified beliefs).

Many philosophers even get paid to study other philosophers.

There are additional subdomains within the field of philosophy, such as philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of language, ancient philosophy, and so forth. But there are far too many for me to list and describe in this blog post.


Why Should You Study Philosophy?

I would now like to offer a few reasons for studying philosophy. Bear in mind however that studying philosophy does not entail majoring in the field. One could always pursue a minor (or just take interesting classes)!

At any rate, the following are some of my top reasons to study philosophy:

  1. You use philosophical reasoning all the time. If philosophy is the practice of critical thinking, then – hopefully – you are using philosophy every day. You are constantly rationalizing your decisions and reflecting on the various choices you make in life. Sometimes, you have to explain and even debate other people about your beliefs. Studying philosophy will enable you to more adequately reflect upon and justify these decisions and beliefs.
  2. Studying philosophy will help you scrutinize the presuppositions of other disciplines. The ability to recognize and critique the presuppositions of another discipline gives you a conceptual advantage over the practitioners of that discipline. Let us suppose that you are a public health major, like many of the students here. If you can analyze the presuppositions of the various issues within public health debates, you will be able to 1) more accurately predict the repercussions of these issues, and 2) make informed decisions about them.
  3. Studying philosophy will help you understand yourself and why you believe the things you believe. Practicing philosophy will get you in the habit of subjecting your own worldview to critical analysis. Thus, you will better understand yourself and the reasons why you maintain your beliefs.
  4. Studying philosophy will teach you to think critically and clearly. As a philosophy major (or minor) you will constantly read, write, and argue about the ideas of some of the world’s greatest thinkers. Doing this will sharpen your ability to think critically and clearly.   
  5. Studying philosophy is interesting! At least I think it is. Most people advise undergraduates to pursue a major that will get them high-paying jobs. Unless you are extremely poor, or your family is depending on you to find a job, then I would not recommend following this advice. The unhealthy pursuit of money can very easily lead to misery and other undesirable consequences. Instead of pursuing a major that will make you rich, pursue a major that you enjoy. If you do your best in that major, and enjoy college, then I can guarantee that you will be wealthy in multiple respects (perhaps even monetarily). If philosophy interests you, then guiltlessly enroll in a few philosophy courses.

What Is It Like to Study Philosophy at Johns Hopkins?

In a word: rewarding. I am really going to miss some of the professors when I graduate. Some of them are funny, some are incredibly brilliant, and others are really kind. In fact, there is at least one professor here who fits all three of these descriptions. I remember a day when I was unable to attend his class. I did not inform him beforehand that I was not going to make his lecture, but when I checked my email later that evening, I saw that he had sent me a message asking if I was feeling alright. I was very touched that he would email me to ask how I was doing; – I have never had a teacher do that before, especially for having missed class.

The philosophy department is pretty small, so if you decide to pursue the major, you can very easily get to know the faculty (I recommend that you go to your professor’s office hours!). The class sizes are also typically small, and the professors here take their work very seriously.

Now as I stated earlier, one need not pursue the major in order to study philosophy. One could also pursue a philosophy minor or a bioethics minor. Broadly speaking, bioethics is the study of the ethical and philosophical issues that arise in the practice of medicine, public health, and other biomedical sciences. Anyone who chooses to study public health or any other medically-related field, should, I think, study bioethics. Detailed information on the degree requirements in the philosophy department can be found at this link: http://philosophy.jhu.edu/undergraduate/requirements/

There is an undergraduate philosophy journal and club at Johns Hopkins, called Prometheus. In the fall semester, we meet every other Monday night to discuss philosophical issues that are not addressed in the classroom. In the spring, we host a seminar series in which we invite graduate students to deliver talks and lead discussion on a common theme (again, every other Monday night). We accept philosophy paper submissions to our journal from any undergraduate at any university. So, when you get into college, write a paper and submit it to us! Here is the link to our website: http://www.prometheus-journal.com/

Why am I a Philosophy Major?

If you are interested, I would like to share my own story on why I decided to become a philosophy major.

(This is actually the final section of my blog post. So, if you are not interested in hearing my story, then you do not need to continue reading. Thank you for visiting!)

I actually did not enter Johns Hopkins as a philosophy major. In fact, when I applied I was accepted to the biomedical engineering department. Moreover, since I was determined to become a medical doctor, I took a bunch of pre-med classes my freshman year, such as chemistry, calculus, and physics.  

Now, you might be wondering how I managed to switch from biomedical engineering to philosophy. It’s a big change, I know. But you have to understand that I had received my middle and high school education from a STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics)-oriented charter institution in Southern California. Until my 11th-grade year, I was only good at mathematics. So, I pursued engineering when I got to college.

My interests changed in the middle of my freshman year of college, when I had started rigorously studying a theology textbook that I picked up and (sort of) read when I was in 12th grade. After several months of reading this book on my spare time, I gradually lost my initial enthusiasm for the STEM education track, and realized that I enjoyed theology more than I enjoyed medicine and engineering.

Alvin Plantinga is a contemporary philosopher who is famous for his contributions to metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of religion. He is also one of my favorite Christian thinkers!

Alvin Plantinga is a contemporary philosopher who is famous for his contributions to metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of religion. He is also one of my favorite Christian thinkers!

Unfortunately (for me) there is not a theology department at Johns Hopkins. So, while my peers were looking to join design teams (design teams are groups of engineering students who design and create machines), I was looking for people with whom I could discuss some of the theological issues I encountered in my textbook. To make a long story short, some of the people I encountered were willing to talk to me about God, but only if I answered a few of their penetrating questions: How could someone like God exist? How is omniscience or omnipotence possible? How do you reconcile the existence of God with all the evil in the world? And so forth. After a while of receiving their questions (and skepticism), I realized that I was in no position to discuss theology with my friends. They were very smart and did not take my interests seriously.

Nonetheless, I respected my friends’ skepticism, and began to search for writers who had addressed their questions. Over the course of my searches, I encountered philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne. As I read more and more of their works, I began to realize that I could use philosophy to articulate a number of issues in theology and religion. My desire to articulate various issues in theology sparked my initial interest in philosophy: I enrolled in my first two philosophy courses the second semester of my freshman year (Introduction to Modern Philosophy, taught by Professor Michael Williams; and Philosophy of Science, taught by Professor Peter Achinstein – take these classes by these same professors if you get a chance!), and enjoyed the classes so much that I dropped my biomedical engineering major to pursue philosophy.

So, that is pretty much my story.  If you would like more detail on this story, or anything else from this post, feel free to contact me at the following email address: <mmccaul4>(AT)<jhu>(DOT)<edu>

I hope this blog post has been useful to some of you students and parents out there. Best of luck with your college decisions, thank you for reading!


Click here to access more information about the Philosophy Undergraduate Program of Study.

To further your exploration of this academic program and ask any question you may have of current students, be sure to visit the Hopkins Forums’ Academics: The Insider Perspective and Philosophy question thread.



Name: Kate Wagner

Year: Class of 2009

Hometown: Wernersvilla, PA

Major: Philosophy

With the intention of entering into the pre-medical curriculum at Hopkins, I hoped to find a major that would keep me grounded to the humanities and out of TOO many science classes.  In choosing Philosophy, I assumed I’d cruise through the basics of ethics, ancient and modern texts without letting philosophic questions get the better of me during my undergraduate years.  On the contrary, my years studying philosophy not only surprised me by opening my mind to questions I’d never thought to ask, but also challenged me to think in ways I’d never thought would work.

Philosophy Starting with a broad spectrum of philosophers, the major allows undergraduates a substantial amount of freedom in choosing courses, while still encouraging everyone to sample a little bit of every type of philosophy offered.  From Metaphysics and Epistemology to Philosophy of Science, Ethics, and Political Philosophy, it’s impossible not to find a few favorite classes in this department.  Whether you’re concerned with bioethics, or the Greeks really spark your interest, issue- and author-specific classes allow for a concentration in a particular niche of philosophy.  Welcoming professors and graduate students who are eager to discuss a philosophic dilemma over coffee make it a pleasure to attend every class, and I’m not just saying that (I once had a TA bribe us with milk and cookies to come to his office hours).  Once you’ve progressed to the upper level courses, class size is intimate and conducive to discussion that makes your head hurt for hours afterwards.  A motivation to read and learn is essential to this major, but there is nothing more rewarding than the satisfaction of engaging in a rapid-fire debate that lasts until the end of the hour.

One of my favorite classes in all of my time at Hopkins has been “Probability and Inductive Logic”, taught by one of my favorite professors, Peter Achinstein.  While inevitably some classes bore you to tears, and others are just a block of time that you struggle to get through each week, Professor Achinstein’s class made me feel like I’d had a cerebral work out every day.  From the history of logical thinking to the practical uses of inductive reasoning in every day life, this class was one of those gems that really made me want to learn.

Ball Another favorite was “Do Miracles (Still) Happen?”, a Humanities and Philosophy course taught by Professor Hent De Vries, that examined the history of miracle belief and how miracles were, and are, interpreted.  Without fail, a weekly class of Miracles would end in a good-natured verbal sparring of students, genuinely interested in the subject and in hearing other people’s opinions.  I never appreciated an argument so much as I did after taking this class.

Of course when I told my friends back home that I had chosen a Philosophy Major, the obvious question was “Why?”  They knew I loved to read, but to subject myself to hours and hours of hair pulling, pouring over tens of books, acquiring the stereotypical “graduate slouch” from hours in the library… why?  Despite these bitter-sweet images, I wouldn’t change a thing about my experience in this major.  In fact, in recent semesters I have joked about staying on for a few more years (there’s just so much more to read!), unwilling to let go of my studies so quickly.  I still intend to enter the medical field, and I know that my degree in philosophy will influence the way I approach a problem, and that my many philosophy classes will continue to affect the way I think for years to come.  I would encourage any prospective student of philosophy to get to know this department and all that it has to offer.


Click here to access more information about the Philosophy Undergraduate Program of Study.

To further your exploration of this academic program and ask any question you may have of current students, be sure to visit the Hopkins Forums’ Academics: The Insider Perspective and Philosophy question thread.