For many people, philosophy is a mysterious term that calls to mind sages on mountains and whimsical mental meandering, and so they wonder, “What is it that US philosophy courses do?” The fact is that most people in the US have no idea what it is that philosophers do until they take their first philosophy class. International students are also likely to wonder what it is that philosophy courses in the US study and expect. For most students, both the structure and the content of a philosophy course is a mystery.
Philosophy is a far more concrete study than most people realize. Specifically, philosophy is the study of ideas. One answer to the question “What is it that US philosophy courses do?” is they make you think. Some ideas work and some do not. It is left to philosophers to determine which ideas are well-argued and reasonable, and which are weak and should be avoided. Most of the world’s greatest thinkers were philosophers by trade, if not in name. When a person wonders if a particular action is right or wrong, if life is just a dream, or if God exists, that person is acting and thinking like a philosopher. What philosophical training does is teach thinkers to sift between good reasons and bad reasons. The courses do not provide students with answers, but do provide students with the logical tools used to separate well-reasoned answers from poorly-reasoned answers.
What to expect when studying philosophy in the US is to do a great deal of writing and discussing. Writing, discussing, and thinking is perhaps the most straight forward answer to the question, “What is it that US philosophy courses do?” The courses are usually focused on reading the ideas and arguments of other thinkers and using those ideas in class to develop new and better ideas. Students will have to write many papers, examining the ideas for strengths and weaknesses and often are required to come up with their own new ideas. Students should expect to read a great deal, and are expected to share their thoughts on paper and in class. Different, new, and innovative ideas are always welcome in a good philosophy class. International students will find that their different perspectives are welcome and useful in the philosophy classrooms.