Multidisciplinary Philosophy Graduate Degrees
Philosophy may be about ‘big questions’, but that doesn’t mean the subject is detached from the rest of human life – as these multidisciplinary graduate courses prove.
If you enjoy studying philosophy and also want to complete graduate research with immediate real-world applications, you may want to consider a multidisciplinary graduate course – in which the tools, skills and strategies of philosophy are applied to a specific field of human activity.
The possibilities here are almost endless, ranging from an MA in the history and philosophy of art at the University of Kent, UK, to a PhD in the philosophy and ethics of technology at the 3TU Centre for Ethics and Technology – a collaboration between three of the Netherlands’ top universities.
Philosophy of science degrees
For those who like the idea of pursuing graduate research of immediate relevance to human society, philosophy of science is difficult to beat.
Sander Gliboff, director of graduate studies at Indiana University’s department of history and philosophy of science, puts it like this: “Modern society is dependent on science and technology for everything from food and medicine to industrial production and entertainment, and an informed citizenry ought to have a basic understanding of how science works, how it is (or ought to be) financed and regulated, and how it enters into policy making.”
He adds, “Historians and philosophers of science have an important role in educating both scientists and the general public, through our teaching and our writings.”
So, what exactly do researchers in this field work on? Amongst the most active and interesting areas at present, Gliboff identifies:
- History and philosophy of psychology/mind/behavior: A productive cross-fertilization between traditional philosophy of mind and the burgeoning cognitive sciences, addressing new questions about animal cognition, the physical basis of mental functioning, and the possibilities for machine intelligence and cognition.
- Digital humanities: Interdepartmental work (partly overlapping with the above), involving collaboration between historians, philosophers, linguists and library/information scientists. The aim is to develop new automated research tools that do not simply search for words in a text file, but which can identify meanings, content and context as well. This means establishing new ways of indexing and searching, and new methods of comparing texts.
- Model building and model validation: Especially in evolutionary biology and climatology, scientists use mathematical models to explain and predict long-term effects that cannot all be directly observed. Where their predictions are politically inconvenient, the whole enterprise of scientific modelling is called into question. Here historians and philosophers of science are contributing to the discussion, by explaining how models are built and properly verified, and by studying the methods and goals of creationists and climate-change deniers.
- Theory and practice of science and medicine: New synthetic approaches look at both the theory and the practice of science and medicine, recreate alchemical experiments and medical dissections, analyze images and texts, and relate concepts of heredity and evolution to medical and agricultural practices and needs. Researchers in this field are gaining a better picture of what many historical figures are likely to have experienced and observed, and are developing a better understanding of their work.
If you’re interested in studying history and philosophy of science but concerned that you lack experience, the good news is that applicants are usually accepted from a wide range of academic backgrounds.
At Indiana, the main assessment criteria are “general intellectual ability together with interest and commitment to history and philosophy of science as a field of study.”
Gliboff estimates that around half of applicants to the department have studied philosophy at undergraduate level. Of the rest, some have majored in history and some in science subjects, while others cross over from a range of subjects, including literature and journalism.
Philosophy and social sciences degrees
Adam Smith, best known for his hugely influential work on political economy, Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), was in fact a professor of logic and later of moral philosophy.
Smith was Scottish, and in the UK as a whole, it remains common to study philosophy in conjunction with both politics and economics – a combination often shortened to ‘PPE’. PPE courses, both undergraduate and graduate, are offered at UK universities including Oxford, York and Warwick.
Philosophy and law is another popular combination, particularly at North American universities. Institutions offering dual graduate degrees in these subjects include the University of Los Angeles, California (UCLA) in the US, and the University of Toronto in Canada.
The University of Chicago, US, even has a dedicated Center for Law, Philosophy and Human Values, which organizes conferences to “support and encourage the reflective, critical and philosophical study of human values, with a particular emphasis on the conceptual, historical and empirical foundations of the normative systems – moral, political and legal – in which human beings live.”
Similarly lofty aims underlie graduate courses combining philosophy and sociology at University College Cork, Ireland. The university’s PhD program in philosophy and sociology has the stated aim of producing “highly skilled social researchers who can contribute to the development of society and the public sphere, either as autonomous social research professionals, or as cutting edge academic social theorists, or as critically informed leaders in civil society, statutory or market organizations.”
Examples of past symposia topics for the course include ‘Bioethics and Film’, ‘The Extraordinary in Politics’, ‘Feminist Epistemologies’, and ‘Global Warming: East-West Approaches’.
This last theme brings us to the field of environmental political philosophy. Olli Loukola, an associate professor of practical philosophy at the University of Helsinki, Finland, has been conducting research in this field since the late 1990s, and is co-editor of the recently published book, Environmental Political Philosophy.
Loukola explains the importance of this field of research: “It is vital to examine the backgrounds of environmental issues in social theories and political theories, in particular when attempting to solve them.”
In doing this, he says a philosophy-based approach has the advantage of “taking environmental issues to a more concrete level by linking them to the issues of justice, sustainability, and designing of policies, structures and societies.”
So there you have it; next time someone tells you philosophy is just a series of mind games, you’ll have plenty of examples to prove otherwise.
This article was originally published in October 2012 . It was last updated in September 2021