Do students of philosophy have much to gain by travel, study abroad, or cultural immersion?

A quick addition to Professor Heck's response. Most but not all of the usual list of 'great' philosophers have been travellers. Kant is the most notorious exception. But he lived in a cosmopolitan sea-port, and 'cultural immersion' came to him rather than he to it. I say this only in order to remind us that knowledge of other places and peoples does not have travel as either a necessary or perhaps even a sufficient condition. To broaden your excellent question, it is also the case that many philosophers have had second jobs, so to speak. (Or even that philosophy was never their first 'job'.) It is a relatively recent phenomenon that a philosopher will be attached to an institution of higher education, and that she will pretty much only teach philosophy at that institution. If travel and cultural immersion tends to be a good thing for philosophers, it might also be worth asking whether working in Universities tends not to be.

In many introductory text that take a topical approach to understanding philosophy theology is not listed as a branch of philosophy; however, the philosophy of religion is. Why is that? This is especially confounding in that texts that take an historical approach always include a section covering Scholasticism.

You are right, it is confusing, isn’t it? I guess the simplest answer is that theology is thinking of a broadly philosophical type that takes place within the framework of a given religion or set of beliefs. Whereas, the philosophy of religion is thinking that takes place, as far as possible, outside of or independently from any particular theology. Within the European tradition, and prior to the Reformation, by far the dominant religion was Christianity, and it was at least to some degree homogeneous in its beliefs. So, up until the 15 th Century or so, theology and philosophy of religion overlapped so much as to be often indistinguishable. After the Reformation, however, it became necessary for philosophers to think about religion from a point of view outside either Catholicism or Protestantism, and a more recognisable form of philosophy of religion emerged.

I have read, recently, that it is better for a student of philosophy to have completely mastered the secondary literature before moving on to the primary. Is this really the best approach to a philosophical text?

Mastering ! If so, no one would get around to primary texts! My answer would be: it depends on what is the student’s purpose in reading. As your question suggests, there are two sides to this issue. One the one hand, what does it matter if you have read Aristotle (for example) if you are unaware of how Aristotle’s work is understood and put to use in contemporary philosophy? Otherwise, you are studying history rather than philosophy (nothing wrong with history, but it’s a different subject). This last argument conceives of philosophy as a contemporary subject matter, like physics or sociology. If the purpose of reading philosophical books is to learn philosophy, then starting with the secondary material is at least efficient and perhaps even necessary. On the other hand, suppose the purpose is not to master the subject content, but rather to learn to philosophise. That means, I suppose, to think critically and carefully about problems, examine one’s assumptions, draw...

It seems like a lot of authors of literature have studied philosophy, and mention philosophers in their novels, and use philosophical ideas in their novels. It's almost as if they thought the knowledge of a lot of philosophy was a pre-requisite to writing a good, interesting novel. On the other hand, I can hardly think of examples of the other way around -- famous philosophers having studied lots of literature and talking about it to inform their philosophy. Do you agree that this is the case, and if so, why might it be? Is literature, which some might say contextualizes philosophy by placing it in the context of a world or a character's life, an outgrowth of philosophy? Is it taking philosophy to its logical conclusion, or to its next step?

That's a lot of fascinating questions. I'm not sure, though, that your initial empirical observation is valid. Sure, there have been many novelists with an interest in philosophy; but there have also been many philosophers with an interest in literature. You only have to look at Plato and Aristotle for clear examples. Nevertheless, the relation between philosophical activity and literature generally, and the novel specifically, remains a matter for debate. Some interesting questions in this area are: what is it about literary types of language use that either can serve, or get in the way, of philosophy? Is the idea of a fictional world, narrative or character a useful resource for philosophy or, precisely because it is fictional, an irrelevance? And, in the reverse direction, what literary devices are already, and perhaps inevitably, at work in philosophical writing? What is not very often asked, though, is the question you raise. Namely, whether philosophy completes itself in...

Is there a contradiction at the root of philosophy? Here's what it might be: Philosophy began "in wonder", and asks us to question things -- the roots of our opinions, our beliefs, religions, the essence of objects, the values of life, etc. But it does NOT, emphatically, ask us to question the value of questioning. It ASSUMES (something philosophers should never do!!) that we should question. That seems to me a normative claim never questioned by you philosophers. And even if we WERE to question the value of questioning, we'd be engaging, it seems to me, in an act of performative self-contradiction. We'd still be assuming that we should question!

To be sure, there may be a performative contradiction in philosophy, insofar as to ask the value of the question is to ask a question. However, that bit of circularity does not mean that no philosopher has ever pursued the issue. On the contrary, many philosophers have asked the question of questioning. When Socrates claimed that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ this was not simply a statement, but part of an argument that pursued the issue of what type of life has value – indeed, what is value as such – and whether or not specifically philosophical questioning should be a part of it. In other words, it was not an assumption, but something argued for. Similarly with Kant in the famous essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’. Both Nietzsche and Heidegger also tackle the issue, and do so in a way that seeks to uncover a mode of philosophising that is able to avoid traditional forms of questioning. The former in investigating the value of belief in truth, the latter in investigating whether the...

From the some of the questions I see submitted to this site, it seems that many people expect philosophers to affirm that their faith / superstitious beliefs have some positive value or grounding in reality. I cannot however think of many modern philosophers who would support such a belief system, so my question is: why do people feel that philosophy will be more supportive of faith-based belief systems than science?

An interesting question. Your observation seems accurate. I don't know why people (I assume you mean the non-philosophical public) feel as you describe. However, I can explain why philosophers might be more willing to take a 'faith-based belief system' seriously. A scientist is professionally incapable of taking faith seriously. Scientific method, at least as it is frequently understood, begins by excluding faith as a proper object for scientific enquiry. Philosophical method, however, does not do so. Faith can be philosophically investigated, evaluated, perhaps even in some way justified. To be sure, many philosophers, at the end of their enquiries, arrive at a rejection of faith, but that is not a point from which philosophy commences.