Is Philosophy the Most Practical Major?

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Niccolo and Donkey
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Is Philosophy the Most Practical Major?

The Atlantic Monthly

Edward Tenner

October 16, 2011

One of the many small surprises of the recession has been a significant growth in the number of philosophy majors, according the the Philadelphia Inquirer . It has slightly exceeded the growth of enrollments in the last ten years; many other humanities and social science fields have just kept up. At the University of California at Berkeley , despite or because of the state's economic turmoil, the number of majors has increased by 74 percent in the last decade.

What makes philosophy different? It can seem self-absorbed; philosophers themselves joke about Arthur Koestler's definition: "the systematic abuse of a terminology specially invented for that purpose." But it also is a tool (like history and religious studies) for thinking about everything else, and every profession from law and medicine to motorcycle maintenance.

It's also one of the most competitive disciplines. When I was a science editor I sometimes saw readers' reports on colleagues' philosophy manuscripts. There were often pages and pages of challenges to the authors' arguments, concluding with a recommendation to publish anyway. This could be confusing to faculty editorial boards that approved or rejected books. It had to be explained to them that philosophers honor each other by disagreeing with each other. The number of objections could be a sign of the importance of the arguments. From such experiences I learned the difference between the merely wrong, and the valuable wrong.

Thus philosophy is a demanding major. The chairman of the Villanova University department is quoted as counseling students with mediocre grade point averages away from concentration. Philosophy majors also score highest among disciplines in verbal reasoning and analytical writing on the GRE aptitude test.

Philosophy is also institutionalized beyond academia in ways that history and literature are not, for example in bioethics programs in medical schools and organizations. In one survey, working conditions for philosophers outranked some other prestigious fields like aerospace engineering and astronomy.

It is true that philosophy majors' salaries aren't especially high. On the other hand, when they do set out to make money, they often make lots of it, from George Soros and Carl Icahn to Peter Thiel . In fact, the late tycoon Max Palevsky once told a newspaper interviewer:

This doesn't mean we should replace humanities-bashing with humanities chauvinism. But it does suggest looking beyond the stereotypes.
Beautiful Ganymede

It's unfortunate that the managerial high priesthood that presides over the modern western industrial state has succumbed to a degree of overspecialization that is threatening to transform the educated man of today into a peasant of the Dark Ages, albeit with some limited knowledge of esoterica, which is only comprehensible to a small number of his fellow initiates. Groups of intellectuals have circumscribed their sphere of influence, insulating and compartmentalizing themselves from each other; without a universal language of scholarship such as Greek or Latin to unite them, the world of the intellectual has descended into a chaos of distantly connected, yet mutually unintelligible Romance tongues. It reminds me of the new barbarians, but little different from the invading hordes of savage Huns and Goths, who understand nothing of the technology around them, beyond pressing buttons and pulling levers. The point, of course, is to be eclectic, interdisciplinary in one's tastes; the biological organism can only evolve and adapt by synthesizing external stimuli from multiple sources, just as our civilization is the product of many disparate elements from a wide variety of disciplines. What we have created is the one-dimensional man (not to be confused with Marcuse), alienated not from the conditions of his own physical existence, but from the full development of his own humanity; an educated man who is not much different from the medieval peasant of yore, except for his knowledge of a few tricks.

With that said, those who dismiss philosophy as a valuable subject, are more often than not, philistines of the shallowest sort. They are men incapable of thinking profoundly or critically or of even thinking at all. They imagine that plugging numbers into some formula or entering code on a keyboard is an adequate substitute for their poverty of imagination or inability to think. And then, they pat themselves on the back to congratulate themselves on how well they were able to regurgitate the professor's words. One-dimensional troglodytes! Philosophy can be just as difficult as any STEM major, if not more so (after all, it's far more difficult to think originally than to solve for x) and, unbeknownst to the ignorant, often overlaps with these fields of endeavor. Think of pure mathematics, quantum mechanics, general relativity, string theory and even mathematical philosophy. Need I go on?

Also, it must be stated that just because a certain discipline is highly abstract and speculative today, does not mean that it will not be applied tomorrow. That this needs to be even emphasized only demonstrates the narrow-mindedness of today's so-called "scientific" intellectual.

It stands to reason that the cultured man is one who is multidimensional, not overspecialized. I think a return to the Renaissance ideal is in order here.


I have a good friend who started as a physics major at an decent public university but became so involved in the study of quantum physics that he switched to philosophy and graduated with that degree. Now he's in law school which he sees as the natural follow up to his previous studies. While I'm sure many go into law school to be part of the smart set and make a decent living, it seems that the best lawyers would be those with a talent for wordsmithing and arguing logic.

One of my biggest qualms with our culture is the way it deifies technocracy and Science with the capital S (e.g. "Scientists Say...," "Science Tells Us..") at the expense of the arts and philosophy. Maybe this is part of humanities chauvinism that niccolo mentions above, but putting a human ear on a mouse for the fuck of it or a phone with a Facebook app just seems decadent and pointless. Personally, I think science and technology should serve philosophy - not the other way round.


While tearing your sackcloths and lamenting the humiliation of Philosophy at the hands of technocrats is all fine and well, from a broader perspective it's obvious that our parochial appetite for science and technics is not a symptom of a sick culture but an attempt to meet the recognized needs of our technical civilization. Its upkeep requires, to borrow Gasset's metaphor, a bureaucratic hive of specialists and technicians shut up within their own cramped cells, concerned only with that phenomena which is bounded by their narrow expertise; for these worker bees, a generalist approach is inefficient, for all of them together can do far more work than any one well-rounded individual, or even a similar hive of such individuals. Accordingly, specialist disciplines in scientific fields are promoted, while the humanities are undervalued. This is just how it is.

Of course, that doesn't stop educators and academics from feeding you lies like that in the OP -- the humanities are huge money-makers for the universities, after all, and if their students are ever later disappointed with their economic prospects they can always be sicced on those nefarious, mustache-twisting bankers and businessmen, the oppressors of the 99%. And all of this is putting aside the fact that modern academic 'philosophy' is a mockery of the whole enterprise, calcified, obsessed with trends and postures, and occupied by analytics who argue endlessly over semantic nits.

To denounce technocratic education without acknowledging the character of the civilization it serves is ignorant. To indebt yourself for a degree which is practically useless to the human machinery that operates our civilization, and then complain when you find your knowledge unappreciated, is indulgent and solipsistic. If you want to enjoy the fruits of this (over)civilization -- your iPhones, your Netflix, your internet porn -- but refuse to be initiated into its technical principles, then you are a fucking child. My fellow millenials are the guiltiest party here. The noblest path is to leave the bloated technological Leviathan to its own stinking rot and live a free, natural life (where you can be a philosopher if you please), but if you can't do this then at least try to be useful .

P.S. -- in the interests of disclosure, I'm a science major.

Beautiful Ganymede
With all due respect, you betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of scientific progress. The contemporary view of scientist and technician, as dispassionate investigators of natural phenomena, meticulously collecting data, which is further quantified and then rigorously systematized into some hypothetical world-view, then falsified by means of some experimental procedure is pure fiction. It is the modern mythology of the positivist school, represented by its high priest Saint Karl Popper. You are hopelessly idealistic if you believe that our modern industrial-technological civilization is the result of these white jacketed "worker bees", tinkering away day and night in their laboratories surrounded by an ocean of flasks, and beakers and Bunsen burners, laboring over complex mathematical formulae under the illusion of some mythical "scientific objectivity". But I do not fault you for holding such a view; it is a view which comes from the indoctrination of an education system dominated by the narrow-minded apostles of the new technocracy, whose guiding religious philosophy is the counterinductivistic method of Popper, his philosophy of so-called falsificationism.

Are you not familiar with the mainsprings from whence our modern culture of scientific and technical progress springs? And please, don't tell me about "scientific objectivity"! Such a thing is almost impossible to achieve, given the fact that even the language we speak, its very semantic and formal syntactical structures circumscribe our capacity for rational inquiry to a limited epistemological sphere; objectivity is impossible because no analytic language could ever be devised which could faithfully replicate the exact structure of reality, without being itself based on theory and hypothesis; objectivity is impossible because even scientists themselves must choose between incommensurate and competing paradigms on the basis of cultural, political and even aesthetic considerations, let alone reasons grounded in some philosophy of scientific rationalism. Even the presence of optical and neural illusions which affect our sensory perception of external stimuli makes a mockery of all sanctimonious claims about "scientific objectivity".

But let me tell you where some of the greatest discoveries of modern science came from: it came from witchcraft; it came from astrology; it came from the paganism and esoteric philosophies of the ancient Greeks and Romans; it came from alchemy; it came from homeopathic medicine and old wives tales; it even came from those two most derided forms of knowledge, intuition and introspection. Are you still filled with doubt? Look at western medicine of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; it had been a few hundred years after the Scientific Revolution, and yet even the most educated physicians of Europe were helpless in the face of disease. And do you know where the first major breakthrough in medicine came from, the vaccination against infectious diseases? It was based on the folk wisdom of milkmaids, Turks and African savages! And what about the many drugs in use today, such as aspirin, ephedrine, quinine and many others? More folk wisdom! And what of modern chemistry? It finds its origins in the practices of the medieval alchemists, with much of their equipment and even some of their procedures (such as fractional and crystallized distillation) still in use today. Even the leaders of the Scientific Revolution were not averse to using the work of Hermes Trismegistus and Pythagorean mystics to justify and elaborate their scientific discoveries.

This insistence that science is somehow separate or even superior to the humanities is an absurd folly; it is a statement borne of the purest ignorance and the worst hubris; a statement so abominably ignorant in fact, that only a philistine aware of nothing else except his own coarse bodily urges would make such a ridiculous and inflammatory argument. In fact, if it were not for the humanities, science would not exist; science exists by virtue of the humanities and not the other way around, as anyone familiar with the rediscovery of classical knowledge during the Renaissance understands. Even in a world run by technocrats, the humanities would still need to exist, probably even more than in our current mode of social organization: wouldn't a thorough understanding of human social behavior and the human psychological makeup be needed in order to maintain such a technocratic dictatorship and make it run efficiently?

Science is not governed by rigid methodological strictures or narrow traditions; scientific progress is advanced by means of creativity, which means violating the most sacred conventions of received wisdom and directly challenging the powers of the authorities that be. The true scientist is an artist. All the great scientists who ever lived were artists. Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein... all artists in the same way that Mozart and Rembrandt were artists. Just as Mozart would never have been able to compose a single sheet of music if he had been bound to some narrow formula of musical composition, so Einstein could never have formulated his theory of quantum mechanics if he was forced to adhere to a classical Newtonian world-view. It is creativity that produces the great scientist; it was creativity which enabled Einstein to envision the wave-particle duality of light, violating old Newtonian conceptions of the universe in which matter either existed as wave or particle. It was creativity which enabled Faraday to discern some of the basic principles of electromagnetism, becoming one of the greatest experimental physicists of the nineteenth century, even though he was nearly mathematically illiterate. It is the ability to see outside the box, so to speak, and to manipulate data in new ways which makes the scientist; not hidebound rules, not advanced mathematical calculations, not high grades received on exams; these only produce sycophantic mediocrities.

Therefore, it stands to reason, that in order for our civilization to progress, it is now more than ever necessary that the scientist be a multidimensional individual; he must be familiar with many disciplines, as ground-breaking knowledge can be drawn from any one of them, at any moment in time. He must be prepared to recognize that even science is an ideology, like religion or politics, neither one superior to the other. The true scientist is not afraid to learn from witchcraft, astrology, philosophy, homeopathic medicine or even his own powers of intuition; after all, if he truly cares about progress, he will seek knowledge wherever he can find it, because he realizes that any branch of knowledge is capable of revolutionizing our collective human consciousness, our way of understanding and experiencing the world around us. It is the only humanitarian thing to do, to be interdisciplinary, to be eclectic, but more than anything else, to not be afraid to rebel against conventional wisdom, to use one's heart just as much as one's head in the search for wisdom and to be prepared to learn from anyone. Anything less, I believe, would lead to eventual stagnation and inevitable civilizational decline.
Yeah, but it has to be taken for granted. That's how I know how to stop at a red light.

I think it's both by rigid methodological structures coupled with creativity. There are plenty of dogmas fed to people by "scientists" and "doctors" which have become common wisdom but simply aren't true. Thinking outside the box and providing concrete scientific evidence is the way forward.
Beautiful Ganymede
I would grudgingly accept a relative objectivity based on degrees of probability. Even in a laboratory setting, there's always going to be bias and subjectivistic interpretation.

I think creativity is far more important though. All major scientific discoveries have been based on challenging and doing away with the accepted scientific methodologies of their predecessors.
I'll agree to that.

I see what you're saying here, and I think you may be slightly overstating it. The invention of calculus happened at three different places at almost the same time. Church and Turing created their theories at the same time without working together. Creativity is important in allowing this new type of thinking, but the scientific progress and scientific method of the day is what laid the foundations of being able to "think beyond" one more step.

As we develop the theory of special relativity and perform experiments to confirm it or falsify it, oddities occur. As more and more anomalies occur, the old theory falls apart and a new pattern starts to form. It's this that allows the jump to the next stage of understanding.
Beautiful Ganymede
All knowledge is based on previous knowledge, but in order to build upon the current base of knowledge, challenging the conventions of received wisdom and creativity are far more important. Not all "scientific" wisdom is necessarily based on any sort of methodological universalism or modern notions of progress, as such disciplines as modern medicine, astronomy and chemistry reveal. The fact that one model of the universe can breakdown and be replaced by another ultimately demonstrates the relativistic nature, the cultural specificity of all scientific research.

Ganymede, you don't have to enlighten me about 'scientific objectivity'; I've read Feyerabend and Kuhn and I'm familiar with all the arguments. I agree for the most part, although I would question placing 'folk wisdom' in a substantially different category from empiricist 'trial and error', since folk wisdom and tradition are for the most part the cultural memory of what 'works', i.e. empiricism by other means. That said, specialization is imperative to the modern technical establishment; it allows production to scale with the pace of progress and the civilizational complexity which it propels.

Also I think you misunderstand me. My reply was merely echoing Gasset's concern that, through the ignorance and apathy of the mass-man (e.g. the 99%ers), a future generation will find the great machinery of our civilization abandoned and with no knowledge of how to operate it. Think the beginning of A Canticle for Liebowitz . As a Luddite, though, I can't help but regard that prospect with a teeny bit of enthusiastic curiosity.