Is Philosophy the Most Practical Major?

Edward Tenner has an article in the Atlantic, where he suggests Philosophy might be the most practical major. He wrote:

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 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

Having a Philosophy degree, I’ve thought about this often. Here’s my opinion:

The statistics aren’t that strong. A high percentage increase in a department notoriously small doesn’t indicate a significant trend.  Philosophy departments are among the smallest major programs in many universities and schools.

Even so, calling a degree ‘practical’ when if offers little value for being hired for most jobs is a mistake. A degree in computer science, or a vocational degree in car mechanics, have direct practical value in applying for specific kinds of jobs.  Philosophy as a degree offers as little value towards a specific career as an English degree does. Sure, this is only one kind of practicality, but to omit it at a time when America has near 10% unemployment is an important oversight.

Lastly, hand picking Soros, Ican and Thiel, and offering their exceptional wealth as being connected, or caused by, their Philosophy degrees is a very weak claim based on an exceptional sample. We could find 3 people of exceptional wealth with any degree, not to mention having no degree at all.

I do agree that knowledge of philosophy is important for anyone that wishes to understand and interact successfully with people in the world. But I am not convinced that the best way to achieve that knowledge is in a philosophy department in a university, where its common for most professors to interact with the rest of the world as little as possible, in favor of obsessive study of esoteric details of particular theories.

Elitism is rank in academic philosophy and its a poison pill against the love of wisdom. You can read a great deal of philosophy books, and have rote mastery of who wrote what, and what ideas lead to what other ideas, and still have absolutely no wisdom at all. And sadly, many philosophy departments are staffed by figures like this, and who wish to train students to follow in their footsteps under the banner of ‘Philosophy’.  Socrates is surely turning in his grave.

What do you think? How does Philosophy compare to other majors for its practical value?

13 Responses to “Is Philosophy the Most Practical Major?”

  1. jcopenha

    You say “I do agree that knowledge of philosophy is important for anyone that wishes to understand and interact successfully with people in the world. But I am not convinced that the best way to achieve that knowledge is in a philosophy department in a university”, so I’m eager to read what you think would be a good way to achieve that knowledge. What would a practical course in Philosophy look like? Is it something I could do with a couple of library books and afternoon coffees with friends?

    Reply
    • Scott Berkun

      I’d need to think about it more to achieve a program or a course, but two books do come to mind.

      Thanks for the comment, and the excellent question.

      Socrates Café – a book and a concept by Christopher Phillips. He answers your question in the book, and started a club, with meetups in most cities, that practices some of his ideas. I help run a Socrates cafe here in Seattle.

      I’d also recommend the Consolations of Philosophy by Alain DeBotton. Its not a program, but it is an excellent introduction to some philosophers ideas that avoids most of the pitfalls professional philosophers fall into when trying to teach philosophy.

      Reply
  2. Greg Linster

    Scott,

    I’m currently pursuing a graduate degree in economics and I have been deliberating over getting a graduate level philosophy degree as well, namely because my interests within economics are mostly of a philosophical nature. My main reason for considering a graduate level philosophy degree, then, is because if one wants to teach philosophy in a university/college setting, one must be armed with the appropriate credentials. However, I don’t believe in the elitist myth that one necessarily needs credentials in order to be a philosopher.

    Philosophy teaches critical thinking (amongst other things), which I think is of utmost importance. However, philosophy alone doesn’t realistically offer much practical value in a job market. Philosophers usually tend to have polymath-like tendencies, which can explain why many philosophers succeed in a wide array of technical fields too.

    I simply don’t see a great deal of practical value in a philosophy degree, unless one wants to teach formally. Things like computer science, engineering, and economics, however, are a different story. As you point out, there are many great ways to learn philosophy outside the walls of academia (although I’m not necessarily trying to discredit much of the hard fought knowledge that has been won within the walls of academia either).

    Cheers,
    Greg

    Reply
  3. Dave S

    There are many tools necessary for each job. Some tools affect the current P&L others help determine whether or not there is a P&L five years from now. The effort put out to earn a degree in Philosophy affords that individual some abilities/skills that the rest of the world is lacking, but the results won’t necessarily be visible in the numbers this quarter.

    Reply
  4. Corey O

    Agree that the study of philosophy is the most practical study you could ever choose; however, beyond the fact that professors don’t interact with people, they don’t interact with reality.

    Many philosophy professors actively work to disconnect their logic from reality. This train of thought could permanently ruin how you think about everything.

    Reply
  5. Leam Hall

    Peter Drucker indicates Management is a Liberal Arts profession. Josh Kaufman (PersonalMBA.com), along with a host of others, suggests college is not the place to really learn. I have found about as much professionally useful information in Drucker, Kaufman, and a couple of Scott’s books as I did in my entire graduate program. Costs less and I don’t have to schedule my life around class times.

    Challenge yourself to grow and invest in that growth. Let the folks who really need to waste money do so. Encourage the reduction in grants for college since you are paying for someone else to waste their time.

    Reply
  6. Sean Crawford

    The previous commenter, who mentioned Peter Drucker saying that management is a liberal art, concluded that college is not a place to really learn. Not so. College is not a place to learn a job, but it is indeed a place to learn the liberal arts, the basis for white collar jobs including management.
    For example: Trying to learn Shakespeare on your own, according to successful novelist and college teacher John Gardener, is no substitute for being led through the plays by a teacher.

    When I tell young people there is lot’s of time to learn, or that education is never wasted, I might seem to be cautioning them not to worry about “wasting time.” In reality, I think that in everyday life, just as in a business meeting, expressed fear of “wasting time” is a cover up for trying to avoid a topic, an avoidance often based on insecurity. So my secret agenda is to help young students be less insecure. (As a skilled chairman I am ruthless about controlling a meeting, but I never hear the phrase “wasting time” fall from my lips)

    Drucker was secure. Instead of going straight to college, as his parents wished, he did a year, at the a-year-is-forever age of 17, to apprentice at a merchant trading company. He did this, I am sure, as part of his learning about the world, and not to be a merchant. After his year was over he went to get a law degree. Again he was secure enough to want to learn, not train for a job, for he never made the slightest attempt to practise law.

    College is not time taken out of life, but a key time in life. One of my best college teachers warned us that a few years after graduation we would be begin to solidify and no longer be so experimental. He was right. College is the best time for so called meaning-of-life conversations and personal growth. People in the real word prefer to talk about mundane concrete things… Come to think of it, I can count on my fingers the number of essay/blog sites as good as Scott’s…

    I am halfway through The Inner Game of Work by successful business consultant W. Timothy Gallway. His big “aha!’ moment, about both himself and his world, which had nothing to do with clinics or pigeons, was while taking a course from B.F. Skinner.

    In the real world, perhaps from being old, perhaps from our investment in time spent in our worldview, we are more apt to avoid such moments… but college can remain a memory of what is possible.

    Reply
  7. Lizzie

    While i do not contest that Socrates may be turning in his grave because of academic elitism, as a Religion major (in a Religion/Philosophy crossover department) i find that so many more ideas and paths to information have opened up to me directly because of the critical thinking required of my major. Granted, i can only speak for one narrow experience (my own) at one university, but in my view a Philosophy/History/Religion major is more about teaching us how to think, and less about preaching one particular view. Besides, everyone needs a grad school stamp on their resumé these days anyway! :) Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  8. Smaranda

    Now, now.. you’re just jealous because you got a D in Philosophy! :)) Not.

    I perfectly agree. I will also add that I find it very superficial to define a person’s career using the name of the degree that he’s holding. Some of the most brilliant people in this world received degrees, yes, but didn’t use their degrees alone to build their success. I would in fact argue that many remarkable, successful people are in fact far from uni-dimensional from a professional standpoint.

    Reply
  9. Stephen James

    Majors like philosophy that don’t have an obvious career corollary are impractical if you are trying to get hired right out of school. Unless you have work experience or a portfolio of past work to show, you are leaning on your major.

    I don’t think many students are considering the debt that they might rack up. It’s one thing if it’s for a major that will have a high job opportunity, but for many of the humanities it doesn’t make sense.

    For the record, I love learning so much I like to listen to college lectures as I commute or when I travel on vacation, so I am no way against learning humanities, it’s just that you could actually ruin your life with school debt if you don’t have a plan to pay it off BEFORE you start college.

    Reply
  10. Ben Buchanan

    I’ve often said having a degree in Journalism & Philosophy is what made it so logical to go into IT ;) While goofing off from coursework, I taught myself how to make web pages, which was the seed of the career I’m currently enjoying.

    Has philosophy helped? I think yes in two tangible ways:

    1) Thought experiments amount to setting up an obscure environment yet applying logic within those essentially arbitrary boundaries. This has parallels with working on IT systems, which are in so many ways arbitrary thought experiments encoded onto spinning metal platters in a server room. Yet we must obey the rules and work logically within those boundaries.

    2) Writing philosophy essays – at my university at least – required the student to propose an idea, support it, then shoot down the strongest anticipated objection before concluding their own argument. Anticipating criticism of your ideas is a pretty useful skill for working life.

    So, I think everyone who does IT (and science..) should also include at least some electives in introductory-level philosophy. I also believe everyone should do introductory-level semiotics so they’re better armed to decode the media storm they live in.

    Having a laser focus at uni just means you’re losing the chance to broaden your horizons. You’re going to have to learn plenty more when you get a job anyway…

    Reply

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