Why Philosophy?

Recent discussions of the virtues of “The Course” taught at the undergraduate level may help explain why such material forms the basis of most MOOC classes (as well as other modes of free learning).

While these virtues are general, I’d like to end this month on a more parochial note by explaining the significance of the major I have chosen for this Degree of Freedom project: Philosophy.

First off, an apology is warranted if I’ve seemed dismissive of career-focused college majors such as Business (describing them once too often as “vocational’ for instance).  For having run my own company for more than twenty years, I can think of dozens of occasions when some college or post-college training in business principles could have helped me avoid problems and pitfalls that emerged from figuring things out as we went along.

Similarly, we should be daily grateful that the nurses who greet and treat us when we show up at the hospital are trained in nursing, the accountants who help us with our taxes and the engineers and architects who designed the building  we’re sitting in prepared for their careers via years of disciplined, job-specific study.

But as I noted recently, one can make a pragmatic case for the liberal arts as also preparing you for a career, especially in an era when what constitutes a career is constantly being redefined.  For just as my science degree helped me land journalism jobs during an era when newspapers were hungry for science and technology stories, today’s graduates are likely to continue to be surprised by which subjects they studied in college turn out to be the most relevant and important.

In addition to requiring you to master broadly applicable skills such as research and writing, a liberal arts course of study that spans multiple disciplines also requires students to make connections between seemingly disparate subjects.  Art and computing, for example, equals Apple Computer.  And on a smaller scale, while my lack of business knowledge came at a cost when I was running a company, most of the ideas that made us successful derived from multi-disciplinary approaches that I and the liberal arts grads I tended to hire brought to product design and problem solving.

Now liberal arts programs normally balance broad exposure to different subjects with the requirement to concentrate in one area.  And the reason why we have different majors is that (1) they appeal to different types of people and (2) they each bring something unique to the study of what it means to be human.

Math, for example, allows students to glimpse the closest thing we have to absolute truth (starting with 2+2 always equaling 4).  And while the sciences are a bit messier than are pure numbers, they allow students to see how empirical observations can combine with reason to give us laws that seem to have done a pretty good job extending our lives, feeding the planet, and explaining the universe.

Music also allows us to peer into the perfect, albeit in a way that engages our emotions and whatever other human qualities react to the sublime.  And literature can often tell us more about ourselves than can scientific disciplines dedicated to studying the human condition (such as psychology, anthropology and sociology – all of which are also important fields that many encounter for the first time during undergraduate years).

But it’s a nearly-forgotten fact that most of these fields (science, psychology, as well as political science and others.) were born as sub-disciplines of the uber-discipline of philosophy (which is why people still earn Doctorates in Philosophy – or PhDs – regardless of what subject they study at the graduate level).  And students who tend to assume modern science needed nothing more than a clearing of Church dogma combined with Galileo to be born probably don’t realize how much heavy lifting philosophers such as Descartes, Locke and Kant had to perform to give us the scientific method we now take for granted.

In addition to being the father of all disciplines, philosophy is also the boldest field with regard to taking on questions that are potentially unanswerable.

I thought of this recently when I read that the noted British physicist Stephen Hawking declared “philosophy is dead” (given the field’s inability to keep up with hastening advances in the hard sciences).

At first, this got me pondering how Hawking (or the general public – scientifically trained or not) would react to an equally prominent philosopher declaring physics to be dead.  But then it dawned on me how much easier it is for scientists (even those working in the most abstract, esoteric areas of science) to demonstrate progress.

After all, scientists engage in experiments that can empirically prove or disprove a theory.  And in a “heads-I-win-tails-you-lose” fashion other fields can only envy, even failed experiments are declared a victory (given that they shut down fruitless avenues of pursuit).

Philosophers are rarely given the opportunity to similarly “prove” their ideas right or wrong.  Instead they must make do with creating the underpinning for new ways of thinking (logic, Enlightenment, the scientific method, etc.) that will eventually be taken for granted by others who can make use of this bounty while chuckling at colleagues who waste their time pursuing such an “unworldly” (or “dead”) pursuit as philosophy.

And with that, I’d like to declare the light month of August to be closed.  Which means I’ll be returning next week to a full five-day a week posting schedule, along with the regular Monday newsletter and Friday podcast along with other Degree of Freedom output and surprises.

Onward towards Senior Year!


6 Responses to Why Philosophy?

  1. Back2basic August 29, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

    Dear Dr. Haber:

    Thank you for this article which you articulate very powerful, meaningful and elegant.

    I am heartbroken to see my only child who is excellent and graduated in English and Philosophy as double major, and changes suddenly to be a coding programmer operator and marketer.

    After reading your article, I thoroughly agree with every point that you vividly present with examples. In conclusion, my mother always told me that all excellent leaders are vivid readers, but a reader can’t be a leader. In case of scientist “Stephen Hawking”, I doubt that he is truly scientist, like Albert Einstein because all conscientious scientists are real philosophers, and a philosopher can’t be a scientist.

    As you said in this article “And in a “heads-I-win-tails-you-lose” fashion other fields can only envy, even failed experiments are declared a victory (given that they shut down fruitless avenues of pursuit).” Yes, these current commercial scientists who are brought by corporate subsidy, will say and do without conscience. They are not worthy to be mentioned.

    I hope that there are, and will be more practical professors like you in the university, so that each graduate can be properly nurtured, and inspired to participate in society and to achieve their aspirations.

    Very respectfully yours,

    May King (back2basic)

  2. Mike August 29, 2013 at 5:05 pm #

    Yep! Totally agree. You hit it out of the ball park with that one. In a somewhat indirect (but entertaining) fashion, I think you have echoed what Bertrand Russell famously said: “In philosophy what is important is not so much the questions that are given, but rather the questions that are asked.” It took me a while to understand what he meant by that, but by jove he was right!

  3. lillypase September 5, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    It is worth noting that when Galileo asked to serve as the advisor to the Grand Duke of Tuscany in Italy, he specifically requested his title to be listed as “Court Mathematician and Philosopher.” The sweep of philosophy is broad indeed.

  4. Robin Kinsman September 5, 2013 at 10:53 pm #

    Hello Dr. Haber,
    As one who chose the interdisciplinary major titled “Political and Social Thought” without a thought about careers, and who later answered all questions pertaining to doubts about my professional approach by simplifying with the phrase “I am a philosopher”; then I created a career orientation service predicated on the human need for good questions, I uphold the value of the philosophical method. I am shocked that Hawkings would say what he said – I won’t qualify it in writing. I wanted to add 2 cents by saying that in my experience, it is when philosophy is left out that solutions, decisions (in my field, vocational ones) disciplines and outcomes are partial and temporary. Philosophy teaches us to approach a problem with questions before answers, to define better the real problem. Many regards.

  5. Paul Morris September 7, 2013 at 2:36 pm #

    I agree with the thrust of the article but would perhaps quibble with the statement “in a “heads-I-win-tails-you-lose” fashion other fields can only envy, even failed experiments are declared a victory”. Firstly, it’s not really accurate to characterise experiments where the outcomes do not support the hypothesis as failed, in some ways they are more significant; any theory is always open to be disproved but can never be absolutely proven. Secondly, although an experimental model is more common in ‘hard’ science (to the degree that it is known as the scientific method) it is also used in many other fields.

    Good to see you back in full flow after the summer break.


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