A Philosophy Major is not Unique
There has been a surprising amount of online articles written on the value of a philosophy major with regards to the world of business. The purported value of philosophy, according to many of the writers of these articles, is the acquisition of particular skills which, I assume, they do not think can be learnt by majoring in other subjects. After all, if they did think those particular skills could be acquired by studying other subjects at university, then why would they single out philosophy? But what are those skills? Below are some of the skills I have seen across numerous articles. Said skills are not an exhaustive list, and are in no particular order:
1. Critical thinking: philosophers learn how to think clearly and critically about problems.
2. Ability to debate and argue: philosophy is all about arguing, so philosophers can follow arguments and spot logical fallacies and inconsistencies.
3. High tolerance of ambiguity: philosophy is okay with ambiguity and not having the right answer.
4. They can keep track of the big picture and the small details: philosophers learn to keep the big picture in mind when working on the smaller details.
5. They are more rational and less emotional: because arguments respond to reasons, philosophers learn that emotions play no important role in philosophy, thus to keep a clear head.
6. They can pull apart complex problems: In virtue of the type of things philosophers engage with, they learn to compartmentalise problems.
7. They question all foundations: because philosophy has no rules, philosophers are okay with having no rules or questioning those rules that exist.
Most of the articles seem to just assert their claims without providing any real evidence. If there is evidence provided, it is fairly easy to over turn. Perhaps the most common form of evidence given is the suggestion that, because philosophy involves certain skills, then those who engage with philosophy must develop these skills. What’s wrong with this view?
So far as I can see, there are three things that are obvious, at least to me. Consider the following: 1) the purpose of a university education is the acquisition of the above skills regardless of the major, 2) these skills are not unique to philosophy, and 3) studying philosophy does not teach these skills. These three observations undermine the view that a philosophy major can do anything unique for you, at least with regards to its application to the world of business.
Consider what it would look like if 1) were false; what would be the value of a university education if 1) was wrong. I imagine the reason many people go to university is to gain these sorts of skills. If one is earning a university degree, one should expect to learn these skills regardless of their major. To think one would finish university without learning these skills is, quite frankly, tragic. After all, it seems university is about engaging with the topics/subjects you choose to study – but how can you engage with a subjects problems if you do not learn the above listed skills?
Now, while these articles argue in favour of the benefits of a philosophy degree, they do not say explicitly state no other degree can provide these skills. So, perhaps I am setting up a bit of a straw man here. But I don’t think I am. After all, if the writers did not think philosophy unique then it is hard to understand why they would single out and praise philosophy, rather than all university courses, or the special class of university courses, they believe taught these skills. It would also be hard to understand why the writers of these articles would praise philosophy as teaching these skills, and not just telling people what sorts of skills are valuable with regards to a business. Considering they do not do this – but, rather, praise philosophy – it would be very, very strange to pick the subject out uniquely amongst a universities subjects.
Next is 2), these skills are not unique to philosophy. Imagine if they were – imagine if critical thinking were only something philosophers do, or that only philosophers learn to keep their emotions ‘in check’ when considering problems. Surely, this is surely ridiculous. Examining historical, astronomical, math, biological, problems involves the same sorts of skills – how could they not? Engaging in a research heavy degrees (MA, PhD), you are going to the edge of knowledge in a particular field. Simply in virtue of doing so you are going to be engaging with ambitious, complex micro-problems and figure out how your niche research fits into the bigger picture of an academic discipline.
And, finally, 3) – philosophy does not teach any of these skills. This is anecdotal, but in my experience as both a student and a tutor, none of these skills are ever taught. Rather, they are picked up in passing by those engaging successfully with the material. While anecdotal, my experience is not unique. Rather, it seems to be more widespread than contrary. People who are successful in philosophy (marks wise, at least) are already good at these skills, or at least prone to them. All they are doing is sharpening what’s already there. And given the amount of people I have seen study philosophy, even at the higher research end, they do not share these amazing skills these writers purport philosophy teaches us.
In fact, the reason these writers think philosophy does this is because they meet, the people who praise philosophical training, people who went to the best universities – who were already smart – and met people who just so happened to do philosophy as a major. People like Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman, Stewart Butterfield, might have studied philosophy, but they went to institutions like Stanford and Cambridge. They were already critical thinkers.
My final point is that suggesting a philosophy major are good for business because of a set of skills they might learn – and should learn from any university subject – cheapens the importance of philosophy. It turns the pursuit into an instrumental good – good only because it acquires something of actual value – rather than being valuable for its own sake. This attitude is misguided. And in the next few entries, I want to make an argument for why a philosopher, and the study of philosophy, is uniquely placed to help startups and businesses.