Arts & Culture

Majoring In Philosophy Actually Quite Practical, New York Times Reports

This past weekend, the New York Times ran an education feature on the recent upswing of college students majoring in philosophy. The Times piece comes on the heels of a similar MSN report several weeks ago, in which a young … Read More

By / April 8, 2008

This past weekend, the New York Times ran an education feature on the recent upswing of college students majoring in philosophy. The Times piece comes on the heels of a similar MSN report several weeks ago, in which a young hedge fund analyst and philosophy BA memorably explained that his work is "like reading Russell, Frege or Wittgenstein, except it's about money." Some of the purported practical benefits of a philosophy education are gaining critical and analytical skills that would be useful in virtually any industry, pursuing the closest thing to a pre-law undergraduate course there is (if nothing else, classes in formal logic ought to pay off on the LSAT), and in at least one case, sexual conquest. ("That whole deep existential torment" philosophers are known for is a major turn on to a 20-year old cog sci major.)

Most of my writing for Jewcy is on politics, but as a former philo major, these really hit a nerve with me. It's quite true, for example, that the tools required for doing philosophy have perhaps a wider practical application than those of any other field — it used to be that philosophy was the only subject you could study; all the other sciences and humanities are spin-offs — but that has always been the case, and doesn't explain why more college students are taking philosophy courses and majoring in it now than in the past. There are two more plausible explanations of the surge of interest in philosophy:

(1) Students are increasingly recognizing just how petrified most of the academic humanities have become. If you're at all interested in doing original work, rather than employing decoder rings and worshipping the bones of past masters, stay far, far away from comparative literature.

(2) Students (and presumably, in many cases, their parents) are finally recognizing that the predominant mode of doing philosophy in Anglophone universities has nothing to do with wearing black, chain smoking, and thinking about how everything is a social construct (though you can do that if you want!), but is and has for more than half a century been what's generally called "analytic philosophy" — a rigorous method of philosophical investigation based on, informed by and constrained by formal logic and theoretical linguistics. Analytic philosophy doesn't resemble any other field very closely, but resembles math more closely than it resembles anything else.

One word of warning, though. No matter what anecdotes you find in New York Times education features, do not go into philosophy thinking it's a path to an incredible sex life. It is not.