Can philosophy survive in an academy driven by impact and employability?

Simon Blackburn, Mariana Alessandri and John Kaag on why reports of Socrates’ impending demise are greatly exaggerated

December 10, 2015
Socrates sitting on top deck of London bus
Source: Alamy montage

Those hungry for an understanding of the human world find some tools, in elementary logic and critical thinking, and will practise taking care to say what they mean. Simon Blackburn writes

I have always had a sneaking sympathy with parents who react with despair and horror, as mine did, when their beloved offspring announce that they want to read philosophy at university. Bang go dreams of social prestige (medicine! law!), wealth (economics! maths!) or, indeed, anything that is easy to explain to the neighbours. And it has to be admitted that philosophers have done little to help dispel the shock: for much of the 20th century, many in German and French traditions actually prided themselves on being incomprehensible, while those in so-called Anglo-American philosophy took an equally lordly attitude to anyone philistine enough to ask what we do, or to find the answers opaque.

Times have changed. Some of us were trying to rectify this situation even before governments, civil servants, accountants and managers insisted that we replace the architecture of the ivory tower with that of Bentham’s panopticon, so that all our activities are visible, quantifiable and accountable. We pointed out how our ideas shape our identities, our self-conceptions, our understandings of the world and ourselves. We pointed out how history has witnessed a long line of changing conceptions of these things, marked by shifting and puzzling terms such as knowledge, reason, truth, authority, equality, liberty, justice, law, sovereignty, responsibility, democracy, race, gender and many others. These abstractions do not exist in Plato’s heaven, but in the minds of men and women, and sometimes on their banners and in their manifestos.

We found it relatively easy to indicate how quickly things go wrong when our understandings of these things are deficient, and to claim a certain value to philosophy as a firefighting enterprise, quick to look for signs of such deficiency. A belief, philosophers have told us, is a preparation for action, and ideas are the inflammable elements in beliefs. We also pointed out that a literate, intelligent, informed and imaginative ability to think about these ideas is itself empowering. It might be judged not only to be a valuable component in a good life, but also a valuable asset for any citizen in a democracy where these things are bound to be endlessly discussed and contested. And, truth to tell, it might actually command some respect in that ultimate scale of human value, employability in the modern economy. There is excellent evidence that it does so: surveys of graduate school entries in the US, (including entries to law, medical and management schools) consistently put philosophy at, or near to, the most successful and desirable of majors for young people to have taken (see ‘Profile of a discipline: popularity, future prospects and pay’ box, below).

Fortunately, many of the young have heard the message, even if their parents remained unconvinced. In spite of the constant drizzle of propaganda on behalf of the science subjects, young people remain hungry not only for technological mastery of the natural world, but also for a modicum of understanding of the human world (including human interactions with nature). We can only dream of an ideal education that infuses science or mathematics with an understanding of its own history and philosophy. But given a stark choice between one or the other, enough young people are curious enough, thoughtful enough and brave enough to opt for the latter. Some may be lucky enough to be directed there, as I was, by a particularly sympathetic admissions tutor who thought that my disenchantment with A-level science, as it was then, might have had as much to do with the course’s deficiencies as with my own shortcomings.

What do the young find, if they enter a philosophy course? Not bearded ancients silently stroking their chins or offering enigmatic mantras. They find some tools, in elementary logic and critical thinking, and they are given intense practice in taking care to say what they mean. They will find that their first thoughts about the kinds of ideas I mentioned are not likely to be the best, so they find a whole world opening up as they learn how their apprentice stabs at showing that they know what they are talking about can nearly always be improved (a remarkably valuable lesson, forgotten or unknown in Westminster and Washington DC). They learn modesty and caution. They may then specialise, learning more about the philosophy of science (observation, induction, explanation, falsification, the empirical method) or theory of knowledge (perception, inference, classification, reason, evidence, language) or ethics (values, obligation, justice, punishment, decency, motivation, desire) or the philosophies of politics or art or history or indeed any area where there is value in reflecting on the way that concepts get used and abused.

Do the practices of philosophy change, and do they improve? One of the most potent causes of mistrust of philosophy is that it provides no answers, only questions, so that to many it does not seem to have progressed since its very beginnings in Plato, or even in pre-Socratic Greece (or China or India). Of course, one might similarly ask whether other human pursuits, such as music, literature, drama, architecture, painting or politics, have “improved” (and by what measure this judgement is supposed to be made), and if the answer is at best indeterminate we might query whether this reflects badly on those practices, or whether perhaps it indicates a problem with the question. It may be enough that their practitioners improve as they get their musical, literary and other educations, and that, having improved, they can help to keep some of humanity’s most important flames alive.

Nevertheless there is another answer, which is that philosophy has indeed both changed and improved. It has always changed, because the social and historical matrix in which it is practised changes, and it is that matrix that throws up the questions that seem most urgent at particular times. And it has improved first because there is a constant input of improved scientific knowledge that feeds it, and second because sometimes improved moral and political sensibilities filter into it. An example of the latter is the way that the improving status of women, and their increased representation in the philosophy classroom, has both thrown up new and interesting issues and generally altered for the better the way discussions are conducted. Examples of the former influence are legion: from Copernicus through Newton to Darwin, Einstein and today’s neurophysiologists, philosophers have absorbed and then tried to interpret advances in scientific knowledge. Nineteenth-century advances in mathematics helped to propel logic to its enormous 20th-century leaps forward (and that in turn helped the computer age to get started). In recent years, there has been much valuable collaboration between philosophy and learning theory, neurophysiology, economics and cognitive science.

But just as scientists are seldom immune to physics‑envy, so philosophers are not immune to science‑envy, and there are energetic contemporary movements that counsel that the subject move even closer to empirical psychology or sociology. “Experimental philosophy” has its own momentum, especially in moral philosophy, where large-scale online questionnaires can be used to elicit people’s intuitions about dilemmas and choices, such as the infamous “trolley problem”, which, roughly, obliges you to decide whether to pull a lever to divert a runaway train from a track to which five people are tied, on to one to which just one person is tied.

It is wise, though, to maintain some distinction between obtaining results and interpreting them. There is a division of labour between acquiring, testing and replicating empirical results, and thinking about what they mean. By training and practice, experimentalists are better at the first, whereas philosophers have some claim to expertise at the second. And even distinguished scientists do not always do distinguished philosophy when they undertake interpretative tasks. Biology has a particularly bleak record in this respect, although its greatest practitioners, including Darwin himself, have been a good deal more cautious than some of their apostles. The interpretation of neuroscience is a difficult and fraught matter, while economics has hardly distinguished itself since it split from philosophy and political science in the 19th century.

And if it comes to that, perhaps the civil servants, accountants and managers could benefit from better interpretations of their activities and words. An ironic example is the demand in the UK that university departments demonstrate the “impact” of particular pieces of research over a relatively short timescale and excluding effects on students, or even sales of books. “Impact” is a term drawn from mechanics, where it implies a particular kind of causation, a definite event giving some other identifiable thing a shove or a biff. Its magnitude can be quantified and, of course, if quantitative methods are all you are allowed to use, there is a temptation to suppose that everything else can be quantified as well: to him whose only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But improved understandings do not work by shoving or biffing. They can seldom be traced back to one particular essay or one moment in time. Ideas work by osmosis, filtering into people’s minds over long periods, manifested in innumerable subtle changes of thought and behaviour seldom attributable to just one antecedent event. A better model would be Don Basilio’s excellent understanding of the cumulative effect of gossip in his great encomium to the power of calumny in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Perhaps we might hope that even if they do not care to wrap their minds around issues in the philosophy of causation, our masters might be encouraged to attend an evening of opera buffa.

Simon Blackburn was Bertrand Russell professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge and remains a fellow of Trinity College. He is visiting professor at the New College of the Humanities, and is currently a visiting fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study, South Africa.

Crowd of people applauding at concert
Alamy montage

Philosophy is useful, yet its chief value for students lies not in making them better professionals, but in helping them live better lives. Mariana Alessandri and John Kaag write

Rumours of philosophy’s demise have always been greatly exaggerated. When Socrates was condemned, he expressed real concern that the discipline would not live on. But it did – through the Dark Ages, through wars that destroyed most of the world – into the 20th century. But the rumours endured: Martin Heidegger said that philosophy actually perished in the 1890s, and Richard Rorty – a thinker who abhorred the term “philosopher” – echoed this eulogy in the 1980s. They were wrong: philosophy lives on, albeit in a form that Socrates might not have recognised.

Like Socrates, philosophy has spent much of its history defending itself against the charges of irreverence, sophistry and corrupting the youth. But the most trenchant criticism of the discipline has turned on its supposed uselessness: philosophers don’t do anything except think, and thinking, at least in our modern day, takes a back seat to acting. Philosophy bakes no bread. The stereotype of a philosopher remains a picture of the ancient Greek mendicant-Cynic, Diogenes, sleeping in the streets, his clothes in rags, begging for food while he jeers at the townspeople. Socrates embraced his own self-imposed penury and spent the bulk of his Apology – the speech he delivered in response to the charges against him – chastising his fellow Athenians instead of catering to them. But times have changed, and, today, professional philosophers tend to capitulate to their critics and, for better and for worse, take care to locate and then photograph philosophy’s most profitable side.

The truth is that philosophy is useful. The analytical skills that US philosophy majors foster are reflected in Graduate Record Examination scores that, in verbal reasoning and analytical writing, outstrip all other undergraduate majors at US universities. This means that young philosophers are particularly well positioned to apply to graduate programmes outside their specific major. This includes practical subjects such as business and law; philosophy is regarded as the humanities major for students aspiring to attend law school. While parents continue to wring their hands over the potential unemployment that haunts many majors in the humanities, and especially philosophy, there are signs that their worries are unjustified. In 2013, in a survey carried out by of mid-career professionals, philosophy majors ranked in the top 25 per cent of salaries, ahead of biology, nursing and business.

The economic drivers that stand to keep philosophy alive are buttressed by growing institutional forces in many US universities. Philosophers are especially good at asking the “big questions” that underpin a variety of other academic fields – hence the rise of the philosophies of biology, physics, mathematics, race and mind. When you want to know what science is, the last person you should ask is a scientist. Additionally, the accreditation standards for professional degrees such as engineering, business and nursing have begun to insist that students take at least one class in professional ethics before graduation. Frequently, these classes are taught by non-philosophers, but this is beginning to change as philosophy departments take note of the way that professional schools, with steady income streams, might be the way to provide stability for a discipline that has always teetered on the brink of total poverty. This will, in the coming decades, drive philosophical research towards professional ethics.

These financial machinations would drive Socrates – and many of our philosophical colleagues – to distraction. And for good reason: “Money”, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “often costs too much.” Philosophy ought to be the last stronghold against the corporatisation of the university. Students fall in love with it not because it provides a gateway to professional success but, rather, because it offers one to existential meaning. When we emphasise to students how useful philosophy is, and enumerate the skills it will provide to help them compete in today’s global economy, we have already lost sight of what makes it worth doing. Philosophy’s chief value for students lies not in making them better professionals – although it will do that – but in helping them live better lives.

Philosophy might not have a reputation for baking bread, but it tells us what kind of bread to make and how much, and lets each of us ask the most important question of all: “Is this – or any – bread worth eating?” Students spend most of their early lives consuming particular beliefs about what constitutes success, beliefs that are alarmingly similar to those held by Socrates’ contemporaries. These beliefs were recently implied in US senator and Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio’s comment that since welders make more money than philosophers, we should have more welders and fewer philosophers. Critical thinking – arguably philosophy’s chief skill – can teach us that money should not drive our career choices and that success means more than a pay cheque. But when philosophers tout philosophical skills such as critical thinking, reading comprehension, ethical reasoning and written and oral articulation as profitable, we have turned philosophy into a commodity.

Philosophy was never meant to be sold on the market; it is meant to stand outside it, to question and criticise it, like Socrates did. Philosophy gives students a chance to question values that other people take for granted. Too often we forget that even “paragraph gobblers”, as Kierkegaard called professional philosophers, think critically about the meaning of life. Or they should. At its best, philosophy revives the ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself” – even and especially in a modern culture that perpetually ignores this most personal of mandates.

Pitching philosophy’s tent outside the market does not, however, mean that we should tolerate or pride ourselves on being called “useless”. Self-knowledge is not the same as navel-gazing. When John Rawls published A Theory of Justice in 1971, he signalled a slow turn in mainstream contemporary philosophy – a turn back towards philosophy’s political and ethical origins. Before Rawls, 20th-century Anglo-American philosophy was dominated by what was known as “analytic philosophy”, which modelled itself on mathematics and logic and prided itself on clean, rigorous argumentation. Unsurprisingly, the messiness of ethics, politics and religion dropped out of much of the mainstream conversation. But after Rawls, analytic philosophers were, once again, expected to join continental philosophers (primarily phenomenologists and existentialists) and pragmatists in serving as social and political critics. Even though philosophy’s demographics have changed only slightly in terms of women and ethnic minorities, its orienting questions have begun to focus more explicitly on the implications of inequality and oppression. Philosophy can, and often does, serve as an articulate call to action. There is a real “use” in this philosophical articulation, but one that does not (thankfully) have a particular price tag.

As long as we are positioned to defend or sell our usefulness (which amount to the same thing in American society), or even our so-called uselessness, philosophers, in our more humanistic capacity, may be doomed. And perhaps we deserve our fate: we should, like Socrates, refuse to repent for giving our students the space to ask forbidden questions, such as “Am I a good person?”, “Do I live in a just society?”, “What are the origins of my most cherished beliefs?” and “Is my life worth living?” From Seneca’s letters to Montaigne’s essays to the recent writings of Stanley Cavell, Cornel West and Martha Nussbaum – philosophy hits its stride when it thinks about how we might live better, and when it responds to important questions such as the one implied in Rubio’s concern for welders: why does the US privilege white-collar work over blue-collar work? If our subject really is in jeopardy, we philosophers should spend these last moments trying to persuade our society to attach greater importance to thinking in hard and sustained ways about values that have little to do with wealth and reputation and bare utility.

While we might choose to live more like Seneca, whose home was surrounded by expansive gardens, than Diogenes, who threw away his bowl and spoon because they signalled a decadent life, our classrooms ought to be a space for students to reflect on their lives, their values, their actions and their future. They want a reason to return lost money to its owner, to avoid cheating in a test, to believe or not to believe in God. They are looking for a better reason than grades to turn off their television and read Schopenhauer (who swiftly reprimands them for wanting to think as little as possible). They want the chance to think for its own sake – to pretend, for just a minute, that no strings or grades are attached. Philosophy’s job is to give them that chance. When asked why there is no “after-party” to celebrate his class’ yearly Shakespeare plays, award-winning fifth-grade schoolteacher Rafe Esquith said: “the play’s the thing”; even young students know that taking a year to practise and perform Shakespeare is its own reward. His students are intrinsically motivated; they don’t need an after-party.

The primary reason to study philosophy is not because it will get you into law school or help you ace your Medical College Admission Test: it is because philosophy’s the thing. After one of us gave our students a PowerPoint presentation enumerating the social and financial benefits of majoring in philosophy, one student asked: “But doesn’t this go against everything you have been saying in class: that we shouldn’t be driven by money?” She was right. Perhaps we should stop trying to market philosophy, because doing so demeans it. If Socrates and his hemlock teach us nothing else, it is that philosophy is most enduring when it is not trying to be popular.

Mariana Alessandri is assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. John Kaag is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.


Number of philosophy-related bachelor’s degrees awarded in the US and the UK, selected years 1970-2014

Percentage of UK graduates in work and further study six months after graduating, 2011-12 to 2013-14

Profile of a discipline: popularity, future prospects and pay

Student numbers in philosophy are holding up relatively well.

In the US, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the subject has held steady at about 12,000 for the past 10 years, according to the US’ National Center for Education Statistics (see graph, top).

Meanwhile, in the UK, numbers bounced back in 2013-14, after a drop in 2012-13, when £9,000 tuition fees were introduced, according to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

On employability, a relatively low 55 per cent of UK graduates of “historical and philosophical studies” were in full-time UK employment six months after graduating (2011-12 to 2013-14), according to Hesa’s Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey. Only law, mathematics and physical sciences graduates – recorded a lower percentage. By contrast, graduates of historical and philosophical studies were the fourth most likely to progress to further study, with 22 per cent doing so after law, physical sciences, and mathematics graduates (see graph, bottom). Only 7 per cent were unemployed – the same figure as the overall 2013‑14 average.

Philosophy graduates are also in demand in US graduate schools, reportedly scoring some of the highest scores in Graduate Record Examinations – especially in the verbal reasoning and analytical writing sections. The picture is similar in the entrance exams for vocational postgraduate degrees, such as business, law and even medicine.

And while US philosophy graduates start on relatively low salaries, according to figures from The Wall Street Journal, their salaries more than double by the middle of their careers, putting them among the highest-salaried graduate groups.

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Print headline: To utility and beyond

Reader's comments (2)

"Like Socrates, philosophy has spent much of its history defending itself against the charges of irreverence, sophistry and corrupting the youth." I personally think the most informed charge against Socrates and the charge against modern philosophy is different. To begin with modern philosophy: the charge is not that it is useless for baking bread, rather it is pseudo-science. Bertrand Russell, for example, said we have no real science of ethics or self-development, the philosophers chair in a sense is empty, and philosophy has become journalistic. But his analytic philosophy did not shed light on ethics and self-development, it created a sort of literary pseudo-science that corrupts those trapped inside it. What about the charge aginst Socrates? Its quite different i think, he existed in a time when philosophers claimed to have discovered an art of ethics and self-development. But Socrates pulled apart many practioners showing them to be charlatans, meanwhile developing his own teachings. But why was he and is he hated by some? For keeping it secret as charged, for example, in Plato's Clitophan.
IPerhaps students understand the value of learning and doing philosophy for their lives better than politicians, university administrators and even some of us who teach philosophy. The closing example of a student asking her professor whether "marketing" philosophy for today's professional world reminds me of a recent teaching experience at a public college in Brooklyn, New York. We were commenting U.S. Senator Rubio's quip that "we need more welders and less philosophers." After noting his ignorance of the English language ("uuummm, Senator, shouldn't you say 'fewer philosophers'?), they interpreted that Rubio wasn't defending the value of blue-collar work, which would have been fine for my working-class students. They interpreted that behind his views and of those in the audience who applauded him, was the idea that philosophy is a fine pastime for the economic elite, but "useless" for the people who are supposed to serve them skillfully and without questioning the status quo. My students were incensed. They valued philosophical inquiry without needing to be told why. It is Senators, Governors, and many Rectors, Chancellors and University Presidents who need to get it.

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