Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Clearly, then, studying philosophy can help people in almost any area of endeavor.

Todd Edwin Jones offers an interesting defense of philosophy (in Nevada, where it is under threat, and elsewhere). I agree with him, of course, about philosophy's being valuable. But the line I've quoted in the title of this post seems to come a bit too quickly (no doubt at least in part because he's writing a short article for a general audience).

Here's some more of the article:
People from all walks of life—physicists, physicians, detectives, politicians—can only come to good conclusions on the basis of thoroughly examining the appropriate evidence. And the whole idea of what constitutes good evidence and how certain kinds of evidence can and can’t justify certain conclusions is a central part of what philosophers study. Philosophers look at what can and can’t be inferred from prior claims. They examine what makes analogies strong or weak, the conditions under which we should and shouldn’t defer to experts, and what kinds of things (e.g., inflammatory rhetoric, wishful thinking, inadequate sample size) lead us to reason poorly.
This is not to say that doctors, district attorneys, or drain manufactures cannot make decent assessments without ever taking a philosophy class. It’s also possible for someone to diagnose a case of measles without having gone to medical school. The point is that people will tend to do better if, as part of their education, they’ve studied some philosophy. (This is one of the reasons why undergraduate philosophy majors have the highest average scores on the standard tests used for admission to post-graduate study.) No matter what goals someone has, she can better achieve them through assessing evidence more effectively, which philosophy can teach her. Questions about whether this or that goal is one that is good to have or whether certain goals are consistent with other goals, in turn, concern ethics and values—other subjects that philosophers have long pursued.
I wonder how persuasive non-philosophers will find this.

Does philosophy teach people how to assess evidence more effectively? Does it tell people what goals are good, or which goals are consistent with other goals they might have? Some philosophy courses do this, but most (I have no real evidence for this claim, but I think it's true) do not have such practical goals. If we are to save philosophy, though, then I think we will have to present philosophy as a kind of combination of critical thinking and practical ethics, in the same kind of way that English can present itself as how to read and write.

This is a shame. It suggests that our culture sees no value in its own literature and thinking. It lacks self-respect. It suggests also that we are led by people who value neither thinking nor the expression of thought. It's hard to escape the thought that these people are fundamentally thoughtless. This is not a new phenomenon, of course, but it can be (and lead to consequences that are) terrifying, as Raimond Gaita notes.


  1. i'm starting to think i ought to be reading a lot more adorno before my society administers me away.

  2. You could do worse, I'm sure. But we will all be administered either to death or else out of the way. (Hmm--that sounds a bit grim.)

  3. It is a curious coincidence that I should find this topic being discussed on your blog just days after I had found the same topic discussed by Jeff Mason on another blog ("Meditation 110 Philosophy, Thinking-Well [sic] and the Art of Living," at Talking Philosophy, 4 April 2011). Mason takes a position similar to that of Jones, arguing that the study of philosophy contributes to living well by training us to think well. I hope that you won't mind my reproducing here what I wrote in a comment that I posted there, as it seems to me equally applicable to the arguments of Jones. After taking Mason to task for his annoying mannerism of hyphenating the phrase "think(ing)-well," as if it were some sort of patented process devised by philosophers, I wrote as follows:

    Typographical objections aside, I would contend that the relation of philosophy to good thinking is a highly ambiguous one. Philosophers are constantly identifying instances of bad thinking; but where do they chiefly find them? Nowhere else than in the work of other philosophers–often the greatest philosophers. Philosophy has concerns of its own, which are often very remote from those of everyday life, and those who pursue it professionally are notoriously given to walling themselves up in castles of abstruse ratiocination. Perhaps doing well in philosophy requires developing the ability to think well; but the historical record indicates that it presents little deterrent to thinking perversely.

    While I would be glad to see more people seek to make themselves “less likely to be taken in by charlatans, advertisers and politicians,”[*] I doubt that the study of philosophy is the most effective means to that end. Surely the study of the theory of probability, informal logic (the art of identifying fallacies), and the psychology of error and other empirical sciences, both natural and behavioral, would serve that end more directly.

    In sum: While one cannot do philosophy well without doing some good thinking, eminence in philosophy does not exclude the perpetration of some very bad thinking. The study of philosophy can be useful to improving the quality of one’s thinking, but it is neither a guarantee of that result nor a sufficient nor even the most effective means to it.

    *The quotation is from Mason's piece. Jones's piece contains an equivalent passage, namely that in which he says that philosophers "examine what makes analogies strong or weak, the conditions under which we should and shouldn’t defer to experts, and what kinds of things (e.g., inflammatory rhetoric, wishful thinking, inadequate sample size) lead us to reason poorly." Yes, philosophers examine these things, but they are not consistently good at doing so and philosophy is neither the most direct nor the most effective study through which to inculcate skill in such examination.

  4. 'philosophy: keep it around and philosophers will help future members of the elite get better scores on their lsats and mcats.'

  5. That's the pitch, yes. It needn't be the goal.

  6. so we would be like those churches that get parishioners in the door with the enticement of worldly benefits, then set to work on saving their eternal souls?

  7. Well, kind of. I think most people accept that critical thinking and ethics have value, so we can just come right out and say (in all honesty) that that is what we aim to teach. If anyone questions the value of critical thinking then we can talk about LSATs, etc. And while we're teaching lower level courses in this stuff we can also offer the odd upper level course for students who like that kind of thing. So people could still major in philosophy.

    This might not be most people's idea of a dream job, but it seems to me to be what professional philosophers probably ought to be doing. It also seems like a good way to get administrators and politicians to leave philosophy programs alone. Then again, it's also close to what my job requires (we don't have a philosophy major or a graduate program), so maybe it just reflects my own job-induced bias.