Former Philosophy Students

by Brian on February 5, 2004

The APA (American Philosophical Association) is looking for stories about how valuable philosophical training has been to people other than professional, full-time philosophers.

The following mail just went out over the APA mailing list.

Dear Colleague:

I write in behalf of the American Philosophical Association to ask one specific question.

We who teach philosophy know that we are unlike most of our students, very few of whom pursue our subject professionally. We also know that philosophy can have a profound and lasting influence on students who follow other paths and who later view their undergraduate study in philosophy to have been powerfully important to their intellectual and professional development. Once in a while we learn of this through public comments made by distinguished people in fields as diverse as finance, the arts, or medicine. More often it is private, anecdotal information: an alumnus writes, out of the blue, or a chance meeting prompts an expression of gratitude, or sometimes even an unexpected bequest confirms that philosophy mattered more than we then knew to someone who remembered it to the end.

The APA would like to compile more systematic information about how philosophy has affected and is appreciated by such former students. But finding them is hard. We ask each of you to think about former students who have gone on to success or even distinction in some other domain, and just tell us who they are and, if you know, where we might find them. We’ll then ask whether they are willing to tell us what their previous study of philosophy means to them now. We might also use some of these names later in a fund drive we are now planning.

Thus, the question: who are they? Please reply, if possible, within two or three weeks. Your responses collectively can be of great help to the APA and to our discipline.

Thank you.


Michael Kelly
Executive Director
American Philosophical Association

This seems like a good project, and if you can help out, either by suggesting former students or as a philosophy graduate who wants to say just how good philosophical training is, please contact Michael.

UPDATE: Further to the post yesterday, Brock Sides (via Tyler Cowen points to this list of famous philosophy grads. I never knew Bill Clinton was a philosophy major. That explains a lot I think – we know we don’t know what the meaning of ‘is’ is either.



Arthur Wouk 02.05.04 at 6:57 pm

I just hope they get stories of people who aren’t lawyers. In the last year or so, I’ve been reading a lot of blogs on line, and I am really surprised how many people who talk about philosophy are either under grads planning to go to law school or law school students or professors.

I guess it never occurred to me that there was such a correlation between law and philosophy. Anyhow, there are other jobs in the world besides lawyering, so I just hope some others are represented.


Terry 02.05.04 at 6:57 pm

They should ask the most highly-paid former philosophy student I know: Alex Trebek.


Matthew Yglesias 02.05.04 at 7:00 pm

They should ask me! I could do a point/counterpoint with Julian Sanchez about the life of white Latino former philosophy undergraduates turned DC magazine writers. Could be fascinating stuff.


nolo 02.05.04 at 7:08 pm

Of course there are other jobs besides lawyering — I fantasize about them on a regular basis. But, as a lawyer with an MA in philosophy, I have to say that the law/philosophy correlation seems awfully obvious to me. And not just on a “what else does a liberal arts student do but go into law” basis. In fact, unless you’re planning on practicing patent law (which is an area for which you need a specialized background in the U.S.), I’d have to say that philosophy is probably one of the best pre-law backgrounds you can have. Not from a marketability standpoint, mind you, but from that deeper standpoint that is concerned with what makes for a good lawyer.


Barry 02.05.04 at 7:16 pm

Only to other DC political magazine writers, I’m afraid :) BTW – 90% of them male.

What you *should* do, Matt, is to convene a panel like that in NYC, in some fashion magazine conference.


PanJack 02.05.04 at 8:15 pm

Steve Martin?


asg 02.05.04 at 9:02 pm

My philosophy degree has helped me quite a lot more than I thought it would in my field, computer game development.


Michael 02.05.04 at 9:16 pm

It’s interesting that everyone (except Kelly) seems to focus exclusively on how “philosophical training” affects career choices and professional success.


martin 02.05.04 at 9:33 pm

Not sure how his philosophy degree prepared Ricky Gervais for this. As for law school, ick, I wouldn’t touch one with a barge pole.


Brian Weatherson 02.05.04 at 9:52 pm

There’s a long tradition of British philosophy grads being pretty good comics, so I’m not too surprised that is Gervais’s background. I would have been scared of having him in class though – the potential for scarily accurate professor parodies would be too high.


Keith M Ellis 02.06.04 at 4:03 pm

I’d have to say that philosophy is probably one of the best pre-law backgrounds you can have.“—nolo

When I was an undergrad, I and some fellow classmates went to a nearby law school’s recruiting/overview meeting. We were vastly amused as the speaker emphasized how disorienting law school can be for first years because law schools use the strange and radical “Socratic Method”.

When people inevitably ask me “What in the world can you do with a St. John’s education?”, I usually tell them that although the college is aggressively anti-vocational, my experience and observation have been that it opens more doors than it closes. For example, this quarter’s alumni magazine has a feature on the many johnnies who have gone into finance…there’s quite a few.

I think that a SJC education is vastly superior to an undergraduate philosophy degree, but there is an essential similarity. Frankly, the only schools in the US doing a decent job for vocational education are the vocational schools and the community colleges. Most people go to college for what is effectively a vocational education but get such a mish-mash that tries to be all things to all people that they neither learn many skills nor how to think critically. But I think that an undergrad philosophy degree covers the latter quite well. Perhaps I’m naive and optimistic—I’m sure it depends upon the school.


David Foster 02.07.04 at 3:33 am

I’m fairly certain that Carl Icahn, the corporate raider, was a philosophy major.


David Foster 02.07.04 at 3:34 am

Also, Carly Fiorina, the CEO of HP/Compaq, was a dual major in philosophy and medieval history as an undergrad.


The Philosophical Cowboy 02.08.04 at 12:26 pm

Well, in my case a BA and MPhil has led me into the world of accounting. Which may be a little depressing, though I enjoy it.

All the classic arguments about the benefits of clear thinking developed by philosophy have some relevance to my experience. And, relative to many of my colleagues, experience of writing a great deal is useful in comparison to mathematical backgrounds.

Coupled with some teaching experience in grad work, I find it very useful to instinctively work from first principles on issues, whether trying to resolve them, or explain them.

And, of course, contributed massively to the quality of my bookshelves…


Jeremy Leader 02.09.04 at 5:22 pm

Did the last sentence of the penultimate paragraph catch anyone else’s eye?

“We might also use some of these names later in a fund drive we are now planning.”

For some reason, that struck me as the oh-so-diffident real purpose of the mailing.

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