What Good is Philosophy Education?

by Brian on September 11, 2004

I was pleased to see this paragraph from “Matthew Yglesias”:http://yglesias.typepad.com/matthew/2004/09/ipower_terror_p.html.

bq. As a journalist, I keenly feel the pain of the generalist. I find myself in Mead’s shoes all the time — needing to somehow touch on a range of material that I am perfectly aware I don’t understand nearly as well as those people who’ve spent years focusing in on it narrowly. I like to think that having studied philosophy as an undergraduate is a reasonably good preparation for such a task. Obviously, I never wind up writing an article about meta-ethics or the way structurally similar issues about reductionism pop up in diverse areas (insofar as I know a lot about anything, it’s these things), but what philosophy fundamentally teaches you about (especially as an undergraduate when you don’t really have the time to master any particular sub-area) is how to spot an unsound argument, irrespective of the topic of discussion. That’s a useful and generally applicable thing. And I think we’ll see it pop up again and again in this discussion.

I like to think that some of the specific things I teach in undergraduate classes have relevance to what my students go on to do, but ultimately I’d be happy if most of the students picked up just the kind of skills Matt is talking about. One of the side effects of philosophy being so abstract and disconnected from everyday considerations is that to do well at it, you have to be good at reasoning about unfamiliar topics. And in the modern economy that’s a very valuable skill.



Zizka 09.11.04 at 5:25 am

As a contrary case, if you run into someone making a wildly implausible brain-in-bottle context-free case about something, or someone explaining how destroying the environment is really a way of protecting it, they might have studied philosophy too before going to law school.


bob mcmanus 09.11.04 at 5:44 am

To stay consistent with my other comments around the blogosphere today, gotta say that Rhetoric appears more actually useful than Dialectic.


David Tiley 09.11.04 at 1:02 pm

Reads Zizka.
Chin thuds on floor.
“A contrary case” – where?
Why on earth blame philosophy?
Do tell, Zizka, do tell..

Personally, I think that I can prove that all dingbats use toothpaste, so I am campaigning to have the dental hygiene trade shut down. It’s the obvious cause of terrorism.


yabonn 09.11.04 at 1:03 pm

-Hello, my mane is yabonn and this is my first visit here at Commenters Anonymous

-Hello yabonn.

-Thanks for your welcoming. My problem is that as a Crooked Timber commenter, I keenly feel the pain of the generalist […] needing to somehow touch on a range of material that I am perfectly aware I don’t understand.



praktike 09.11.04 at 4:01 pm

I only took one philosophy class in college — Ethics — and it changed my life.

Now I lie and cheat at every opportunity, because I believe it is “good for my life” and I’m hoping that I will get busted and as punishment, the Philosophy Gods will toss me in the Experience Machince 4-evah.


Nicholas Weininger 09.11.04 at 4:19 pm

Pure mathematics courses– good ones, anyway– teach you many of the same abstract reasoning skills, plus a general epistemological conservatism that I find extremely useful. At least half my objections to others’ arguments, these days, are either of the form “premise A doesn’t imply conclusion B, it implies the similar but weaker B’ and you’re eliding the distinction and hoping we won’t notice” or else “you just can’t have the degree of epistemological certainty about Assertion X that you’re claiming to have.” A good upper undergrad/beginning grad sequence of real analysis courses is particularly helpful in making one sensitive to such errors.


seth edenbaum 09.11.04 at 5:15 pm

It’s absurd for a generalist to argue the value of context-free logics in where all acts of communication are context specific. Never mind the intellectual/lingusitic fireworks, I can’t imagine anyone but a fool asking the parallel question:
“What good is a degree in American History?”


Neha 09.11.04 at 8:20 pm

Re Seth Edenbaum: Yet absolutely every college student asks that question. Whose teaching them that to go ahead, you need to know where you came from?

To hit another note, I’m an undergrad student myself. Here’s the question – how exactly are students supposed to pick up on critical thinking/reasoning skills? Absorbed from the environment, set of trained responses, or just value judgments? Believe me, Freshman Comp just doesnt do it.


Tom T. 09.11.04 at 8:25 pm

Matt’s argument appears to suppose that there are other college majors that do not value critical reasoning. I’d be curious to hear which he thinks those are.


bob mcmanus 09.11.04 at 10:04 pm

“The boundaries of the study called Ethics are variously and often vaguely conceived: but they will perhaps be sufficiently defined, at the outset, for the purposes of the present treatise, if a `Method of Ethics’ is explained to mean any rational procedure by which we determine what individual human beings `ought’—or what it is `right’ for them-to do, or to seek to realise by voluntary action. By using the word “individual” I provisionally distinguish the study of Ethics from that of Politics, which seeks to determine the proper constitution and the right public conduct of governed societies: both Ethics and Politics being, in my view, distinguished from positive sciences by having as their special and primary object to determine what ought to be, and not to ascertain what merely is, has been, or will be.” …Sedgwick,MOE,Intro

Forgive this plebe, but Ethics seems to me to be a very large part of what human beings do. We eat,drink,make love, watch TV…and try to decide what is the right or best possible thing to do.
Nearly everyone I have ever met, at nearly every moment I have observed them, has been doing Ethics.

Since all other Philosophy is, or should be, in service of Ethics & Politics, Philosophy should be last Science that needs justification.


janeboatler 09.11.04 at 11:25 pm

Yes, yes, yes to what Matt and you said about the skills that a study of philosophy provides. I attended a Jesuit university back in the fifties, and was required to take 6 semesters of philosophy along with all my other required courses. I did not major in philosophy. Everyone who attended the university had to do this. I was annoyed at the time, because it made for a heavy course load. But in hindsight, I am very grateful.

As a result, I am able, at the very least, to make a mostly logical argument and spot a fallacious argument. It astounds me that many people today cannot, including the members of the media. That’s why the Bush administration can spin them like tops. That’s why many Americans do not see through the nonsense that the Bushies spout, and will give them their votes come November.


seth edenbaum 09.12.04 at 2:00 am

There is no ‘science’ of ethics.


Kevin 09.12.04 at 2:28 am

I think Matthew really nailed it, there. One of my favorite undergrad philosophy professors once said (probably paraphrasing Carl Sagan): “my hope is to turn you all into excellent bullshit detectors; because the world could always use some more of those.”


bob mcmanus 09.12.04 at 3:26 am

“There is no ‘science’ of ethics.”

Well, Sedgwick calls it a “study” in the cited paragraph, and contrasts it with the “positive sciences”, and I suspect that defining what is or is not a “science” would be outside the scope of physicists and
chemists, but also way beyond my pay grade.

I guess my question for the thread above is whether logic and critical analysis are tools of philosophy, rather than part of philosophy itself. Are we really back in ancient Athens with the Sophists, just learning to argue with refined skills but no purpose?


seth edenbaum 09.12.04 at 5:37 am

I prefer that the study of ethics be attached to subjects that make their centerpiece a reference to the world: history, law, psychology, and (cultural) anthropology.

Philosophy will teach you arrogance, but not to recognize when it is unwarranted.


seth edenbaum 09.12.04 at 5:43 am

…or simply rude.


bob mcmanus 09.12.04 at 7:55 am

Yeah, well, having just watched the well-trained minds of the left blogosphere virtually without exception get rolled by the likes of Charles Johnson at LGF like rubes in a 3-card-monte game…I suspect something lacking in their education. Call this a cry for help, a plea to academia for better weapons against the Right. The current armament hasn’t been effective.


bellatrys 09.12.04 at 1:48 pm

David, don’t bother with zizka, gtst was just arguing on deLong’s that all us who are descended from Confederates ought to be summarily disenfranchised to improve the quality of American voting. To go, I guess, with the ever popular assertion in Left Blogistan that all us Christians ought to be likewise stripped of our right to participate as citizens. (The back-patting smugness of elitism is *not* limited to LGF and Free Republic.) Some people wouldn’t know a syllogism from an enthymeme if it bit them.


harry 09.12.04 at 2:26 pm

Neha — take ‘informal logic’ and or ‘contemporary moral issues’ (or cognates) in the Philosophy department (but check out professors first). Take Economics 101, etc. And some serious math courses (not the ones named ‘the way to fulfil the math requirement for people who can’t count and don’t care about counting’).

tom t: ooo, it would be such fun to speculate. Almost all of the rest of the humanities, perhaps? Plus half of the social sciences?


se 09.12.04 at 3:13 pm

“Call this a cry for help, a plea to academia for better weapons against the Right. The current armament hasn’t been effective.”

If you think more logic is needed than what we already have, you really miss the point, and you haven’t been reading the polls. Your ignorance of the the realities, of fear and insecurity in an uneducated populace, make you ill suited for a discussion of human values and behavior.

“(The back-patting smugness of elitism is not limited to LGF and Free Republic.) Some people wouldn’t know a syllogism from an enthymeme if it bit them.”

The arrogance and smugness of the boorish and uneducated doesn’t bother me, except in as much as it rules over those equally uneducated but willing to follow.
I’m more troubled by the arrogance and smugness of technicians who associate intellectual parlour tricks with wisdom. Statistics is a tool. But as they say: If “shit goes in shit comes out.” Scholastic philosophy, whether today or half a millennium ago, would say otherwise.


Zizka 09.12.04 at 4:28 pm

I was not talking about the philosophy Jane Boatler took in the 50’s, but the analytic philosophy being taught today. My objection is not to Philosophy, which I read a lot of, but to today’s schools.

The contemporary academic philosophy I read seems to be very heavy in ingenious, far-fetched, context-free hypothetical arguments.

Rorty said (Mirror of Nature or Consequences of Pragmatism) that philosophy now essentially produces technicians of argument, with no substantive doctrines proposed by anyone except as cases for discussion. He thinks that’s fine, but I don’t.

The analytical, argumentative strength analytic philosophy teaches needs to be matched with a strength in seeing and defining contexts, and an awareness of contexts, which isn’t really taught anywhere in the contemporary university, but especially not in philosophy classes. Matt has that skill to a considerable degree, but he got it from elsewhere.

The harm I see in contemporary philosophy is an opportunity-cost kind of thing. My criticism is philosophical, but based on philosopher who are seldom taught any more. Analytic philosophers were pretty effective in achieving total domination by the normal methods of bureaucratic and factional realpolitik.

The worst effects of philosophy (or economics) are seen, not in professional philosophers, but in someone who has taken a few courses and has effectively been told that it’s OK for him to assert his own prejudices and interests as aggressively as he wishes, as long as he’s able to make good arguments and knock down the other guy’s arguments.


Zizka 09.12.04 at 4:43 pm

Bellatrys, I TOLD you that I would restore your right to vote IF YOU ASKED NICELY. But you didn’t. No vote for you.

Ladies and gentlemen of the thread, my statement he references was, in fact, somewhat hypothetical (I **have** studied analytical philosophy some). My point was that this country might be in a better place now if it had been the descendants of Confederates had been excluded from political rights, rather than the descendants of slaves (which is what actually did happen).

Section three of the Fourteenth Amendment did in fact strip Confederate veterans of some political rights, though not voting, while making provisions to restore them at some later date. When their rights were finally restored in a backroom deal around 1880, they immediately got to work stripping ex-slaves **and their descendants** of all political rights, including voting. My opinion is that the reconstruction ended too soon.


Alex 09.12.04 at 9:24 pm

More esoterica. Indoctrinating of the too young and too inexperienced to be in any of the univs. with use of too much money to do so. The archaic outdated univ system should have been changed forty years ago.


bellatrys 09.13.04 at 12:21 am

Yeah, like the Reconstruction was about helping former slaves.

Like the Reconstruction *helped* former slaves. Goddam carpetbaggers, you’re all the same.

Last I heard, it wasn’t ex-Confederates’ descendents ruling the roost in Cleveland and carrying out race-based shootings.

(I’ve been trying to figure out why so many of the AEI elite are ex-lefties from the old days. I’m coming closer and closer to the answer, and it ain’t pretty, and we’re seeing some of it there in in friend Zizka, and even more of it in those folks who go around moaning “It’s all lost, we’re doomed, the American sheeple deserve all *they* get” – that arrogance isn’t a quality of the Right, it’s a quality of humanity, but the Right has and is willing to abuse power more – hey Dave, maybe Zizka was only self-describing and projecting on *all* philosophy students there…)


ruralsaturday 09.13.04 at 12:55 am

“fecal matter in; fecal matter out.”
More illustrative than GIGO, and it does bring up the more realistic metaphor, of metabolism.
Nutritious alimentation in; fecal matter out.
Point of fact: “fecal matter in” more than likely results in “vomitus out”; depending on the orifice, of course.
The only poetically sound use of this is to hint at the organic underlayment of the abstract question .
The most accurate and the most thorough understanding of a primal conflict leads only to the threshold of resolution. The key additional ingredient is the insistence of the individual on being. That has no ethical priority, it can be encouraged, or discouraged, masked or exposed, but its presence is an act of will more essential than reason.
This is indeed underneath some of the most popular and seemingly illogical, and unnecessary, controversies. Wilberforce to Bryan to Ashcroft, these men are the champions of people who are fighting for their lives, who have recognized the mortal threat waiting behind the acceptance of new, heretical, truth, and thus defend themselves accordingly.
It isn’t embarrassment, or love of tradition that drives them, it’s extinction.
The ethical strength necessary to sacrifice one’s comfort and security in defense of a more honest view of the world is rare enough – to consider making the ultimate sacrifice, because one’s position and success are founded on a platform of lies, must seem entirely alien, now.
But that’s where it goes. The resilience and adaptability that would enable the “human race” to adjust to and incorporate more accurate understanding is a general thing. Like any other general shift in the population it leaves behind a measurable and identifiable portion. Permanently.
Who or what that portion will consist of, as we confront the necessity of immediate, massive change in response to conditions beyond our control, is exactly what most contemporary conflict, intellectual and military, ethical and metaphysical, is about.
Elect, or preterite – take your pick, take your place, and hang on!


Zizka 09.13.04 at 3:21 am

Bellatrys, you whiner, my original statement was pretty much a joke. But yes, I’m a Yankee the way a lot of Southerners are Rebs. Deal with it.

Since the South took over the Republican Party, and then after that the whole U.S., I’ve been more vocal than I was before, during the period when Southerners were all self-pitying losers like yourself, instead of strutting bullies like Delay, Armey, Lott, and the rest.

Your self-serving little quibbles about the Reconstruction and American race relations aren’t really worth bothering with. During Reconstruction, black Southerners had the vote and the various rights that come with that. Afterwards, increasingly not. Your problem, not mine.


se 09.13.04 at 4:18 am

Who are these idiots? This ‘B’ is a real Christian man. A white man!
I’ve met a few of them before.
Praise the Lord, brother,
and shut the fuck up.

Close this post please, before I get all preintellectual on these assholes.

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