Why Majoring In Philosophy is Less Risky than You Might Have Thought

by Harry on June 2, 2016

My department held our first ceremony for graduating philosophy Majors this spring, and my chair kindly asked me to speak at it (immediately after 2 graduating seniors, whose speeches were, I suppose not surprisingly, on a fairly similar theme to my own). I kept it short (ish), and thought I’d post the text from which I talked here. I’m posting partly because it was fun, but partly as a resource for others, who are welcome to use whatever they like, without attribution, except for the joke about my office (I know 2 political philosophers whose offices are reputed to be similar to mine — they can use the joke).

Here it is:

First, we want to congratulate you all on graduating. It’s a time for you to enjoy, and celebrate, though we hope you feel at least some sadness at leaving the rhythm of college life, and the thrill of going to class every day knowing that you’ll encounter, as one of my non-major students put it, ideas that you didn’t know were there to be thought.

Second, we want to thank the parents here for encouraging, or tolerating, or merely not having the strength of character to stop, your children in their choice of major. And, in many cases, you have been for paying for most or all of it. We know that your children are entering a labor market that is soft at best, much worse than the labor market we entered at the same age, and that majoring in Philosophy may have seemed like a risk. I’m going to explain why it was less of a risk than you might have thought.

Most of us research and teach philosophy because we love it – as one student, trying to get the balance right between philosophy and sociology, put it: “Philosophy is just so much more fun; you get to think almost all the time that you are working, rather than only about 20% of the time”. We’re excited about mapping out conceptual space, making very fine grained distinctions, looking at arguments and seeing where they go wrong, and figuring out how to repair them. We revel in abstraction. And we hope we have communicate some of that enthusiasm, and fostered it, and the skills needed to fulfill it, in you.

But that’s not all.

Last year Governor Walker and our legislature added to the mission of the UW that it should “meet the state’s workforce needs”. Some people on the campus were not enthused about this addition. But as a professor loyal to the College of Letters and Science, and especially as a professor who wants to see Philosophy thrive, I was thrilled. Speaking simply for myself, if studying philosophy did not contribute to society, it should be like sports, a leisure activity that people don’t get paid for and that no sane person would think the government should be subsidizing. I mean, nobody, surely, would think that the government should be using tax revenues to fund high school football or hockey teams, or to subsidize building sports stadia, right?

Ok, well, those weren’t very successful examples. But you get the point.

Of course there are lots of ways of contributing to society – making it better – other than by serving the state’s workforce needs. But it turns out that Philosophy, more than most disciplines you can study here, equips you with the skills and traits you need to contribute to the state’s – and the world’s – most urgent workforce needs.
I had a look at the Forbes list of the characteristics companies most wanted in their graduate hires for 2015. We don’t teach all of them. But we do teach most:

1. Ability to work in a team structure
2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems
3. Ability to communicate with people inside and outside an organization – and here they mean communicate – that is, to say what you mean, and mean what you say, precisely, concisely, and clearly.
4. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work
5. Ability to obtain and process information
6. Ability to create and/or edit written reports
7. Ability to sell and influence others

The ability to use computer programs and job-specific technical skills were the only items on the list that we don’t teach (much) though, from what I can gather, many employers have sensibly given up on the idea that they can hire people with job specific technical skills out of college or high school; they raid other employers for those.

How do we teach these characteristics? Through getting students to read complex texts closely, interpret them, discuss them with others, write about them a lot, make class presentations, argue with their classmates. The ability to communicate verbally is particularly important – you need to be able to disagree, and let people disagree with you, and to be able to locate the sources of the disagreements, and to do so without either feeling personally threatened, or making others feel threatened, so that you can identify the common ground, uncover how serious the disagreements really are, and find solutions. A great deal of wasteful conflict in the workplace (and in politics and in personal relationships for that matter) arises from people talking past each other and not being able to make basic distinctions. We pride ourselves on conducting our classes so that students learn to do all that. We do not teach you what questions to ask. Because if we taught you what questions to ask you wouldn’t be able to ask good questions: instead, we have tried to teach you to figure out for yourselves what the good questions are, and to have the self-confidence – and the language — to ask them. And then to work with others to figure out the answers. You are well equipped with the skills and characteristics employers most want, and thus to thrive, and make your contribution. To have a career in which you contribute value, not just a job.

I’m going to finish with a quote from the MIT labor economist David Autor and will comment on it briefly.

Autor says:

“Human tasks that have proved most amenable to computerization are those that follow explicit, codifiable procedures — such as multiplication – where computers now vastly exceed humans in speed quality accuracy and cost efficiency. Tasks that have proved the most vexing to automate are those that demand flexibility, judgment and common sense—skills that we understand only tacitly—for example developing a hypothesis or organizing a closet”

Now, you might think that philosophy majors are great at developing hypotheses, but not so skilled at organizing closets. But I take Autor to be talking figuratively, as well as literally, when he talks about closet organizing. (I am using ‘literally’ in the archaic sense in which it meant ‘literally” rather than the contemporary sense in which my children use it, to mean ‘not literally”). Philosophers are, actually, the closet organizers of conceptual space, though, as anyone who has been in my office or seen my mailbox will know, and you can tell exactly who they are by looking at who is laughing right now, we are not necessarily the closet organizers of actual space. We teach students to delineate concepts with more precision than could possibly be needed for practical purposes, not only because it is interesting and fun to do that, but because only then can we be confident that they will be able to delineate them with as much precision as is needed for practical purposes.

This is how I interpret Autor: We now know how to computerize and mechanize many tasks for which we know the algorithms. And there’s a lot of emphasis in American education on learning and applying algorithms (although it would be nice if it were done a little better). But the deep point they are bringing out is known to anyone who has run an organization, or led a company, or led a battalion or a political movement, or even tried to teach a 5th grader to read. The interesting problems, the difficult problems, the problems we really have to solve if we want to make progress, are those for which we don’t know the algorithm, and the solving of which requires that we see the conceptual space clearly, together with others who see things differently from us.

In other words, the state’s workforce needs people who can think well, with others, without an algorithm. That is why we need philosophers, and that is what you have been learning to do. We are proud of the contributions you are going to make to society, in many ways, including as good citizens, as caring friends and family members, but also including through your ability to meet the workforce needs of this State and others.



Alan White 06.02.16 at 1:42 am

Excellent speech Harry. I for one am glad that our governor failed in the attempt to revise the Wisconsin Idea, trying to replace “workforce” lingo for pursuit of “truth”, but your point is well-taken. The kind of education that philosophy traditionally does, when done well, translates into all sorts of practical skills that crucially involve language and logic. But also the very skills that make algorithms possible in the first place: Turing, von Neumann, Gentzen, etc.–not to mention the Godels and such who also attempt to constrain the very conceptual space of algorithms. It’s such a pity that legislators are so ill-informed as not to even be close to understand the centrality of philosophy in all this.


Tabasco 06.02.16 at 1:50 am

Have these philosophy majors landed good jobs, places at good law or business schools, etc?


Dean C. Rowan 06.02.16 at 2:46 am

I first read “closet organizers of conceptual space” as suggesting that philosophers are reluctant to come out about the fact that they organize concepts.

Librarians, too, organize conceptual space, but librarians are not philosophers by any stretch of the imagination. We librarians organize concepts–when we do at all, since not all librarians work closely with the classification systems, such as Dewey Decimal–according to their representation in published literature. There would be no need for specific places to file works about “Storage in the home” or “Clothes closets” (LC Subject Headings) at 648.8 (Dewey classification) were there no books (or websites, videos, images, government documents, etc.) about the topic. Clearly, this function will eventually be performed by NLP algorithms relying on increasingly vast digital corpora. (Images and videos might not as easily be included among the works amenable to automatic classification.) But the reason “the state’s workforce needs people who can think well, with others, without an algorithm” is because the solutions to problems must be practical, if also products of ingenuity and prudence. To paraphrase Black Sabbath, librarians are masters of practicality. Sometimes we exhibit ingenuity, often prudence. We’re just not very good at monetizing these skills.

The motivating principle of practicality is the tedious maxim, “Perfection is the enemy of the good.” It seems to me that philosophers sensibly respect and aim for the converse, namely, “Perfection is (also) the enemy of the bad.” Employers hiring new graduates won’t want to hear this, of course. And so with respect to this principle, philosophers must retreat back into the closet.


JimV 06.02.16 at 3:56 am

“the state’s workforce needs people who can think well, with others, without an algorithm”

There wasn’t much to object to in the OP, but naturally I’m only commenting to offer a minor objection to the above wording:

Some of us think you have two choices when it comes to problem-solving (which I assume is the type of thought you were referring to above): apply some set of algorithms which you have learned previously; or develop a new set of algorithms for the problem by trial and error–which is itself a general algorithm (the one used by biological evolution to develop us). It’s algorithms, all the way down.

Another way of looking at that is that if no algorithm exists whereby a given problem can be solved (including random guessing, which is a widely-used algorithm), then that problem has no solution. (Fortunately though, trial and error will solve a lot of problems.)

Example problem: I have an hour to pick up some drycleaning before the shop closes, get some groceries including ice cream, and get a prescription filled at a pharmacy. In what order should I do these items? Algorithm: consider each of the six possible orders and their pros and cons. If I get the icecream first, it might melt by the time I get home. All problem-solving-thinking is math, all math is thinking.

Perhaps philosophy teaches and/or gives practice at a set of algorithms for evaluating algorithms, which would speed up the trial and error process. Whatever it does, if it works it’s an algorithm (or meta-algorithm, if that helps).

Maybe philosophy uses a different definition of “algorithm” than I do, though. (Algorithm: before posting a comment, always pause to think of ways you may be wrong–not that this algorithm always works for me.)


casmilus 06.02.16 at 9:20 am

If I ever had to encourage new students to take up philosophy, this is all I’d say:

“If you want to save lives, you should have enrolled in medical school. If you want to make new things, you should have enrolled in an engineering course. If you want to be writer, just get on with it and don’t waste time at college at all.

Given that you have chosen to study in the area vaguely referred to as “the humanities”, you’re best off studying philosophy. That’s because all the other disciplines have now declined into nothing more than philosophy done very badly by people who don’t know how unoriginal they are. Eng Lit, in particular, could be reduced to a tiny core of genuine scholars and the rest of crit. theory deadwood set free to get jobs in Customer Service and Human Resources departments.”


engels 06.02.16 at 10:21 am

Open for applications:

TaskRabbit: Organise Closet
Let us help you clean up your closet and get things organised.

We do chores
Work on your flatpack
Hang your pictures
Paint the bathroom
Take out the rubbish

You live life
Work on your six pack
Hang out with your mates
Paint the town red
Take in a show


TMD 06.02.16 at 12:27 pm

casmilus – This is fair enough; however, you should also explain to these students that if some people in other humanities departments tend to regard philosophers as obnoxious assholes, this is just because they are jealous about how much good and original philosophy the philosophers are producing.

Anyway, Tabasco’s point is the crucial one here. Philosophy majors may happen to have precisely the range of skills that employers need, but if employers don’t recognize this fact, their parents would still be justifiably worried. (From what I recall, the empirical data on employment for philosophy majors is actually pretty good, but tracking it down would be far too much effort for me right now, probably involving Google or something…)


kidneystones 06.02.16 at 12:51 pm

It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s studied philosophy that a/the study of philosophy is generally a fine way to sharpen one’s reasoning processes, consider problem-solving from a variety of perspectives and generally develop skills of use to any employer b/ that many people who have not studied philosophy will be quite unaware of ‘a’. c/ A good philosophy student should be able to argue the merits of studying philosophy and provide the examples/evidence to make this case to both prospective employers and parents. Yes?

Philosophy is great training for law school, I believe. Does that count as a career?


harry b 06.02.16 at 1:03 pm

Yes, the employment record is very good — and the figures for early, and mid, career earnings are very good too. I don’t know how much of this is causal. of course — Philosophy attracts certain kinds of student (and repels others) and there’s almost certainly an element of class background in it. One thing that students who take more professionally oriented majors but also take philosophy classes, or add the major, tell me is that they get taught better, and learn more, in Philosophy. In fact… the quote in this post, which is a bit tragic, is only an extreme version of that (she took 4-5 philosophy classes):

JimV: I use two different phrases ‘without an algorithm’ and ‘for which we don’t know the algorithm’, the second of which is consistent with your view which I think I share…. but I don’t know for sure!

I love the idea of philosophers being in the closet, as they organize conceptual space… fwiw I’m married to a qualified librarian.

casmilus: there are many valuable occupations that don’t involve saving lives (directly), making things (directly) or being ‘a writer’. I’d also tweak all your advice — if you want to save lives, become a nurse, if you want to make things work in a factory, and if you want to be a writer — do go to college, but pick your classes with care, and write, a lot, every day.


T 06.02.16 at 1:08 pm


TMD 06.02.16 at 1:56 pm

T – taking a glance at that graph, I’m guessing that statisticians could find reasons to question its reliability (look at which major ranked lowest!).


Eszter 06.02.16 at 2:03 pm

Nicely done, thanks for sharing!


Tom Hurka 06.02.16 at 2:08 pm

Who produced that Forbes list? What is CEOs or other senior executives?

My memory, from a 1980s book by Michael Useem, is that CEOs were saying the same thing back then — what they wanted hirees to have above all were skills in communication, analysis, etc. — but CEOs don’t do frontline hiring. That’s done by frontline managers of e.g. accounting or marketing departments, and what they want is people with specific accounting or marketing skills, who will help their units meet whatever performance goals the CEO sets for them.

The idea was that the skills provided by a humanities education might make for the most valuable long-term employee, but those aren’t always the skills most sought in actual hiring, which has a more short-term focus. This may be even more true today, when few employees stay with one firm long enough to rise, at least within it, to a rank where their communications etc. skills are most relevant.

This isn’t to deny for a moment that humanities and especially philosophy education teaches those skills, nor to question Harry’s claims about the job-market success of his students. But there is a gap between what a CEO says about the qualities his or her organization needs and what qualities the organization actually hires for.


LFC 06.02.16 at 2:32 pm

casmilus @5

Given that you have chosen to study in the area vaguely referred to as “the humanities”, you’re best off studying philosophy. That’s because all the other disciplines have now declined into nothing more than philosophy done very badly by people who don’t know how unoriginal they are.

The claim that all the other humanities (including history here) have declined into bad philosophy is a gross exaggeration and in many cases sheer nonsense (and I note that harry b chose not to contest or mention this claim when responding to casmilus).


bianca steele 06.02.16 at 2:35 pm

I was interested by the distinction Harry makes between certainty about concepts and certainty about algorithms.

Generally, unfortunately, Tom Hurka is right about hiring. There’s probably an ideal candidate hiring managers have in mind, along with some stereotypes of who they do NOT want: the brilliant person whose thoughts no one else can follow, the nerd whose calculations and knowledge of rules is flawless but never looks up from his desk and can’t participate well in meetings, even the “bad culture fit” whom the group feels is subtly unable to communicate with them somehow. There seem to be jobs for people who think in a wide-ranging manner, and in many cases (not all, luckily) other jobs where specific skills and even a specifically “down to earth” personality is desired.


harry b 06.02.16 at 2:57 pm

LFC — I didn’t contest it, but I was contesting other things. My impression is that casmilus’s claim might have been a considerable exaggeration of the situation 20-25 years ago, but isn’t fair at all now. Though, English departments still contain good numbers of people who seem to feel comfortable criticizing Philosophy on the basis of a having read mildly witty things Derrida said when caricaturing the ordinary language philosophers he read in the 60’s.


bianca steele 06.02.16 at 3:02 pm

Also, since as Tom H. points out, CEOs don’t make decisions about college hires except in the smallest organizations, they are likely thinking about “who I would promote” rather than “who I would hire,” in which case the skills in question are those which–added to whatever concrete skill or ability, or whatever, got a person in the door–would allow her to rise to a position of responsibility or leadership over others who don’t possess the skills (to that extent). When you’re in college, reasonably enough, getting in the door looks like the crucial step.


RNB 06.02.16 at 3:04 pm

OK just to be contrarian….Could it be though that those who select philosophy as a major are those who would have done well in the job market anyway? It may not be that employers need the ideas of people who have worked on the coherence of any postulated unity of apperception or the nature of reference in language or conundrums in set theory; it could be that people who wanted to work on such a problems without obvious social relevance are those who do well on the kinds of tests employers and grad schools use to measure intelligence. It could be that philosophy students can be trusted to make forceful, aggressive and narrow arguments at the behest of upper management. It could be that philosophy students tend to be conservative and won’t let social questions about the nature of hierarchy, inequality and negative externalities get in the way of being “good employees”.


T 06.02.16 at 3:07 pm

TMD @ 11– they’d mumble something about sample size. Physics, math, philosophy and economics undergrads top the list on lsat performance as well.


engels 06.02.16 at 3:31 pm

Studying philosophy or any humanities discipline shouldn’t make someone ‘able to meet the workforce needs of the State’, ideally perhaps it might make her unable to meet them.

What RNB is talking about otoh is indeed atttactive to employers and the venerable term for it is ‘sophistry’.


bianca steele 06.02.16 at 3:36 pm

engels @ 20

Anyone who’s tried to tell one of those English majors Harry mentions @16 that sophistry is a bad thing may well feel the experience proves casimilius’ point. Philosophy is, after all, largely the criticism of sophistry.

Has all that gone away, I wonder? I haven’t read anything on it published after about 1996. I do remember John H.’s endless arguments with Adam Kotsko about, IIRC, “what is an argument?”, though.


harry b 06.02.16 at 3:36 pm

I think RNB’s conjecture that the kind of people who study philosophy are the kind of people who employers want is plausible, but the mechanisms he postulates are… well, in my experience, unlikely!

TMD — I don’t find it that surprising that Stats majors rank low, but that is more a problem with Medical Schools and the MCAT than with Stats majors….


RNB 06.02.16 at 3:58 pm

22 Just trying to be provocative. I am forever grateful for what I learned from my Philosophy Profs as an undergrad. Still remember Stroud on Hume and Wittgenstein, Scheffler on moral philosophy, Nancy Ann Davis on JS Mill and philosophical writing, visiting Railton on political philosophy, visiting Vlastos on Socrates. Actually got a nice job in a telecom firm after graduation and before I went to grad school.


Dean C. Rowan 06.02.16 at 4:58 pm

“We now know how to computerize and mechanize many tasks for which we know the algorithms… The interesting problems, the difficult problems, the problems we really have to solve if we want to make progress, are those for which we don’t know the algorithm…” We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the algorithm is often only the process that turns input into output. Without good relevant data an algorithm is useless, although I take it we’re making headway with algorithms that are capable of sifting out the bad, irrelevant data.


engels 06.02.16 at 5:09 pm

Raymond Geuss

I have what I have always held to be a mildly discreditable day job, that of teaching philosophy at a university. I take it to be discreditable because about 85 percent of my time and energy is devoted to training aspiring young members of the commercial, administrative or governmental elite in the glib manipulation of words, theories and arguments. I thereby help to turn out the pliable, efficient, self-satisfied cadres that our economic and political system uses to produce the ideological carapace which protects it against criticism and change. I take my job to be only mildly discreditable, partly because I don’t think, finally, that this realm of words is in most cases much more than an epiphenomenon secreted by power relations which would otherwise express themselves with even greater and more dramatic directness. Partly, too, because 10 percent of the job is an open area within which it is possible that some of these young people might become minimally reflective about the world they live in and their place in it; in the best of cases they might come to be able and willing to work for some minimal mitigation of the cruder excesses of the pervading system of oppression under which we live. The remaining 5 percent of my job, by the way, what I would call the actual “philosophical” part, is almost invisible from the outside, totally unclassifiable in any schema known to me—and quantitatively, in any case, so insignificant that it can more or less be ignored. …


harry b 06.02.16 at 5:15 pm

If that’s really what he thinks he does, he should either have resigned, or figured out how to do his job properly, a long time ago.


Dean C. Rowan 06.02.16 at 5:37 pm

“I don’t think, finally, that this realm of words is in most cases much more than an epiphenomenon secreted by power relations which would otherwise express themselves with even greater and more dramatic directness.”

And then came Trump.


RNB 06.02.16 at 5:42 pm

@26 I am sorry, harry b. Geuss is hilarious.


harry b 06.02.16 at 5:45 pm

Yes… read in one way, presumably the way he intended…


RNB 06.02.16 at 5:52 pm

It reads to me as one of those whiskey moments after work when the absurdity of life comes into view.


mdc 06.02.16 at 8:26 pm

“Speaking simply for myself, if studying philosophy did not contribute to society, it should be like sports, a leisure activity that people don’t get paid for and that no sane person would think the government should be subsidizing. I mean, nobody, surely, would think that the government should be using tax revenues to fund high school football or hockey teams, or to subsidize building sports stadia, right?

Ok, well, those weren’t very successful examples. But you get the point.”

Not sure I get the upshot here. I would say that the government *should* subsidize leisure, and the more life-fulfilling the leisure, the more urgent the need for subsidization. Not that the aim of the subsidy should be the maintenance of an elite class of contemplators– rather the provision of some amount of contemplative leisure to every citizen who wants it.

But maybe your tongue-in-cheek argument implies this!


bianca steele 06.02.16 at 9:06 pm

Geuss is relatively open, I think, about what he’s doing when he says something like the passage quoted in engels @ 25. Many people do consider any “manipulation of words, theories and arguments” at all to be, by definition, “glib,” for example, but no one with any sense would believe a philosophy professor would, and would recognize the sentence as ironic.


harry b 06.02.16 at 10:54 pm

mdc — if you could hear the speech (its posted on facebook somewhere so I have heard) you really wouldn’t know how much and what is tongue in cheek. Of course, I do think the government should subsidize leisure, but as examples I picked out major commercial industries that make massive profits, which it seems to me that the government shouldn’t be subsidizing given that it fails to provide reasonable primary health care and reasonable quality early childhood and k-12 education for people in the bottom 30-40% of the income distribution.


Barry 06.02.16 at 11:39 pm

Tom Hurka: “But there is a gap between what a CEO says about the qualities his or her organization needs and what qualities the organization actually hires for.”

I would point out that if CEO’s wanted people like philosophy majors, they’d probably be able to get them hired. It’s another case of ‘money talks, BS walks’.


Barry 06.02.16 at 11:43 pm

BTW, that chart of GMAT scores by major has got to be subject to serious sampling bias. There’s no way that somebody’s going to get even a BS in statistics with rock-bottom scores.

My guess is that this is due to only a small and odd sample of statistics majors going for MBA’s. It reminds me of the joke about a communications department pointing out that the highest mean salary was for communications majors. Which was true – 4 grads got $30K and the fifth was drafted into the NBA.


T 06.02.16 at 11:59 pm

Barry @35
I think what the lsat an gmat scores show is that majors with a a high level of training in abstract thinking in a rigorous or axiomatic framework do well — math, physics, econ and philosophy. So folks with philosophy undergrads are probably over-represented in companies, but they were hired with MBAs or law degrees. Now whether these folks pre-selected into those majors because they were already strong in abstract thinking is another issue.


Ebenezer Scrooge 06.03.16 at 12:05 am

I work with young lawyers, in a fairly fancy shop. (I’m an old lawyer, myself.) I’ve had very good results with philosophy and hard STEM majors. The common underlying factor, I think, is the intellectual close-order drill required to graduate. I have no idea which way causation runs. Do the majors sharpen the undergrads’ wits, or merely select/attract those who had the wits in the first place?

Economics majors, contrary to their LSAT scores, have been a less impressive bunch.

Philosophy majors have a reputation for being attracted to tax law specialties, although I can’t say if this reputation is justified.


Jpe77 06.03.16 at 2:41 am

I’m sure the shot at Walker convinced everyone you’re not a douchebag.


Mike Schilling 06.03.16 at 3:41 am

Librarians, too, organize conceptual space,



novakant 06.03.16 at 9:14 am

I’m happy for philosophy majors if they are getting good jobs utilizing some of the skills they have learned during their studies – this is healthy both on an individual and societal level.

But this should only ever be a secondary argument for teaching and studying philosophy, or the humanities in general. I am not sure immersing yourself in, say, Kierkegaard, Musil or e e cummings will prepare you for life in the harsh world outside the ivory tower at all – and yet there is an inherent and irreducible value to such an undertaking: not only growing as an individual, but also keeping the tradition alive by engaging with it. If nobody did this, our culture would be reduced to dead letters stored away in libraries and authors occasionally name-checked but unread.


SusanC 06.03.16 at 10:00 am

Can I express a little skepticism about (1)?

Ability to work in teams is a very important skill, for sure. I know quite a few ex-philosophers and philosophers who are still in academia. I would say that those who have done well outside of philosophy departments have been pretty good at the team working element. But it doesn’t strike me as an element that an academic philosophy traing encourages; quite the reverse in fact.

Many science disciplines rely on large experiments that require a team of people to complete: think of CERN in physics, or the human genome project, or computer science research into operating systems. But philosophy has more if a tradition of being a solitary pursuit, and the ethos of typical departments is not at all conducive to enciuraging collaborative work.

A lack of understanding of teamwork is particularly problematic in someone who is appointed to a management position. If a manager has simply no idea of what working in a team is like, its going to be a disaster.


engels 06.03.16 at 10:25 am

Philosophy majors have a reputation for being attracted to tax law specialties

And now back to guffawing at Geuss! Maybe this is felt like to be stuck in Plato’s cave…


ZM 06.03.16 at 10:57 am

harry b,

“Philosophers are, actually, the closet organizers of conceptual space, though, as anyone who has been in my office or seen my mailbox will know, and you can tell exactly who they are by looking at who is laughing right now, we are not necessarily the closet organizers of actual space. ”

I ended up wondering how do you organise your office, when you do organise your office?

I kind of like this analogy of academic analysis to household ordering and cleaning.

I was reading something about closet organising the other day, and while the author was emphasising different people organise things in their own ways, the book she was sort of reviewing talked about “putting every item in a category on the floor as the first step in clearing clutter”, and “going big and doing a giant purge rather than tackling a little clutter each day”.

I have always tended to organise like this — pulling everything out and looking at it and sorting it and throwing things out and then organising everything again. When I was a kid my mother did not always appreciate it when I offered to clean the kitchen, since she knew all day there would be disorder in the kitchen while I ordered it, until when I finished and everything was in its place.

This also tended to be how I wrote humanities essays.

I liked using philosophy and theory in history and literature subjects, but I needed something tangible to organise with the philosophy or the theory, or else to re-order the philosophy and theory along with all the more tangible things of the historical events or in the book etc. I would take copious notes and read and re-read, and sort and re-sort, considering whether to keep or discard, and finally make a tidied up essay from this.

In a way the final presentation of the essay is usually made to hide the actual process of working on the essay, otherwise it won’t read well.

Maybe philosophy is different, as the focus is on logic and order…

In my graduate studies, there is more group work, and everyone has different styles of working.

Using the household ordering analogy, the professor who assesses your humanities essay is a bit like an important guest, you know they are visiting, and you sort through everything and tidy everything for their visit, and then welcome them into your freshly ordered home. Maybe you will speak to them during the process to ask questions, or to clarify something.

Group work is more like inviting people over for a big spring clean, it is a lot messier, everyone has their own style of ordering and cleaning. You pull things out of cupboards and look at them, and discuss whether to throw them out, or keep them. You all have to discuss and agree how you want the house to look when the important guest arrives. Usually the group work is divided into smaller sections so the tutor can review the progress of the project at different stages, and give feedback.

You can do a lot more with a group project because you have more people working on the problem, but it is also a lot more open and messier than writing an individual essay.

I guess as a philosophy professor, to follow the household organising analogy, maybe your office doesn’t need to be organised all the time, as what you are doing is showing students various processes of organising, which they might use themselves, you are not just presenting to them a single already organised space.


Sam Bradford 06.03.16 at 11:45 am

I can’t say my Philosophy degree has ever got me a job. I think to a lot of people it implies unworldliness, aloofness, perhaps a lack of practical and social skills. Which would be a fair criticism of the culture of academic philosophy, in my experience, but not of most philosophy students, who were a fairly diverse bunch temperamentally and in other respects. (Maybe an overrepresentation of libertarians and eccentric ex-Christians.) I very much enjoyed studying philosophy, enough to get an Hons. degree in it, but it often seemed to lack any sense of proportion — of ‘why are we studying this question at all?’ Of course a lot of Philosophy focuses on extremely important questions, but I think the public perception is how many angels on the head of a pin, etc., which is not always untrue.

(There was a happy ending. After ten years of insecure, poorly paid office work I did a short teaching course, four weeks in fact, which has given me access to far better jobs than my five years of university did, and which I quite enjoy.)


Steve 06.03.16 at 6:20 pm

This is a lovely speech. It reminds me of an experience a few years ago when I, a UK based academic, went to give a talk at a department which ran a lot of courses in applied ethics, aimed mainly at professionals. (Yes, Keele). After my talk, I was chatting to a young hospital doctor, who was doing a part-time Masters in bioethics. I asked her what she thought was the most important thing she learnt from her course. I guess I assumed her answer would be something about deontology versus consequentialism, or some such, but her answer was ‘I’m now a lot more willing to tell the senior consultant that I think he is talking shit’. Ever since, I’ve always thought that the best argument for a philosophy degree is that it helps you spot, and, if taught well., helps you point out when, your seniors are bullshiting you. Of course, it’s less clear that this is a marketable skill….


Ogden Wernstrom 06.06.16 at 10:08 pm

All the talk about what CEOs want vs. what-counts-to-those-who-hire-the-workforce made me think about that disconnect…until I realized that CEOs are getting what they want from the sports subsidies.

Governor Walker knows the importance of tribalism, blind obedience, admiration-of-winners and authoritarianism that are instilled in Americans by the more-popular of the government-subsidized sports activities.

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