The value of philosophy
As I understand philosophy, it is the study of problems in abstract topics such as existence, knowledge, meaning, beauty, and value. In this text, I explain what I believe to be the value of such studies. I suggest that the text ”Introduction to philosophy,” which is available on the page ”For students” on this website, is read first.
Two kinds of value
Philosophers often distinguish between two main types of values, namely instrumental values and intrinsic values. Things that have instrumental value are valuable because they facilitate some other end. For instance, a cup has instrumental value because it enables drinking. A good cup, such as one with a well-shaped handle, has a higher instrumental value than a bad cup, such as one that leaks from its bottom.
Things that have intrinsic value are by contrast valuable in themselves, no matter whether they work to further some other end. I think that there is intrinsic value to philosophy, but this text is only about its instrumental value; it has a value partly because it furthers ends that are independent from philosophy as such.
Although I think that philosophy has instrumental value for many reasons, some of which are subjective, I will only discuss three intertwined reasons that anyone should be able to recognize. I argue that philosophy is valuable because it makes one better at reasoning, it furthers progress in other academic disciplines, and it can be good for the career outside of academia.
As I argue in the text ”Introduction to philosophy,” academic philosophy is an attempt to make the human activity of philosophizing fruitful through methodologically reliable reasoning. In short, academic philosophy puts methodological requirements on thinking, making thinking better.
For instance, various studies confirm that philosophy makes children better at reasoning. One article collecting ten studies on philosophy for children offers an overview. It concludes that philosophy for children ”shows a wide range of evidence for positive outcomes from different countries with different age groups of children” (Trickey & Topping 2004, p. 374). The positive outcomes are on skills including logical reasoning, reading, and mathematics. The authors of the overview add, ”There were no negative findings in these controlled studies” (Ibid, p. 375).
One more recent report on philosophy for children concludes that pupils included in a one-year study ”made approximately two additional months’ progress in reading and maths” (Gorard et al. 2015, p. 3). The results suggest that the biggest positive impact were among disadvantaged pupils (Ibid). Furthermore, teachers and pupils in the study generally reported that it had ”a positive influence on the wider outcomes such as pupils’ confidence to speak, listening skills, and self-esteem” (Ibid).
Furthermore, evidence from American universities supports that philosophy promotes reasoning skills also in adults (”Value of philosophy” 2018). In LSAT, which is the entrance exam for law school, philosophy majors occupy the top spot. They score better than majors in economics, history, English, psychology, and political science, among others. In GRE, which is a test used to assess applicants to graduate school in most disciplines, philosophers come out on top in verbal reasoning and analytical writing. They are also on top when all scores are combined, scoring far better than all other majors.
However, it should be noted that these numbers may not indicate that philosophy makes good students, but that good students choose philosophy for their majors. Ironically, perhaps philosophers should treat these statistics more carefully than others, as the GRE scores also show that philosophy majors are not as good in quantitative reasoning. In those tests, they are only average.
In conclusion, philosophy seems to make people better thinkers. As good thinkers, they may perform better also in other fields. That is a reason for non-philosophers to study philosophy.
Philosophers are experts in conceptual and argumentative analysis, which among other things includes a good sense for recognizing fine distinctions and generalizations. Applying these skills, philosophers have an impact on thinking in other disciplines. I will mention two examples for illustration.
Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) is one of the most famous modern philosophers. In 1901, he noted a paradox in set theory, which is a major branch in mathematics (Irvine & Deutsch):
Some sets, such as the set of all teacups, are not members of themselves. Other sets, such as the set of all non-teacups, are members of themselves. Call the set of all sets that are not members of themselves “R.” If R is a member of itself, then by definition it must not be a member of itself. Similarly, if R is not a member of itself, then by definition it must be a member of itself.
The paradox entailed that the logical foundation of mathematics included a contradiction. Russell’s philosophical observation lead to attempts to re-build mathematics on a theoretical base of formal logic, and to questions of the limitations of such logical constructs. With it, mathematics changed fundamentally.
Philosophers have influenced more applied sciences too. For instance, social ontology is a field in which philosophers study the nature of the social world. Some relevant questions in social ontology is whether collective intentionality is possible, and whether social practices are comprised of individual psychologies, actions, or something else. Studies in social ontology have influenced how social scientists treat institutions. For instance, the economist Hernando de Soto has used a theoretical framework developed by social ontologists to study the relationship between property rights and economic development (de Soto 2000).
However, more importantly, philosophy has an influence on other disciplines on an individual level. Scientists often report that they benefit in their daily practices from having studied philosophy for their undergraduate degrees. Their philosophical skills and sense for fine distinctions and generalizations, among other things, influence their research in other fields.
Philosophy and a non-academic career
The anticlimactic case for studying philosophy instead of something else is not that it is better, but that it is not worse. I will mention two aspects of this case, namely the earning power of philosophers and their opportunities on the non-academic job market.
For many who choose to study philosophy, the alternative is often a major in some other field in the humanities rather than one in, for instance, engineering or science. Thus, it is relevant to compare the earnings of philosophy majors with those with other majors in the humanities. For mid- to late-career Americans in that group with a bachelor degree, philosophers earn the most (Lam 2015). In an overall comparison between undergraduates, philosophy majors have the fourth-highest median earnings, out-ranking business and chemistry majors (Chideya 2015).
There are also various examples of philosophy majors with very well-paid jobs in the private sector, such as former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin, and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel (Nisen 2014).
Philosophers can market their skills as a rare specialization by demonstrating their expertise in, for instance, ethics or logic. But, their main strength probably lies in that they are used to treat open-ended problems to which there are no obvious solutions; where others see chaos, philosophers see a normal working day.
Furthermore, philosophers have general skills that can be applied in particular circumstances, meaning that they are adaptive. With their ability to discern the central core of an argument, claim, or hypothesis, philosophers can efficiently analyze large amounts of information. And, finally, philosophers are often intellectually creative, as they are trained to ”think outside the box.”
Thus, studying philosophy is at least not worse than studying something else. It pays reasonably well, and one learns skills that are useful on the job market.
To conclude, in addition to its intrinsic value (which I have not discussed in this text), philosophy is instrumentally valuable for at least three reasons that anyone should be able to recognize. Philosophy makes people better thinkers, which is an overall good. It also furthers intellectual progress, thereby stimulating developments in other academic fields. And, finally, studying philosophy is at least not worse than studying something else, in terms of pay and attractiveness on the non-academic job market.
Yet, I think that the most important value of philosophy is subjective. It is fun. Many students of philosophy find themselves seeking the company of other philosophers, as they have learned to enjoy conversation in abstract topics and the exchange of abstract ideas. To me, this is reason enough to study philosophy.
Chideya, F. (2015). Philosophers Don’t Get Much Respect, But Their Earnings Don’t Suck. FiveThirtyEight. Retrieved (2018-08-16) from: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/philosophers-dont-get-much-respect-but-their-earnings-dont-suck/.
de Soto, H. (2000). The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. Basic Books.
Gorard, S., Siddiqui, N. & B. Huat See. (2015). Philosophy for Children: Evaluation report and Executive summary. The Education Endowment Foundation. Durham University, United Kingdom.
Irvine, A. D. & Deutsch, H. Russell’s Paradox. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. E. N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved (2018-09-16) from: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/russell-paradox/.
Lam, B. (2015). The Earning Power of Philosophy Majors. The Atlantic. Retrieved (2018-08-16) from: https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2015/09/philosophy-majors-out-earn-other-humanities/403555/.
Nisen, M. (2014). 9 Famous Execs Who Majored In Philosophy. Business Insider. Retrieved (2018-08-16) from: https://www.businessinsider.com/successful-philosophy-majors-2014-1?IR=T.
Trickey, S. & K. J. Topping. (2004). ‘Philosophy for children’: a systematic review. Research Papers in Education 19:3, pp. 365-380.
Value of Philosophy – Charts and Graphs. Retrieved (2018-08-26) from: http://dailynous.com/value-of-philosophy/charts-and-graphs/
Cite as: Ahlin, J. (2018). The value of philosophy. Retrieved (date) from: https://jesperahlin.com/for-students/the-value-of-philosophy/