Does studying philosophy improve one’s thinking, and thus make one more employable?
Some top and not-so-top philosophy departments, concerned by the threat of declining enrollment and funding cuts, would have you believe it does.
But Neven Sesardic, who has taught philosophy at universities around the globe and can boast some impressive publications, says that there’s no proof that studying philosophy makes one a better thinker, and that philosophy departments who claim otherwise may be guilty of “false advertising.”
His arguments against their claims boil down to a criticism familiar in social science: Correlation does not equal causation.
Thus, while it’s true that philosophy majors score higher on standardized tests higher than nearly any other majors, that doesn’t mean studying philosophy gets people there. It could just be that some of the already-brightest students choose to study philosophy.
Or, when a few studies suggest that those who study philosophy in college graduate with better thinking and communication skills than when they entered, that could just be part of a normal “maturation” process that philosophy did not initiate or even accelerate. Thinking otherwise can easily commit the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Sesardic is quite right to point out an irony at play here. Philosophy departments’ advertising illustrates the kind of faulty reasoning that philosophers so easily detect elsewhere—when their self-interest is not at stake. They really ought to know better.
So why don’t they? Is it just self-interest?
I would argue that it’s more complicated than that. As I noted last year, there is good evidence that studying philosophy improves academic outcomes generally. But that’s only if it’s studied at an early-enough age, with a good teacher following a proven method.
Waiting until college to study philosophy probably doesn’t have the same effect. That could be because students often don’t get philosophy professors who are good, committed teachers. It could also be because even philosophy majors aren’t exposed to a unitary approach in most departments, in terms either of pedagogy or of subject matter. As a philosophy major and former philosophy professor myself, I’ve known people of whom some or all of the above are true. Some have even said it themselves.
But perhaps the biggest problem with the kind of advertising many philosophy departments do is that they don’t even focus on what I consider the chief potential benefit of studying philosophy in depth. Philosophy cannot be reduced to its utility, such as how it might develop “transferable skills” that could be marketed as such. The most important benefit of studying philosophy seriously is that it can and often does help develop the virtue of “practical wisdom” in the classical sense of that term.
Again, that doesn’t primarily mean learning how to do certain practical things well. That sort of thing can be readily measured--and on those metrics, philosophy often comes up short. It means learning how to organize and live one’s life by a sound hierarchy of values and principles. Philosophy helped me and many others I know do that. Such an outcome cannot be readily measured in a way that avoids the familiar criticism of so much social-science research. But it’s definitely real enough.
Michael Liccione earned his PhD in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania and his BA in philosophy and religion from Columbia University. He has taught in a number of institutions, mostly Catholic, including the Catholic University of America, the University of St. Thomas (Houston), and Guilford Technical Community College.
His conventional publications have appeared in The Thomist, First Things, National Review, and Christifideles; his personal blog is Sacramentum Vitae.