Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Better to be a burger-flipper satisfied...

More philosophy in the news! As posted on Brian Leiter's blog (via Thom Brooks' blog), the Guardian says philosophy majors are increasingly in demand. The article hits a lot of good points, but I especially like that people are finally starting to recognize the tremendous practical value of philosophical thinking. It's not just about thinking outside the box or questioning assumptions, employers. Philosophers are also much better at working within certain sets of assumptions, precisely because they realize that they are working within sets of assumptions.


  1. As I have mentioned in previous threads I spent 35 years in business. I can tell readers from 1st hand experience the value that my philosophical training had on my career. Being 'philosophical' to me is simply the ability to think clearly about issues, whatever they might be. It enables one to filter out the unimportant and to focus on uncovering the underlying assumptions that are driving the interactions within an organization, both at the personal level as well as the systems level. Being a huge fan of early Marx I think his essay on Estranged Labor is one of the, if not the, most important works on organizational ethics ever written. I have believed in, and argued to business leaders in my community, and tried to live by a fundamental insight that to be a successful capitalist requires first of all being a good Marxist. Organizational success is systems driven; if one wants to be competitive in today's complex market then one must set up systems of interpersonal and interorganizational interaction that encourage cooperation and mutual benefit. After all, most, if not all, of the writings on quality and leadership in the past 30 years are simply recognition of, and a reaction too, what Marx said in that important essay. Demings 14 points are a recipe for combating alienation and the inefficiencies created by systems of interaction that foster it.

    I could go on with many more examples, but the important point is that the ability to think critically fostered by a training in philosophy is a much valued asset in organizational development and ongoing organizational, as well as personal, success. As a businessperson I would hire a person who has a major or minor in philosophy (or a degree in some humanities or art area) before I would hire someone with a business related degree, if that is all they have. I think that business schools are the biggest sham ("we are educators who specialize", etc.) in educational history; but that is another story.

  2. I wish that philosophy were about the ability to think clearly about issues, whatever they might be. In some sense, of course, it is. It is in the sense that everyone is capable of being a philosopher, as Socrates taught us. On the other hand, I have two prints on my office walls depicting two different conceptions of philosophy: the first is Rembrant's The Philosopher (Alone with his books); the other is the DaVinci's The School of Athens. The latter is far more representative of what it takes to be a philosopher, and, indeed, what it takes to think clearly about issues: to engage in dialog with others who may not share one's views but who nevertheless are dedicated to intellectual rigor and honesty.

    My worry about casting philosophy as merely "clear thinking": it obscures the tremendous amount of effort and work it takes professional philosophers to engage in philosophical discourse (e.g. historical research); it encourages the view that philosophy is an individualistic pursuit. No doubt there are those who pursue it individualistically. My guess is that the majority of those who do, so poor philosophy.

  3. Becko
    To better clarify my position, I never said that philosophy was the ability to think clearly about issues; I said that being philosophical was the ability to do that. Furthermore I was responding to the thread in Leiter's blog and Thom Brook's blog that discusses the fact that business/organizations outside of academia are interested in people trained in philosophy. From my experience in business that refers to the person's trained in philosophy ability to think clearly and critically, not to his or her expertise is some historical figure or movement.

    The School of Athens painting that you refer to does clearly depict what is good about philosophy, as you describe it, but also what is wrong with its present state. From my perspective, which does include 20 years of being associated with colleges and universities, as well as 35 years in business, present day academic philosophy functions like a 'for members only' country club discussing minutia and trivialities disguised as insight. There are many blogs that require a Ph D. in order to become a contributor. When was the last person with only a MA hired into a TT position? The push to publish or perish has resulted in a new scholasticism developing which masquerades as important work. Simply look at what is being published in journals and books as well as some of the other blogs and ask whether or not we have lost contact with, and our relevance in, today's society? Are we 'in the clouds' which also depicts, accurately I think, how many view philosophy? What is the last book by a philosopher to make the New York Times bestseller list, how many have there been on the list in the last 20 years, or when was the last time a philosopher was engaged in a public debate on a topic of interest to the broader society? When Dr. Phil is the one people look to for ‘sage’ advise and people turn to FOX News, CNN, and/or MNBC for a ‘rational’ discussion on currant events, is this not an indictment on the relevance of present day intellectuals including philosophers?

    From my perspective, we as philosophers have lost sight of the fundamental challenge of Socrates, the stoics, or even the sophists, who saw the importance of public philosophy and engaging people is a dialogue on important issues; ones that had practical as well as theoretical importance. Thru our present exclusionary practices, both institutional and intellectual, we have created a serious disconnect between ourselves and the societies wherein we live that could benefit from our expertise. I have attended many professional conferences dealing with business/organizational ethics (my specialty, if I have one) and have yet to see union leaders, lower to mid level management, or consumers participating at these meetings. We do get the CEO or business leader of the month and plenty of academic people, but no one outside of academia. Yes becoming a professional philosopher is hard work. But, if we talk and write among ourselves, but the general public is not engaged and affected, what have we actually accomplished of lasting importance. Why do people still study Socrates and read Plato and Aristotle? My guess is that they recognize themselves as part of an ongoing dialogue. These philosophers spoke to the average, but reasonably well-educated and thoughtful person in language that was understood because it was the common language shared by the participants. As Vlastos points out, the reason why the Socratic method is of lasting value is because 1) it is democratic and is open to all, 2) does not required specialized knowledge, 3) requires us to be honest with ourselves and others, and 4) requires us to follow the argument and change our minds if our arguments are shown to be faulty. As Hope May has pointed out it exposes definitional ignorance and inconsistency ignorance. This seems to me a very good expertise to have and to bring to the discussion in the public forum of business and politics. It is essential that we be grounded in the classic works in philosophy, but our expertise should not end there.

  4. I don't wish to get caught up in a discussion that takes us too far afield of the blog subject matter. Let me just say that I think you and I are going to disagree pretty strongly about these points.

    What may seem to one person as minutia and trivialities may in fact be genuinely important in a deep, philosophical sense. I know other people don't get quite as jazzed about 20th analytic philosophy of language as I do, but I am interested in it because despite the technical challenges it poses, it examines and illuminates some very basic and fascinating philosophical questions, such as: what is meaning? I know a lot of analytic philosophy can appear pretty unanchored - it can be difficult to see what is at stake, and the problems can be difficult to motivate. But in my experience, if one really dives in, one always finds that important philosophical topics are being engaged.

    It's not clear to me whether philosophers have a special obligation over and above the obligations that attach to all intellectuals, to be public intellectuals. But I do see an awful lot of it going on. It is rare to find an issue of the NYRB or the TLS without major contributions from philosophers, written for the broad intellectual public. Frankfurt's On Bullshit did indeed reach the NYT bestseller list. And Perry and Taylor host the delightful Philosophy Talk. Not to mention the various, more local contributions many of us make to the intellectual life of our communities.

    In my view philosophy is intrinsically valuable. It may, in addition, be instrumentally valuable. But it has a value even if and when it serves no practical purposes whatsoever. It is a good in and of itself.

    It brings to mind Robert Wilson's testimony before congress in which, having been asked what his proposed particle accelerator would have to do with the defense of the country, he replied:

    "It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending."

    Particle physics and philosophy have many uses. But this is not where their primary value rests. How do philosophers make the world a better place? The same way painters, sculptors, poets and physicists do: by being in it.

    Perhaps if we want to engage this more we can dedicate a sub-thread to it. I don't want to abuse.

  5. Becko, you are correct to call me to task. I did make an over sweeping, unsupported generalization about the quality of the work presently being done and did so in a manner that is certainly unfair to those who do good philosophical work. While I do find much of what is being done today to be as I claimed it is certainly not the case for all the work being done. But I stand by my main point that being trained in philosophy can open up employment opportunities outside of academia and that the analytical and critical skills (if there is any difference between the two) that philosophically trained people possess is what is important.

  6. John, Thanks for your kind and charitable response. I think we were just talking past each other. I have a pet peeve about the degree to which intellectuals are asked to justify their pursuits in terms of "outcomes assessment" and other pragmatist models. I also think there is a general culture of sneering at the philosophical work of others (not that I am accusing you of this). For example, while I don't work in the continental tradition it always breaks my heart to hear otherwise rational people dismiss a whole tradition without first having done the hard work of trying to figure out what it is up to. It diminishes us. There are, no doubt, plenty of sophists among us, as you say. But we all find it too easy sometimes to assume that this is what's going on, including me. Thanks again for this lively and illuminating exchange.


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