A Case For Majoring In Philosophy

Every year, college students choose their majors with an eye toward the return on investment. Among the usual lucrative suspects like finance and engineering, one liberal arts field stands out: philosophy.

It turns out that philosophy majors earn significantly more than most majors, especially over the long term, as Bourree Lam writes in his recent article in The Atlantic. Beyond finances, the study of philosophy can also help students learn for themselves how they define the good life and how to go about living it.

The surprisingly robust ROI for philosophy majors can be traced to its intellectual rigor. Philosophers do well because they are taught to seek the pressure points in arguments and to reason for themselves. They are taught to dive into highly technical conversations, construct their own positions and arguments, and analyze relevant problems from multiple perspectives. Though every collegiate philosophy department emphasizes its own unique set of standards, the general discipline develops individual expression. Yet, even though philosophers develop innovative perspectives, they must still think synthetically with the surrounding group.

No wonder then that the philosopher is comfortable in the courtroom, control room, or the boardroom; she is trained in the means of public expression and mental discipline that are necessary skills for managers, executives, lawyers, and leaders.  

This is not to argue that the same training is not incorporated into a STEM emphasis; it certainly is, but there is a more hierarchical, top-down emphasis to STEM in general that foregoes creative assessment of rules and perspectives. While a good philosopher is of course one who recognizes and adheres to the rules (arguments must be structured, after all), she is comfortable in the presence of diverse perspectives and is not afraid to give her own.

Beyond addressing practical ROI concerns, philosophy as a major can help people develop an answer to the ever loaded question,

“What do I want to do with my life?”

My journey into philosophy started in the military, went overseas, and culminates back in the USA with a doctoral focus on public policy and applied ethics. Philosophy enabled me to visualize and move toward a vocation that balances the needs of my family with my own moral compass. Such a journey is not one that necessarily needs to be taken by all; for some the existential questions are simply so much wasted energy, and others are concerned that such questions challenge contemporary social order. For those who see self-realization as a waste of time, it may be that there are simply more practical short run concerns that overwhelm the impulse. Fair enough. Yet across all cultures, religions, and walks of life, the practice of seeking increased awareness is cherished. I don’t merely allude to libertarian self-empowerment or similar myopic forms of awakening; awareness in this sense implies awareness of both self and others.  

Regarding the second concern, consider this: philosophy teaches a person to engage not with the superficial symptoms of surrounding society, but, like a good MD, to consider the deeper history and causes. The philosopher learns to recognize the deeper structure behind arguments and beliefs that may have been taken for granted, or that may have been misapplied towards others. I’m thankful that philosophy has given me the means to recognize vacuous arguments for what they are. It continues to give not merely a monetary ROI, but a return along multiple dimensions of value that I have learned to recognize, develop, and support. Regrettably, I feel the same sort of case can’t be made for the typical STEM degree.

Author: Travis Chamberlain. Travis earned an MSc with distinction from the London School of Economics and is now a fourth year grad student in philosophy of science at UCSD. Travis has been a top 1% tutor in Orange County for 7+ years.

A version of this article was published on Forbes on March 1, 2017.

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