Philosophy jokes are a dime a dozen, whether it be, “What is the sound of one burger flipping?” and, “I think, therefore, I’m single.” These cheap puns suggest philosophy is a joke.
Why does the ancient discipline have a bad reputation? Some of the blame has to go to philosophers, who have done a terrible job of popularizing their ideas in comparison to other esoteric topics such as science. Like any discipline, philosophy is a study ridden with technical jargon; however, like any discipline, the basic ideas can be boiled down to their essentials. It is, therefore, unfortunate that philosophers, who have spent a great deal of time in the past century discussing language, have failed to make their ideas widely accessible through simple, crystalline prose.
Why do philosophers fail to engage with the general public? Because professional philosophers, like most college professors, are trained to conduct research rather than teach. A Ph.D. thesis is one, gigantic research project. Assistant teaching is a means to pay the bills. The emphasis on scholarly research in a Ph.D. thesis creates a rift between the academic world and the real world. Although the gap has narrowed between the real world and the academic world, the rift has yet to be bridged.
The reverberations of this rift are felt by the general public’s philosophical naivety. Many people believe that the discipline is superseded by science. There are many problems with this reasoning. First, science and philosophy are two separate fields. It is unsurprising that philosophy has not advanced science in the same way that it is unsurprising that science has not advanced art. And although two fields often overlap, they are simply grappling with different questions. Second, history repeats itself. The philosophical tradition is in part a history of bad ideas. Without knowing that history, we are prone to make previous mistakes over and over. Last, philosophy isn’t just a history of bad ideas. Some of the most exciting philosophical research is taking place right now, whether it is resurged interest in arguments for the existence of God, various theories circulating around questions of identity, and the battle among competing moral systems.
Okay. So the ancient quest for knowledge is interesting, but that doesn’t get to the heart of the question, “Does philosophy matter?” In order to answer this question, we would have to stake a philosophical stance that, in order to avoid self-defeat, would have to conclude philosophy matters. Yet whenever people ask this question, what they are really asking is, “What are the practical benefits of philosophy? How does it affect us?” It is tremendously important that the public be engaged in philosophical discourse in the same way that it is important that the public be scientifically literate. Our everyday experience is ridden with philosophical assumptions, and those assumptions affect the way we live. To be terse, it is important to recognize a bad argument from a good argument. It is unsettling how many people regard free will as an illusion because our choices are the product of genes and the environment or dismiss objective morality because ethics varies by culture. These points are worth considering, but it is also important to realize that they are not the end of the argument. Everyone has a worldview, but not everyone has a good worldview.
The most common objection is that philosophy is a worthless major. If philosophy majors had a nickel for every time they were asked “What are you going to do with that?” they could trade them in for dimes, and buy dozens of philosophy jokes. The reason the major raises eyebrows is because it does not transcribe to a specific career path, in the same way a degree in engineering degree does. Instead, the degree offers a swath or traits that are applicable to a variety of occupations. While philosophy majors tend to have a difficult time landing a job fresh out of college, once they get their foot in the door, they do exceptionally well. According to the Pay Scale Salary Survey, philosophy majors have a starting median salary of $39,900 and a mid-career salary of $81,200. This is higher than many would be ‘practical degrees,’ such nursing, architecture and accounting.
What explains this success? The degree sharpens skills employers value. These include critical thinking skills, the ability to grapple with esoteric problems, an eye for detail, conduct meticulous research, see an argument from every angle, and communicate complex ideas in simple terms. With these skills on the back burner, philosophy majors rank first on the verbal and analytical section of the GRE among all other majors. Many graduates use these skills to pursue a career in medicine, law, lobbying, non-profit work, journalism, editing, business, teaching and web design.
In short, philosophy teaches people to think well, and if there is one thing the world needs more of, it’s good thinkers. Whenever a philosophy major is asked, “What are you going to do with that?” the response provoked shouldn’t be, “I don’t know”, but rather, “Whatever I want.”
By Nathan Cranford