Philosophy: Who Needs It?

Half Sigma notes a New York Times article on the increasing popularity of philosophy as an undergraduate major, which brought to mind this document (PDF) from the ETS showing average GRE scores broken down by intended field of graduate study. Philosophy students arguably did best overall (#1 in verbal and writing, and fairly well in quantitative, though obviously not as well as the engineers and physical scientists).

There's probably some selection bias going on there--only a subset of undergraduates go on to graduate school--but it's interesting, since normally one thinks of philosophy as a step above communications. Maybe the formal logic keeps out the riff-raff.

Still, you have to wonder: If they're so smart, why are they devoting the first ten years of their adult lives to getting an advanced degree in philosophy?

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Yeah, I saw that too.  I

Yeah, I saw that too.  I doubt any deeper reason exists beyond "philosophy is interesting."


I got my undergraduate degree (VT '83) with a dual major in philosophy and physics (and got a math minor by taking one extra course). My philosophy electives were in Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Mathematics. As far as I was concerned, it all went toward's figuring out how the world works.

After a year's flirtation with a Physics Doctorate, I went on to a career in scientific programming, mostly for the geophysics market.

Physics + Philosophy

That's interesting, because physics majors did the best on the math portion of the GRE, while philosophy majors did the best on the other two parts.

As far as I was concerned, it all went toward's figuring out how the world works.

Did the philosophy classes help with that?


Studying philosophy helped me become more familiar with when I was leaving the boundaries of physics or math and venturing into epistemology or metaphysics. I thought philosophy would make it easier, for example, to interpret wave/particle duality in quantum mechanics. As I learned more about the subtleties of QM computations in grad school, I hoped to have the context from philosophical ideas (like "possible worlds") that I'd already met .

During my education, I felt like I learned mostly techniques in my philosophy courses. For example, challenge someone to give an example of a valid answer to their own question; if they can't do it, they probably haven't framed a legitimate question. These techniques have helped me since in program design and business in general.

But I only felt like I had found a coherent framework for the world at the age of 32 when I read the namesake of this post (and also Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal). I tried on the righteous attitude of Objectivism for a while, but my training in physics cured me of it after a few months. I expect the world to be regular and knowable, but incredibly subtle, so every time I take a position I expect it is only a matter of time before I am proven wrong.

Philosophy contra philosophy

Not speaking as someone with a formal education in it, but as someone who has read a lot of it. I find that good philosophy helps me to deal with bad philosophy, of which there is a tremendous amount in the world, and I don't only mean philosophy departments. Similarly, good economics helps me deal with bad economics, of which there is a tremendous amount in the world. I mention economics as an analogy because I think many readers here will have experienced plenty of bad economics "in the street". Non-economists ("the man in the street") don't lack economic theories. They have them - they have bad economic theories. Similarly with non-philosophers. They have philosophies. Bad philosophies, for the most part. Though I think it goes without saying that the very worst philosophies are not found among non-philosophers.