If you Google “philosophy degree useless”, you will find a good deal of protest. Kristina Grob, writing in America Magazine, maintains that philosophy not only prepares you for “a wide range of jobs, the kind that can lead to more skilled mid-level positions later on“, but argues that it is excellent preparation for standardized tests such as the GMAT, GRE and LSAT. Now, admittedly, America Magazine is a Jesuit publication and we would expect those troublemakers to speak up for the world’s oldest profession. But I couldn’t resist a quote that temptated me with the promise of a more skilled mid-level position in the indeterminate beyond.
Besides, similar arguments abound among the secular: George Anders, writing for Forbes, claims that philosophy degrees are the hottest in tech. Michael Austin, an ethics columnist for Psychology Today, cites shaky Payscale data to support the bold proposition that philosophy may be “not so useless” and moreover that it will lead to relatively high salaries mid-career (thereby worsening behaviour at pedestrian crossings). The Huffington Post’s blog reprints a quora answer by none other than Richard Price, the founder of Academia.edu, arguing that philosophy is useful for entrepreneurship in that it helps to “slow one’s mind down.“
I know a more reliable, faster, and less expensive way to slow one’s mind down: and the best thing is, it’s a form of green technology…
The Uses of Philosophy
I actually agree that philosophy has many uses, including finding work, doing well in standardized tests, and helping us to act like stoners. Philosophy has been good for me in this way: As an undergraduate I circumvented the need to study computer science, because my first line manager in the tech industry had a degree in philosophy. I was hired into my first English teaching job in Taiwan by an ardent fan of the field. In another job interview one of the committee members took kindly to me because he was also a philosopher. I was even able to rent a nice apartment in Berlin because the previous tenant was passionate about philosophy podcasts. YMMV, but in my experience, philosophy does occasionally open doors.
As for philosophy’s capacity to incapacitate, check out this description of Socrates from Alexander Nehemas and Paul Woodruff’s translation of Plato’s Symposium:
But as they were walking, Socrates began to think about something, lost himself in thought and kept lagging behind. Whenever Aristodemus stopped to wait for him, Socrates would urge him to go on ahead. [174d]
Socrates mind is working so slowly that it’s affecting his ability to walk. He hasn’t been taking anything, officer, he’s just a philosopher.
We find out later that this was not unusual behaviour. Aristodemus advises against urging Socrates into the dinner party, saying “Leave him alone. It’s one of his habits. Every now and then he just goes off like that and stands motionless, wherever he happens to be.” [175b]
Oh, Aristodemus, you enabler you.
My philosophy classmates, I must say, think with more celerity than lethargy. Their careers have been mixed: some have founded companies, risen to high ranks as civil servants, become journalists or speech and language therapists, university professors or consultants on the end of the world. Others have languished in odd jobs. A degree in philosophy is no guarantee of a successful career, but it can be the beginning of one: in academia, in government, or in the corporate world. I doubt, however, that it is the most reliable path to becoming a captain of industry or to bringing in six figures worth of battery farmed bacon. It’s probably more likely to turn you vegan.
Working as a business English trainer has confirmed, much to my chagrin, the vile rumours that philosophy teaches lucrative skills. The ability to see the perspective of a client, supplier, or business partner is highly monetizable. Philosophy teaches us to listen, to see another person’s point of view, even one we find strange and outlandish, and to draw inferences just as they would. When I help my clients to do this it can mean the difference between securing a deal and losing a client.
Perhaps, then, there is something to the claim that philosophy will help you get ahead in life.
But is that why we do philosophy? So that we can one day join the ranks of middle managers? Or is ‘useful’ a back-handed compliment?
Useful: A back-handed Compliment
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle made a grand assessment of all human pursuits and activities, and (arguably) came to the conclusion that philosophy was the best of the lot. One of his key arguments is that philosophy is done “for its own sake”, while other things are done “for the sake of something else.” Aristotle’s point is that if you do something because it’s useful, then whatever it’s useful for must be better. For example, if we work to make money, then money must be better than working. And if we make money in order to be happy, then being happy must be better than being rich. Similarly, if we eat a healthy diet and exercise in order to be healthy, then being healthy must be better than kale smoothies and legs day on Wednesday.
To avoid a regress, the best things we do must be things that we want for no other reason. Just because. Pleasure is, at least sometimes, one such thing. That something is pleasant is enough, in and of itself, to explain why it is desirable. We do not need to ask what good will come of the pleasure, or how the pleasant activity will lead to a position at Bain or McKinsey’s: It is enough that it is pleasant. Partly for this reason, philosophers frequently posit pleasure as the best thing in human life. Pleasure is in the running precisely because it is useless.
Pleasant activities may have good side-effects. For example, doing something pleasant on the weekend might help us to relax, which may make us more productive at work, leading to increases in rank, salary and complicity. It may make us more creative, enabling us to find new ways to get consumers to buy things they do not need with money they do not have. But these are merely desirable spin-offs of pleasant activities: the pleasure in itself is enough of a reason. At most these offer excuses when faced with pleasure-hating puritans or overbearing employers.
Aristotle’s point is not that all useless things are good. To use a totally 4th Century BCE example: a broken iPhone is useless. It is not for that reason better than a working one. The Philosopher is just saying that if you think of something as useful, it is probably somewhere in the middle of the things you value: better than some things, but worse than others. Useless things will occupy the other two extremes. If we are looking for the really good things in life, Aristotle thought we would find them among the useless things we actually want.
Socrates vs the Jellyfish
The idea that we live for pleasure certainly seems plausible. Pleasure is, well, pleasant. And many popular activities, from eating black forest cake to bingeing The Good Place, are pleasant.
There are numerous, divisive, thought experiments designed to show that pleasure, in spite of its allure, cannot be enough. In Plato’s Philebus, Socrates provides the thought experiment of a jellyfish living a very pleasant life, but without intelligence: such a life, Socrates argued, is not desirable. A more up-to-date version is Nozick’s “experience machine” thought experiment: Nozick asks us to imagine a machine that can fill your brain with strange needles and simulate the most pleasant experiences possible. The only catch is that these experiences are not real. It’s basically a prequel to The Matrix. Again, Nozick wanted to make the point that life in the experience machine is undesirable. Intriguingly, some people find themselves drawn to the life of the happy jellyfish and the life of simulated bliss, while others are repulsed. For the anti-jellyfish crowd, the missing ingredient to complete these lives seems to involve some kind of contact with reality, or, to put it more prosaically: knowledge.
Let us, for the sake of argument, entertain the idea that we want some kind of knowledge in addition to pleasure. In this case, the knowledge in question is a kind of knowledge we are interested in for its own sake: neither because it is pleasant to know, nor because it is useful for something else, but just because it is the sort of thing that is worth knowing. Fundamental truths about the nature of the universe, such as the big bang, the structure of a cell, the origins of life, or the workings of a jellyfish’s nervous system are often thought to be worth pursuing at high cost, even if they have no obvious benefits. The relative heights and ‘coital frequency’ of Tom Holland and Zendaya is apparently another piece of fascinatingly useless knowledge.
But perhaps the most uselessly deep questions are the philosophical ones: who am I, what is my place in the world, what can I know and what can I not, or, as Engels once famously asked: Is it OK to steal Karl’s lunch on the assumption that Karl is a jerk? Asking these questions in order to gain a “more skilled mid-level position”, or to get a good mark on the LSAT, has things the wrong way around. A corporate wardrobe, desk in an open-plan office, and the other glossy trappings of an empowering career may be a desirable spin-off of the study of philosophy, but they can hardly be the main point.