A Plea for Philosophy

Conor Roddy

Letter to the Editor:

Muskegon Community College is considering a drastic revision of the ASA that would involve leaving the natural and formal sciences untouched, but cutting the number of social science and arts and humanities general education requirements by one third, and eliminating both the Aesthetic Values and the Ethics and Logic categories, among others.  This proposal would make it possible for students to graduate with an Associate in Science and Arts degree without having taken a single course from the Arts and Humanities Department in art, music, philosophy, or theater, and cause enrollment in these disciplines to plummet.  There is a case to be made for revising the ASA to bring it into line with the MTA and thereby to simplify students’ curricular planning, but there are better ways to achieve this goal than by slashing critical course requirements.

An old saying has it that philosophy bakes no bread, but philosophy does more than that; it is the crucible of the sciences.  The greatest scientific work ever written on what we now call physics was Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.  The transition from alchemy to chemistry proper was advanced by Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and other Muslim philosophers who argued against the theory of the transmutation of base metals into gold, paving the way for a revival of the atomic theory of the Greek philosopher Democritus.  Biology was established as a science by Aristotle, economics by the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, and sociology by the French philosopher Auguste Comte.  Claude Shannon, the “father of information theory,” was exposed to George Boole’s binary logic in a philosophy course that he took at the University of Michigan to fulfill his liberal arts requirements, and realized that “Boolean variables,” the possible values of which are either true or false, could be physically implemented in electrical on/off switches, out of which logic gates capable of doing Boolean algebra could be built—the serendipitous insight that led to the development of digital computers and ushered in the information age.  If Shannon had not taken that philosophy course, you would probably not be reading these words over the internet today.  (And if you click on the first link of a random Wikipedia article, and keep doing so for subsequent articles, 97% of the time, you end up at the “Philosophy” entry—try it!)  The word “academic” comes from the Academy, the name of Plato’s philosophical school in ancient Athens, and philosophy—etymologically the love of wisdom—is the “Ph” in the highest academic degree, the Ph.D.  Historically, philosophy has “paid its way”; it is at the root of everything.

The stereotype of the unemployable philosophy major notwithstanding, philosophy pays its way for today’s students too.  According to the latest PayScale College Salary Report, the median early career pay for graduates with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy is a competitive $48,700, and the median mid-career pay a highly competitive $89,400.  The GRE (or Graduate Record Examination) is a standardized admissions test for graduate school, analogous to the ACT or the SAT.  Year after year, philosophy majors score more highly than all other majors on two out of the three GRE sections (verbal reasoning and analytic writing), and well above average on the remaining quantitative reasoning section.

In any case, even if it were true that philosophy baked no bread, as the man George W. Bush called his favorite philosopher once said, “One does not live by bread alone.”  Philosophy can make you richer and smarter (and maybe even sexier if you do it in France), but ultimately the question is not what can philosophy do for me, but what can philosophy do to me?  In her paper, “What You Can’t Expect When You’re Expecting,” L.A. Paul argued that you cannot decide whether to become a parent by performing a cost-benefit analysis, since the “transformative experience” of parenthood would turn you into a new person with different preferences and values, and render your earlier cost-benefit analysis obsolete.  The decision of whether to devote yourself to philosophy is comparable, even if the stakes are not so high.  The consumeristic model of education and the corollary claim that eliminating gen ed requirements in subjects like philosophy is harmless because students with an interest in those subjects can always take them as electives is flawed for this reason.  Few incoming college students have any clear conception of what philosophy even is—sadly, it is little taught in American high schools—and thus they are seldom best placed to make an informed judgment as to its intrinsic—as distinct from merely instrumental—worth.

I was emailed recently by one former student, Justin Becker, who told me that the philosophy gen ed requirement that he took with me was “the first time [he] was introduced to the idea that our beliefs should have good reasons to justify them.” In the past he was susceptible to all kinds of conspiracy theories, and “believed the moon landing was faked, 9/11 was an inside job, big pharma was covering up that cannabis cures cancer, etc.”  “I just wanted to let you know that since my first class with you years ago, I’ve become an avid philosopher,” he wrote.  “I’ve found a lot of comfort in philosophy—it really helps ward off the existential horror.  I’ve spent the last few years fully immersing myself in moral philosophy and steadily constructing and revising my personal moral framework, and I credit you with getting me started. Studying philosophy has completely changed my life—for the better, I believe.  So, basically you changed my life.”  (Justin gave me permission to quote him.)  For the record, not all the feedback I receive is quite so enthusiastic, and all I did was spark a flame, but this young man’s remarkable story constitutes a textbook case of the power of philosophy to address the epistemic crisis facing us in this fraught post-truth era.

In Book I of Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus, having cynically asserted that justice is whatever is in the interest of the stronger—i.e. that might makes right—is about to drop the mic when Socrates pleads with him to stay.  “We are discussing no small matter,” says Socrates, “but how we ought to live.”  So are we, in the social science and arts and humanities fields.  Integrity, collaboration, and kindness are among the anti-Thrasymachian guiding values recently affirmed by MCC, and supported by the existence of our endangered Ethics and Logic requirement.  Philosophy, as both Plato’s Socrates and Aristotle famously noted, begins in wonder, a theme that was developed at length by the great (if greatly flawed) German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger urged his readers to take “the step over into the more wakeful glimpse of the wonder—the wonder that a world is worlding around us at all, that there are beings rather than nothing, that things are and we ourselves are in their midst, that we ourselves are and yet barely know who we are, and barely know that we do not know all this.”  Let’s not debase our liberal arts degree here at Muskegon Community College in a way that would predictably result in far fewer of our students getting to take their own first steps into that wide world!

—Dr. Conor Roddy, Professor of Philosophy, Muskegon Community College