Why You Should Contemplate Majoring in Philosophy

By Carter Delegal on July 28, 2020

During the last presidential election cycle, Marco Rubio tapped into the dilemma many would-be philosophers face: “Welders make more than philosophers. We need more welders and less [sic] philosophers.” We all know that potential philosophers, with their overwhelming strength and dexterity, would be well suited to the demands of welding. In effect, ‘to weld, or not to weld,’ that is the question.

But Rubio’s negative assessment of the usefulness of a philosophy degree turns out to be misleading. Start with the assumption, expressed in the above quote and held by many others, that philosophers will not earn substantial salaries. Data compiled by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) shows this belief to be patently false. Among mid-career professionals with bachelor degrees in thirteen different fields, philosophy majors ranked fourth with a median salary of $81,200. This salary is higher than that of people who majored in biology, business, and chemistry. Philosophy majors also do exceptionally well in graduate school placement: they score higher than students from any other major in the verbal and analytical writing sections of the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) and in the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).

Maybe Rubio’s distaste for philosophy majors isn’t so much about their meager economic gains, but their lack of practical impact. While welders and students in other technical fields learn how to make products that are necessary for society to function, philosophers are only parasitic wonderers, removing ourselves from the important intricacies of daily life.

Confucius, an Ancient Chinese Philosopher (https://pixabay.com/photos/confucius-statue-chinese-sculpture-547153/).

This understanding of practicality is quite limited, however, trading off of a false equivalence between something being tangible and something being useful. Consider the demands of everyday life: one has to take concrete actions to satisfy one’s desires and develop skills so as to complete those actions successfully. But one also has to contemplate one’s desires, consider if they are worth having, and, more broadly, have an understanding of what the world is like in order to form accurate beliefs about what actions are actually available. Successful action requires that it be performed under desires that one takes to be valuable; determining what is valuable depends on one’s array of other values and one’s beliefs about the world; and that takes us into the realm of philosophy, which, as philosopher Wilfrid Sellars once said, aims to “to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.”

We can make the usefulness of philosophy more concrete. This past semester, I took a course in which we took up what might seem like a simple question: What is race, or, more precisely, is there a shared quality (or set of qualities) common to members of different races such that our use of terms like ‘Black’, ‘White,’ and ‘Asian’ is intelligible? If so, what is it?

It is obvious that the traditional understanding of race, in which a person’s membership in a particular race is completely reducible to some intrinsic and distinct biological fact, is wrong. And some philosophers think that the incoherent nature of this conception, combined with the horrific things it has legitimized, gives us reason to discontinue race talk altogether. But other philosophers insist that there are features that unite the members of conventional racial groups, while arguing that this unifying feature is social rather than biological. Within this view, there are some who contend that the primary unifying feature grounding our racial categories is that of political oppression: to be white, on this view, is to simply be a person who on the basis of perceived characteristics is systematically privileged, for example. But others say even though oppression might be the origin point for our modern usage of racial terms, it has engendered significant cultural practices and ways of understanding the world that can also be taken to be primary constituents of racial unity.

This overview of such a deep and complicated issue is necessarily schematic, but it is an example of the sort of work philosophers do. They ask, “how should we think about x?” which then informs how we should act when it comes to X. If one takes the first, “eliminativist” view towards race, then one may think that we should argue for the amelioration of harms, including those caused by racism, on the basis of a non-racial justification (e.g. on the basis of basic human rights). If one views race as a social kind whose unity originates in dynamics of oppression, however, it might make more sense to tie political causes in with the liberation of specific racial categories, as the Black Lives Matter movement has done.

It is this deep contemplation of the world as it appears, and the overwhelming sense of wonder when one realizes that things are not so simple that keeps me coming back to philosophy. Moreover, the feeling that this critical evaluation of the world as it appears will help me better understand and address pressing issues, as it has in the case of racial justice, is empowering. It is one reminder among many that my time learning philosophy will be of much value.

However, not everything about philosophy is wonderful. I’ve tried to push back against some of the common criticisms of going into the major, but another, less recognized and more serious problem is the field’s lack of inclusiveness. According to the American Philosophical Association, only 32% of all philosophy Bachelor’s degrees since 1980 have been awarded to women, even though women make up 57% of Bachelor’s degrees earners. Racial diversity within the major is quite low, too. For example, only 5% of Bachelor’s degrees in philosophy go to Black students, who make up 10% of the total undergraduate population.

Stark underrepresentation is never a good thing, but it is particularly disappointing that philosophy departments have not made adequate room for students of marginalized identities. Philosophy provides people with the tools to illuminate salient issues, and that some would-be philosophers are deprived of the opportunity to learn about these tools, because of the sometimes hostile, white-male-dominated culture in philosophy, is deeply saddening.

But this culture is hopefully changing. The Minorities and Philosophy Group (MAP) has compiled a number of resources aimed at helping departments create a more inclusive environment. And some philosophers, including Eric Schwitzgebel, are investigating the practices of departments that have had success in bringing more women to the major. In my estimation, this problem would be the reason to refrain from majoring in philosophy, not its lack of career prospects nor its lack of practical application. And with efforts to make philosophy a more welcoming, enjoyable place underway, I think everyone who is interested should consider majoring in philosophy. By doing so, you will be immersed in wonder and learn the ultimate truth: “I weld, therefore I am.”

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