Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Amy Willis — Can majoring in philosophy make you a better person?

That's a question that EconTalk host Russ Roberts poses to University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum in this week's EconTalk episode.* Roberts expresses his concern that we've lost sight of character development in the modern age, and wonders whether the pursuit of philosophy and the humanities more broadly might mitigate that problem.
In response, Nussbaum gives an assessment and an appeal for the Humanities in universities today....
So, for example, all the Jesuit universities in Latin America and elsewhere are basically on the Liberal Arts model. But I really think that's the right way for all universities to be. Because, university education has a two-fold purpose. It prepares you for a career; but it also prepares you for being a good citizen and having a complete, meaningful life. And those are both important purposes.
Disclosure: I graduated from Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, and I majored in philosophy as an undergrad.

At that time, all undergrads had to minor in philosophy in the third and fourth years. The philosophy major was a license to explore since it required taking only other philosophy course in addition to the minor requirement, which left a lot of room for electives.

It was a good choice for me, and I subsequently went on to grad school in philosophy.

Plato characterized philosophy as reflection on experience. "The unexamined life is not worth living." Socrates in Plato's Apology, 38a5-6.

Science was formerly called "natural philosophy," and the development of mathematics was closely related to philosophy.

While science, mathematics and technology are key aspects of Western civilization, Western culture, tradition, and institutions have been no less significant in the development of global civilization. The humanities pursue these aspects of living a full life.

The study of philosophy is important for several reasons. First, philosophy is about the method of inquiry that underlies the Western intellectual tradition and which resulted in the development of scientific method. Inquiry is based on reasoning that employs logic and critical thinking

Secondly, philosophy considered the "enduring questions" the various responses to which have shaped Western civilization.

Philosophy is the foundational discipline since it inquires into reality, truth, goodness and beauty, the objects of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics, as well as social and political philosophy. Adam Smith was a professor of philosophy, and Karl Marx had a doctorate in philosophy.


Pearce Tournier said...

Philosophers are no different than plumbers and mechanics, whatever Socrates thought. They can improve your life, on occasion, but they cannot improve YOU. Boethius, for example, seems to have been a swell guy, with some sound, but hardly earth-shattering, advice on how to live a good life. Nobody, except perhaps Boethius himself, ever found consolation in the Consolation of Philosophy, nor is it likely that anyone was ever moved by that text to become a better person. Majoring in philosophy does not make you a better person, merely a more erudite one, but it does not hurt either.

Dan Lynch said...

The philosophers I am acquainted with seem to be wired differently than most people, though I can't put my finger on exactly how.

AXEC / E.K-H said...

Note on Amy Willis ‘Can majoring in philosophy make you a better person?’

Amy Willis argues: “Philosophy is the foundational discipline since it inquires into reality, truth, goodness and beauty, the objects of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics, as well as social and political philosophy. Adam Smith was a professor of philosophy, and Karl Marx had a doctorate in philosophy.”

This is only half true. Philosophy is also the foundational discipline of storytelling, sophistry, blather, and what later became social sciences/PR/propaganda/sitcom.

Smith and Marx are the iconic storytellers of economics: “… in fact he [Adam Smith] disliked whatever went beyond plain common sense. He never moved above the heads of even the dullest readers. He led them on gently, encouraging them by trivialities and homely observations, making them feel comfortable all along.” (Schumpeter)

Wikipedia says about Marx’s doctorate in philosophy: “Marx decided, instead, to submit his thesis to the more liberal University of Jena, whose faculty awarded him his PhD in April 1841.” Wikipedia fails to notice that Marx’s promotion was “in absentia”. This was the “more liberal” specialty of Jena to attract students.

“Hier bestand die Neuerung in der sogenannten „promotion in absentia“, die bis ins späte 19. Jahrhundert an vielen Universitäten nicht nur möglich, sondern fast der Regelfall war. Bei dieser Art der Promotion wurde auf die Disputation verzichtet. Weniger diplomatisch formuliert: Man konnte sich den Titel kaufen.”#1

In plain English, Marx bought the title. So the answer to ‘Can majoring in philosophy make you a better person?’ is NO ― neither a better person nor a better economist.#2

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

#1 Deutsche Universitätszeitung

#2 See ‘Marx, the moron’

MRW said...

“First, philosophy is about the method of inquiry that underlies the Western intellectual tradition and which resulted in the development of scientific method.”

Uh, no, the Western intellectual tradition didn’t. Ibn al-Haytham developed the scientific method 1100 years ago.

MRW said...

Al-Haytham is also the father and creator of optics. European scientists purloined Islamic Science advances and discoveries as their own after 1500 AD because the Islamic scientists in Cordoba had provided Latin translations of their monumental work to anyone.

Copernicus, a Polish monk with little astronomical experience, picked up important Islamic documents in Italy and claimed them as his own.

Credit where credit is due.

Ben Johannson said...

Of course philosophy provides a path to bettering one's self; this isn't an arguable point. That's why anyone with half a brain is reading Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius every single day.

AXEC / E.K-H said...


You say “Copernicus, a Polish monk with little astronomical experience, picked up important Islamic documents in Italy and claimed them as his own.”

(i) “Copernicus was born and died in Royal Prussia, a region that had been part of the Kingdom of Poland since 1466." The Kingdom of Poland is something quite different from what is today called Poland.*

(ii) Copernicus was not exactly a monk: “Copernicus was his uncle’s secretary and physician from 1503 to 1510 and resided in the Bishop’s castle at Lidzbark (Heilsberg), where he began work on his heliocentric theory. In his official capacity, he took part in nearly all his uncle’s political, ecclesiastic and administrative-economic duties. From the beginning of 1504, Copernicus accompanied Watzenrode to sessions of the Royal Prussian diet held at Malbork and Elbląg and, write Dobrzycki and Hajdukiewicz, ‘participated... in all the more important events in the complex diplomatic game that ambitious politician and statesman played in defense of the particular interests of Prussia and Warmia, between hostility to the [Teutonic] Order and loyalty to the Polish Crown.’”*

(iii) “Aristarchus of Samos (ca. 310 BCE – ca. 230 BCE) was the first to advance a theory that the earth orbited the sun.”*

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke


Matt Franko said...

"European scientists purloined Islamic Science"


Matt Franko said...

STEM students don't have time for Philosophy... too busy on math and science training...

AXEC / E.K-H said...

Ben Johannson

For somebody who reads “Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius every single day” you are extremely retarded.

The point at issue is NOT whether “philosophy provides a path to bettering one’s self” but whether “majoring in philosophy make you a better person”.

Majoring at the University of Chicago makes no better persons or economists just like majoring at Trump University.

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

MRW said...

”European scientists purloined Islamic Science"


You wish.

AXEC / E.K-H said...

Matt Franko

You say: “STEM students don’t have time for Philosophy... too busy on math and science training”.

Tradition has it that this phrase was engraved at the door of Plato’s Academy: “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter”.

For the ancient Greeks held: philosophy = science = math. Today we have philosophy = sitcom blather.

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

MRW said...


You need to read Robert Briffault’s The Making of Humanity (1919), pages 184-202. It’s available on archive.org.

He isn’t the only one to catalog the events.

Matt Franko said...

Then why is it a shit hole over there now?

Matt Franko said...


Take note of the direction of the product here:


Egypt can't even feed itself...

MRW said...

“STEM students don’t have time for Philosophy... too busy on math and science training”

Only in the US. It was considered classical training in Soviet Russia to include philosophy and all the hard sciences in the pursuit of a single STEM degree. Russians then—those lucky enough to have achieved the right to study at the top institutions—were educated beyond anything that Americans were at the time, much as most here in this country want to deny it.

It is not the case now in post-Soviet Russia as I understand it.

MRW said...

Then why is it a shit hole over there now?

Who the fuck knows. It all evaporated after the Arabs were kicked out of Cordoba in the late 1400s, and Isabella took control.

Six said...

"Can majoring in philosophy make you a better person?"

There is more than one possible answer of course, but most people should be "better" people after majoring in philosophy. You should be required to take one or two philosophy courses in any degree program to enhance reasoning skills and thinking abilities.

MRW said...

The Golden Age of Islamic Science lasted 800 years. Their achievements were stupefying. In science, mathematics, architecture, jurisprudence, agriculture, civil engineering (just google the fountains at the Al-Hambra, circa 874 AD, one of the few structures not purloined by the Christians as their own, as Charles The Something-or Other did, and is now a protected UNESCO site), astronomy, botany, medicine, philosophy, literature, poetry, and on and on.

They accomplished more in those 800 years than any at any time in human existence. Their civil engineering feats alone were not replicated until the 1930s in the US.

Cordoba had 1.5 million people 1100 years ago. The streets were tiled. They had raised sidewalks. The streets were lined with trees with lamps strewn on them that were lit every night, hundreds of years before Paris, The City of Lights, existed.

The Caliph’s palace was tiled in gold and silver, worth $30 million in 1919 dollars. The fountain and irrigation system from the Sierra Nevada mountains was ingenious; it took 1,000 years to replicate their engineering.

The Islamists in those days were knowledge-crazy. That’s all they seemed to give a shit about. They created libraries and universities before anyone had ever perceived of the idea. Certainly predated Oxford and Cambridge.

Then they descended into darkness.

Tom Hickey said...

Uh, no, the Western intellectual tradition didn’t. Ibn al-Haytham developed the scientific method 1100 years ago.

Ibn al-Haytham rejected the empiricism of Greek thought and accounted for his method in terms of reliance on revelation.



Tom Hickey said...

Then they descended into darkness.

As has every great civilization of the past.

So will "ours," Western civilization, that is.

There is no "end of history." Time moves on, and those that don't keep up with it become history.

A big reason that science didn't mature comparably in Islamic civilization, or Vedic civilization, or any of the great civilizations of the past when the Great Divergence with the emerging west began to occur after the Renaissance was the a difference between flexibility and rigidity. Some preferred stability over adaptability and it cost them their place in history.

When an individual, group or society, begins to crystallize, then the downward spiral begins.

MRW said...

Ibn al-Haytham rejected the empiricism of Greek thought and accounted for his method in terms of reliance on revelation.

Revelation? No, he relied upon experimental data, and the reproducibility of the the results.

But it was Ibn al-Haytham’s early embrace of empiricism and trust in mathematical proof that underlay the revolutionary project of his mature magnum opus, the [Book of] Optics, the book that pointed the science of vision in the direction later pursued in seventeenth-century Europe

The entire oeuvre of Islamic Science was based on Greek thought and methods. Whereas the Greeks had posited a position, Islamic scientists sought to prove, or critique, the position with actual data.


Matthew Franko said...



"Etymology of empirical.
Empirical derives from the Latin empiricus, which is a transliteration of the Greek empiricos (empirical, experienced; εμπειρικός) from empiria (experience; εμπειρία) from en- (in, with) + pira (experience, trial; πείρα), from the verb pirao (make an attempt, try, test, get experience, endeavour, attack; πειράω).


AXEC / E.K-H said...


Philosophy did not help much in economics, just the contrary, it is the ultimate cause that economics is still at the proto-scientific level.

Fact is that economists ― Walrasians, Keynesians, Marxians, Austrians ― never understood what science is all about.*

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

* See ‘Economics is not a science, not a religion, but proto-scientific rubbish’

Ben Johannson said...

No, silly person. "Majoring" is the headline, not the subject of the actual article. Please do something about your aggression disorder.

Jeff65 said...

This is a surreal conversation. Matt: It's a shithole because the US and UK have funded regressive head choppers in the region for a century. And they continue to fund them. Why? To control the resources of the region. Any discussion of the subject that doesn't mention this is dishonest. Historical incompetence.

AXEC / E.K-H said...

Ben Johannson

Utilitarianism is the natural philosophy of most people. Utilitarianism asks what is it good for? Acceptable answers are: because it makes me a better person, is fun, is healthy, makes me happy, maximizes well being/welfare, guarantees me a place in heaven, saves humanity.

Now, the very characteristic of philosophy is that it is NOT a wellness activity but the quest for something called truth without knowing what it is or whether it exists. Because the outcome is not known the question what is it good for is senseless. No serious philosopher promises to make anybody a better person. This is traditionally the claim of priests and gurus.

The philosopher Nietzsche, for example, arrived after a very long quest at this conclusion: “I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment...”.

People who regard philosophy as a means to become better in the University of Chicago sense are a painful embarrassment for philosophers: “The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea; the last man lives longest.”

To which the utilitarian philosopher answers: “One has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health. ‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.”

Philosophy has no use value beyond itself and is therefore a NO-GO for economists who take utility maximization as their first axiom. All the more so, as economists in their bottomless incompetence have until this day not figured out how the economy works.* First things first is the first principle of practical philosophy.

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

* See ‘We are not yet out of the wood; in fact, we are not yet in it’

Tom Hickey said...

Ibn al-Haytham attributed his experimental scientific method and scientific skepticism to his Islamic faith. He believed that human beings are inherently flawed and that only God is perfect. He reasoned that to discover the truth about nature, it is necessary to eliminate human opinion and error, and allow the universe to speak for itself.[39] In The Winding Motion, Ibn al-Haytham further wrote that faith should only apply to prophets of Islam and not to any other authorities, in the following comparison between the Islamic prophetic tradition and the demonstrative sciences:

"From the statements made by the noble Shaykh, it is clear that he believes in Ptolemy's words in everything he says, without relying on a demonstration or calling on a proof, but by pure imitation (taqlid); that is how experts in the prophetic tradition have faith in Prophets, may the blessing of God be upon them. But it is not the way that mathematicians have faith in specialists in the demonstrative sciences."[67]

Ibn al-Haytham described his search for truth and knowledge as a way of leading him closer to God:

"I constantly sought knowledge and truth, and it became my belief that for gaining access to the effulgence and closeness to God, there is no better way than that of searching for truth and knowledge."[41]


Matt Franko said...

He's just advocating for active teaching methods Tom, like the "disciples" (mathetai) in the so-called gospels.... active learners.. ("here take these 3fish and feed the 5,000 people, and then collect up and measure the leftovers, yada yada...blah, blah, blah.....") ..... they learn by doing... in his case it is his "search" itself that is the method of his learning...

STEM and material systems knowledge is best taught this way....

The method is not what is the important part... just use the method that gets the best results... the results are the important part...

Matt Franko said...

"he believes in Ptolemy's words in everything he says, without relying on a demonstration"

That is just typical rote methodology.... what were Ptolemy's results? If they were good results then who cares just keep using rote....

Matt Franko said...

It's the same shit these people are selling in Christendumb:


Always have to be doing something....

Tom Hickey said...

There are quantitative methods and qualitative methods.

STEM is about quantitative methods. That leaves out quality, which is arguably the most important matter is in living a good life in a good society. "Good" relates to quality, and quantifying "good" in terms of quantity is puerile, as in "whoever accumulates the most toys (power, influence, wealth, trophies) wins."

This is the problem with equating economic liberalism in the form of capitalism with liberalism as a whole, or prioritizing economic liberalism over social and political liberalism.

Tom Hickey said...

That is just typical rote methodology.... what were Ptolemy's results? If they were good results then who cares just keep using rote....

When Ptolemy's results were wrong, Ptolemaic astronomers just added another epicycle ad hoc, like conventional economics do now when their models misfire.

Dan Lynch said...

@Tom, Robert Pirsig might disagree that STEM leaves out quality.

Most STEM majors are fine people. A few Edward Tellers are out there, but they are outnumbered by the Robert Oppenheimers. Unfortunately a large percentage of American STEMs work in the military-industrial spy complex and become corrupted by it. Most engineers start out dreaming of building things, not blowing things up.

The idea that studying liberal arts makes you a better person does not seem to hold up in real life. My impression is that there is a lot of dogma in liberal arts. Economics, pedagogy,and psychology are dogma-intensive.

I can't say that I ever met an MBA that I had much use for. You'd have to go back in time to Peter Drucker to find a manager that I actually respected. The kind of people who are attracted to power are usually not the kind of people who should be given power.

Lawyers are another group who, on the whole, do not impress me as human beings. I seriously considered studying law but decided I would rather do something honest.

I think a lot of it boils down to what motivates a person to pursue a particular field. Lawyers do it for money (their job satisfaction is one of the lowest of any occupation). Managers do it for power and money. STEMs do it because they like to solve problems and understand how things work. Teachers and care-givers do it because they want to help people.

I'm not sure what motivates economists? It seems like most of them end up working in banking or finance and why would anyone want to do that other than for the money? I like learning about economics but I can't imagine making a career out of it.

Tom Hickey said...

Of course, there is nothing wrong with STEM or STEM people as such. It is the assumption that STEM is the only real knowledge and that there is no worthwhile problem solving other than STEM.

Just as I think everyone should be educated in the basics of logic and critical thinking, and also the fundamental literature of civilization, not just Western; so too. everyone should have a basic grasp of STEM.

Quantitative methods are an important aspect of problem solving, but they are not the only important methods.

In a liberal education there needs to be balance for the output to be balance personalities interacting in a harmonious society.

I am also against overspecialization in education too early.

This is especially important for liberal democracy, as American philosopher and educator John Dewey argued in his work. But it was actually Wilhem von Humboldt that got the ball rolling.

However, liberal arts study, or the study of philosophy, of the study of anything for that matter, doesn't make one a better person. It provides a foundation for individuals making themselves better and for individuals to participate in creating well-functioning societies. Piety should not be conflated with holiness. Modesty should not be confused with humility. To use a metaphor from the New Testament, cleaning the outside of the cup doesn't affect the inside.

The ancients called it "self-cultivation." It's a discipline that can be acquired. This sort of discipline is now out of favor.

AXEC / E.K-H said...

Tom Hickey
Roughly speaking, there are three realms: politics, science, and philosophy.

Science is well-defined: “Research is in fact a continuous discussion of the consistency of theories: formal consistency insofar as the discussion relates to the logical cohesion of what is asserted in joint theories; material consistency insofar as the agreement of observations with theories is concerned.” (Klant)

Whether the Arabs or the Greeks or somebody else has invented/developed science is a secondary question.

Scientific and philosophical thinking is characterized by the fact that the outcome is unknown: “A genuine inquirer aims to find out the truth of some question, whatever the color of that truth. ... A pseudo-inquirer seeks to make a case for the truth of some proposition(s) determined in advance. There are two kinds of pseudo-inquirer, the sham and the fake. A sham reasoner is concerned, not to find out how things really are, but to make a case for some immovably-held preconceived conviction. A fake reasoner is concerned, not to find out how things really are, but to advance himself by making a case for some proposition to the truth-value of which he is indifferent.” (Haack)

From this follows that science and philosophy on the one hand and politics on the other have to be strictly separated. And this is exactly how John Stuart Mill defined economics: “A scientific observer or reasoner, merely as such, is not an adviser for practice. His part is only to show that certain consequences follow from certain causes, and that to obtain certain ends, certain means are the most effectual. Whether the ends themselves are such as ought to be pursued, and if so, in what cases and to how great a length, it is no part of his business as a cultivator of science to decide, and science alone will never qualify him for the decision.”

This, though, is not what has happened. There is political economics and theoretical economics. The main differences are: (i) The goal of political economics is to successfully push an agenda, the goal of theoretical economics is to successfully explain how the actual economy works. (ii) In political economics anything goes; in theoretical economics the scientific standards of material and formal consistency are observed.

The state of economics is this: theoretical economics (= science) had been hijacked from the very beginning by political economists (= agenda pushers). Political economics has produced NOTHING of scientific value in the last 200+ years. As a result of the utter scientific incompetence of political economics is a failed science.#1

Something similar has happened with philosophy. Philosophy is thinking about the first and the last things and has no use value beyond itself. The attempt of politics/social engineering to use philosophy for the education of better humans which are better able to participate in a well-functioning society is, strictly speaking, an abuse of philosophy. Needless to emphasize that many philosophers volunteered for this job. Socrates was one of them.

What genuine philosophers and scientists strive for is to get ALL political agenda pushers off their back. Politics and science/philosophy have to be strictly separated. This holds first and foremost for economics.#2 So, right wingers and left wingers and liberals and conservatives and freemarketers and communists and what not, for ALL of you the time has come to leave.

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

#1 See ‘Economics is locked in idiocy: How could this happen?’
‘Economics between cargo cult, farce, and fraud’

#2 See ‘Scientific suicide in the revolving door’

Matt Franko said...

"I like learning about economics"

Yeah but Dan you are not learning about "economics" as the academe would have it... big difference...

Matt Franko said...

"STEMs do it because they like to solve problems and understand how things work."

Completely a waste of time according to the non material competent people... who will then immediately complain about material outcomes ...

Matt Franko said...

"When Ptolemy's results were wrong, Ptolemaic astronomers just added another epicycle ad hoc,"

Well then it's back to the drawing board and you have to come up with an alternative theory....

NOT just go all around claiming it's all a big "Ptolemaic conspiracy!"...

AXEC / E.K-H said...

Addendum: Credit where credit is due

It seems that it is the Hindus who have to be given credit for the invention of science/mathematics: “Who developed algebra, Trigonometry, our numeral system and the concept of Zero to give basis for the European scientific revolution? Despite some common wisdom misinformation it was mostly Hindu and Jain Mathematicians.”

See YouTube ‘An Islamic Golden Age or Appropriation of Hindu achievements ?’

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

jrbarch said...

... for the record: - the Ageless Wisdom philosophically, had no use for ‘zero’. Everywhere they looked, they saw existence.

Zero was solely the province of worldly mathematicians, who appropriating the label turned the original meaning on its head, because they saw only what was in front of their eyes, and held it to be precious; the more so because of the contrast to ‘nought’ or ‘negative’ numbers. The error has been echoed, especially in the West, ever since.

The ‘void’ and ‘emptiness’ are infinite, and for ancient Hindus versed in the Wisdom, zero meant something very close to infinity – the number out of which all other numbers sprang. ‘Nought’ was a shadow, produced by light. The circle enclosing space was conceived as a symbol of that portion of the infinite, unmanifest, marked out for creation; the dot appearing in it the manifestation of the first Logos. This dot turns into the horizontal line within the circle, dividing it into two, marking the differentiation into the second Logos; then the vertical line as third Logos (the cross within the circle). The cross begins to spin (swastika) marking the arrival of Fohat, the energy to drive the whole. From the Logoii sprang the creative Life-Waves that gave birth to differentiated matter, consciousness, and spirit.

Just as Silence was the source of all sounds, and sound an attack on the Silence. When my bank balance reaches ‘nought’, I am still alive, and the breath comes in to me. Without it, all of those other numbers are useless.