At Tuesday's Republican debate, Sen. Marco Rubio Esq. -- practitioner of two of the world's most-hated professions, law and politics (but his dad was a bartender!) -- grabbed the gold medal for bogus populism (and crappy grammar) by proclaiming, "welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers."
In saying "less philosophers" rather than "fewer," the hyper-educated Rubio was no doubt speaking down to both his audience and the star-struck debate moderators, none of whom dared ask Free Market Marco why the free market needs his help to fix the philosopher/welder imbalance. Perhaps they sensed, as fact-checkers were quick to point out, that in the real world people with philosophy degrees do just fine compared to welders.
If I had to choose one word to explain why I chose philosophy as my college major, that word would be Nausea.
I'm talking about Jean Paul Sartre's 1938 novel featuring a character so gloriously miserable one might say he put the "agonist" in "protagonist." I read the book during the summer of 1968, after my freshman year at Bucknell, in preparation for a course devoted to the Nobel-refusing French philosopher, a course that inspired hours of late-night (literally) sophomoric conversation about being, nothingness and the absurdity of the human project.
The Sartre course was the beginning of a three-year immersion in phenomenology, existentialism, Greek philosophy, analytic philosophy, philosophy of religion, ethics, and logic that was invaluable for its own sake. But philosophy also turned out to be more relevant and beneficial to my career than all the business and management books and seminars that I forced myself to consume -- combined.
The ability to think clearly and act decisively is the philosophical gift that keeps on giving. When I was hired as publisher of the alternative newspaper LA Weekly in 1983, I had no idea how to do the job. My only previous employment, editing a New York-based music trade magazine, had nothing to do with alternative newspapers, Los Angeles, or being a publisher.
I found myself supervising a pack of punks, anarchists, and malcontents whose philosophy was founded on the principle that authority figures suck. The Socratic Method -- asking question after question to get to the root of a problem -- allowed me to learn the job by doing the job. And though I couldn't tell you the difference between a converse and a contrapositive if my life depended on it, logical reasoning mitigated my natural inclination to take personally the slings and arrows that came with the territory.
The practical benefits of philosophical study can be applied to any line of work -- even welding! My Bucknell comrade in Nausea, Dr. Marc P. Posner, now a pioneering organ transplant surgeon, says, "In the world of organ transplantation, ethical standards regarding organ allocation are essential in providing equal access for all patients. For me, metaphysics provides the scaffold for dealing with daily life and death circumstances for patients and their families, especially in the absence of religious belief on the part of the caregiver."
But isn't it better, during these digital times, to choose some tech-oriented subject as your major? A while back, Peter Groff, then chair of the Bucknell Philosophy Department (now on sabbatical), told me that while the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) attracted many more majors and a far greater share of funding than do the humanities, there was something of a renaissance happening in philosophy at Bucknell.
"Contrary to the old clichés about how 'philosophy bakes no bread,'" Groff said, "philosophy majors generally do quite well for themselves in whatever career path they choose. They consistently score in the top ranges of the GRE, GMAT, LSAT and MCAT -- it's one of the best possible preparations for graduate, business, law or medical school. And those who go directly into the working world advance very quickly in their chosen careers -- according to the Wall Street Journal, we're apparently tied with math for the highest salary growth by mid-career among all majors."
Groff added: "Nobody is drawn to philosophy because they think it's going to help them get into law school or pull a bigger paycheck over the long haul. That's simply a side effect. They're initially drawn to the subject because they love it and see its intrinsic value. One could argue along with Aristotle that the practice of philosophy is one of the few activities in life that constitutes an end in itself: we freely pursue it for its own sake and not as a means to something else."
That rational inquiry into fundamental philosophical questions is the condition for genuine happiness and freedom -- and that sustained reflection on these questions constitutes the highest and noblest activity of human life -- is an idea handed down from the ancients. Asked about Socrates' rather extreme claim that the unexamined life is not worth living, Groff said, "That quote may sound kind of arrogant and absolutist when it's taken out of context. But I think what he was getting at was the idea that philosophy is really about the 'care of the self.' The love and pursuit of wisdom can be something purifying and transformative. It can help us become better, healthier, more fully actualized people. In that respect, I think the ancients got it right."
I asked Bucknell's current philosophy chair Sheila Lintott to comment on the Rubio imbroglio. She writes, "For the life of me, I don't know why Rubio has stigmatized philosophers. Maybe because philosophers are trained in critical thinking and can quickly detect bad reasoning. Say, for example, if a politician implied the most valuable professions to society are those that make the most money or that the best education is a quick one, a philosopher would immediately ask: Are football players more important than school teachers? Do we need more celebrities and fewer farmers? Should politicians distort facts and employ fallacious reasoning to get elected?"
It's fair to say that not everyone needs to go to college -- if we can produce the jobs that pay the salaries college once promised. But Rubio and his free-marketeers, when they're not busting unions, send most of those sorts of jobs to third-world countries.
But if you do go to college, and if reductionist neuroscience (philosophy is dead! free will is an illusion!) and the glorification of computer coding (Steve Jobs and Sergey Brin are the Plato and Aristotle of the modern age!) produce a certain "nausea," why not try philosophy? It's guaranteed to stimulate the mind and the heart. And Marco Rubio's grandstanding notwithstanding, it might just enhance your career.
(Portions of this blog were posted in 2013.)