SO WHAT GOOD IS STUDYING PHILOSOPHY?
Many students ask this question. Below are three letters written by recent philosophy graduates from the University of Washington (borrowed from the University of Washington Philosophy Department Newsletter, Autumn 2001).
PHILOSOPHY: A LOGICAL PATH TO LAW
Samantha Blake B.A. Philosophy, 1987
I knew when I began college that I wanted to be a lawyer. From about the age of eight years, when I had my first taste of the legal process as a child witness in an arbitration proceeding, I was drawn to the idea of advocating on behalf of others who might not otherwise have a voice. At that age, what particularly intrigued me about the process I observed was how the lawyers used language to persuade.
When I arrived as a freshman at the University of Washington in 1983, I quickly set out to determine what major might serve me best in preparation for a career in law. Many of my colleagues chose political science. I wasn’t interested in doing what everyone else did. I briefly considered psychology and sociology as possibilities. However, on the advice of an older cousin of mine who was already attending law school, I enrolled in Philosophy 100 in the spring quarter of my freshman year. It was love at first lecture! I knew from that point I would declare philosophy as my major. (At that time, there were only about 80 philosophy majors. I am very pleased to learn that number has grown significantly.)
The discipline of philosophy has three components that are important to good and effective advocacy: critical thinking, logic, and ethics.
First, philosophy teaches us to think critically and look at all sides of an issue. This is crucial to good advocacy, because we need to be able to anticipate and counter that arguments our opponents might make. I don’t think there is any better discipline than philosophy to teach this skill. It is a dangerous mistake to develop arguments in favor of one’s position without considering what might be equally persuasive arguments opposing it. Self-serving bias is a very natural human tendency. In all aspects of our lives, we tend first to reach a conclusion about something, then look only for facts that support it and discount facts that do not. This can be fatal in the courtroom.
Second, the courses we take in logic teach us to create sound arguments. Logic is of the utmost importance in formulating an argument that will lead a fact finder to an inescapable conclusion. All too often, we have a tendency to incorporate appeals to emotion in our arguments that fail logically to lead to the conclusions we are trying to arrive at. To formulate a winning argument, we can use facts that appeal to the emotions of our audience as long as we make sure that each step in our argument logically follows from the previous step. Logic is also a good tool for evaluating an opponent’s arguments. By exposing logical fallacies, the advocate further bolsters his or her own position.
Third, philosophy gives us an important ethical foundation. It teaches us to look at the broader implications of our actions on the people we serve and society at large. We cannot advocate in a vacuum. Whether in private practice or government service, lawyers are the guardians of justice. The positions we choose to take in litigation, in negotiating transactions, and in policy making have implications for the thousands of others who follow.
My education in philosophy at the University of Washington has been an indispensable tool in my career path. The skills learned in philosophy apply equally well to careers in the sciences, the arts, and the humanities. I hope to see more and more undergraduates discover its wonderful power.
(Samantha Blake is presently a Trial Attorney in the Los Angeles District Office of the United States Equal Opportunity Commission.)
YOU WANT TO BE A WHAT?
Jim Riswold UW 1976-1983 Majored in Communications, Philosophy, and History
Pursuing a philosophy degree is disconcerting.
Ask my father. When I told him that I wanted to be the next Hegel, judging by the look on his face, you would’ve thought I told him I wanted to be the next Larry Flynt.
Paul Riswold had different plans for Jim Riswold. Ever since 1973, when I sold more candy bars than anyone on the International Footprinters hockey team, he was certain I was destined to sit alongside Morgan and Rockefeller high up in the corner office of American business. This, my father reasoned, would allow him to retire early and have his successful son buy him a new truck.
Yes, my son is a member of the American Hegelian Society; yes, he understands the notion of Change; yes, he accepts Strife as essential to Progress; yes, he can argue dialectically; yes, he sees things as Parts of a Whole; yes, he views himself as a character in the Unfolding of History; and yes, he has a penchant for thinking in capital letters; but non of that is going to get me an early retirement or a new truck, now is it?
Ask my college roommates, Pat McGough and Scott Smolinsky. They spent their school years holed up in Balmer Hall learning how to line up decimal points and have since gone on to successful careers lining up decimal points. They also spent an inordinate amount of time trying to understand why their philosopher roommate would not eat in order to save money to buy a first-edition of John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
They, like my father, also doubted the career prospects for philosophers.
I’m terribly sorry Mr. Riswold, we have no use for Hegelians here at Boeing at this time, but if you check back in six months…
Ask any girl I didn’t go out with while chasing credits in philosophy. (This, unfortunately, was pretty much every girl with a pulse, but that’s another much longer, and more embarrassing story.)
Pat’s roommate is kinda cute. Too bad he’s a philosophy major.
No love life, no food, no “Philosopher Wanted” ads in the employment section and no chance of buying my father a new truck is no way to leave school, but somehow my first-edition copy of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and I soon stumbled upon a career in advertising.
Long, boring, self-indulgent story short, I’ve been told by people who have nothing better to do than write about advertising that I’m pretty good at it.
Riswold’s campaigns may have created more American icons than anyone since Walt Disney. You would not, however, suspect it by looking at him…Riswold looks like the seven-year philosophy undergrad he once was at the University of Washington than one of the most powerful forces in American advertising. (*Cory Johnson, ‘Mr. November’, George, October 1996, p. 74.)
Flattering hyperbole yes, but I don’t think I would’ve been the subject of such fawning nonsense if it weren’t for my background in philosophy. I’ve said this once, if not a hundred times before: The wondrous and wonderful years I spent in Savery Hall have enabled me to look at things in, hopefully, a different way. At the very least, reading the Sartres and Hegels of the world provides proof that, yes, there are far more difficult things to comprehend than all the really dumb stuff that happens constantly in the world of advertising.
It has also, in rare moments of lucidity, allowed me to realize there are far more important things in this world than advertising: family, friends, art, first editions of Locke, literature, and baked beans. While the baked beans bit may sound flippant, it isn’t; because when you come to grips with the fact that something as inconsequential as baked beans is more important than advertising, it allows you to create great advertising.
So, I guess I can summarize all my answers to the whole what-good-does-being-able-to-wade-through-Hegel-do-for-a-career-in-advertising question by saying philosophy taught me something that’s unfortunately in far too short a supply in my profession: perspective.
Good thing, this thing called perspective. Just think how much of it there might be if there were more philosophy majors, calorically challenged or otherwise.
It’s worked for me. The influence of philosophy in my career has led to a happily-ever-after life: I have a beautiful wife; the value of that first edition of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding has moved a few decimal points to the right since 1979; and I may just buy my father that new truck yet.
Either that or a copy of Terry Pinkard’s excellent new 780-page biography on Hegel. SO WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH A PHILOSOPHY DEGREE?
Nick Hanauer B.A. Philosophy, 1981
When I attended the University of Washington in the early eighties and shared with people my decision to major in philosophy, their inevitable comment would be, “So what are you going to do with a philosophy degree?” At the time, the answer was not entirely clear. Twenty years later, it is.
After graduating, I entered the business world and have had, by any measure, an unusually successful and enjoyable career. I helped run the family business, which grew from about ten million in sales to over three hundred million in sales over twenty years. I was the first non-family investor in Amazon.com; I founded and was CEO of Avenue A, a company I took public in the winter of 2000: and I am now a partner in the venture capital firm, Second Avenue Partners. In addition I’ve started or helped start six other companies in a variety of different industries.
Much of the success I’ve had I credit to the intellectual training that I got at the Department of Philosophy. Success in business or in almost any venture depends on an ability to analyze complicated problems and to tease them apart into manageable and actionable components. Nothing prepares you better for this than the rigors of a philosophy degree. A degree in business gives you a vocabulary; a degree in philosophy gives you analytical skills. In the end, the latter is far more important and the former is easy to learn.
The degree of difficulty of the texts that philosophy undergraduates routinely slog through make reading difficult material later in life much more accessible. An ability to teach oneself skills after formal schooling ends may be the key learning you get at a university. I’ve given myself the equivalent of an MBA during my career by simply reading and studying the textbooks necessary to do so. Compared to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, those books were a breeze, the material relatively easy to master.
I took a lot of crap from people about my philosophy degree at the time. But success in the long term is a consequence of a lot more than a conventional “stamp of approval” like a business degree. Powerhouse analytical skills, an ability to work with people, discipline, and hard work are what matter most. Develop those skills and you’ll be fine. And maybe even rich.
My Time in Philosophy Undergraduate Jasmine Weaver
I knew after the first week of my PHIL 240 class (Introduction to Ethics) that I wanted to be a philosophy major. Ethics was the hardest class I had taken at the University of Washington, but also the one that I had enjoyed the most. We studied real-world ethical problems, and abstract ways of thinking about right and wrong. Professor Roberts was funny but uncompromising-if you got an answer wrong, she let you know. The class improved my reading, writing and critical thinking skills more than any other I had taken.
After the Ethics class, I was selected as one of the four students to compete as part of
University of Washington’s first Ethics Bowl team, the Ethics Dawgs. The Ethics Bowl is a national competition in which teams of philosophy students present their responses to difficult ethical situation, and then get rated by a panel of judges. Being a member of the Ethics Dawgs for three years was one of the best experiences of my undergraduate career. I was able to work with brilliant students on challenging ethical dilemmas, learn a ton from our graduate student coaches and compete in mock ethic bowls against the faculty of the Department. In addition, all our hard work paid off in 2000 when we won the national championship!
The skills that I was developing in my philosophy classes and as a member of the Ethics Dawgs were invaluable to me when I made a successful bid for the Associated Students of the University of Washington (ASUW) Presidency (student body president). Most importantly, philosophy gave me the confidence in my ability to reason myself and challenge others’ stances on issues, which is an essential skill for any leader.
After a year as ASUW President, which forced me to take a break from philosophy classes, I set out to take full advantage of everything the Department had to offer in my final year at the University of Washington. I was a student facilitator for PHIL 199 (New Majors Seminar), which introduces new philosophy majors to the Department. I took a graduate seminar with Professor Moore tackling a cutting edge issue in aesthetics, had dinner at his house with the author of the book we read (something that is only supposed to happen at small liberal arts colleges), and was fortunate enough to have my term paper for the class selected to be published in The Dualist, Undergraduate Journal of Philosophy of Stanford University. I was able to take a very timely class examining the philosophy of terrorism and patriotism with Professor Taylor. In addition, and much to the dismay of many of my favorite professors, I also had time to mount a winning lawsuit against the University of Washington administration for and illegal tuition increase and be selected as Homecoming Queen!
This June I graduated with a triple major in Philosophy, Political Science, and Community and Environmental Planning, and was selected as the Dean’s Medalist for the Social Sciences, an award given to the top graduate in the Social Sciences. The Philosophy Department played a huge role in all these achievements, and has prepared me incredibly well for life after college. Not only can I also have a deep appreciation for very dry humor, a vital asset in any profession. I honestly could not have imagined a better education.
From Philosophy at UW – Volume 8, Autumn 2003
ADVICE TO AN UNDERGRADUATE Mike Mallory, M.A., 1975
I am a lawyer with a Private litigation practice. My career choices have been well served by a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Washington. In fact, as sentimental as it sounds, there have been times when I simply stopped what I was doing and experienced a moment of gratitude that I happened across the philosophy department.
The philosophy curriculum is a good fit for the skills required by the legal profession. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and I am always trying to persuade a judge, juror, client, or another attorney into some position. Rhetoric combines a few different elements, but chief among them are the rules of logic and concept analysis.
When I refer to logic here, do not expect anyone to present you with a couple of syllogistic premises. Instead they will try to slide in every inductive fallacy invented, and then they will try to invent a few on the spot. Without training you might react negatively to a fallacious presentation and complain in general terms about the unfairness of the conclusion. With training, however, you are able to name the fallacy, explain why the argument fails, and gain the credibility you need from the decision maker.
By “concept analysis” I mean sufficient proficiency with language to construct or disassemble complex concepts as needed. There are thousands of complex concepts that appear in law. “Reasonable doubt,” “proximate cause,” and “fiduciary duty” will be dissected into the indefinite future as new fact situations test the limits of previously understood conceptual boundaries. One thing I learned as a philosophy undergraduate was not to take any concept for granted. They all have their uses, and they all have their vulnerabilities. There are many lawsuits waiting inside every concept.
The function of the legal profession is to resolve disputes after consideration of all three temporal perspectives. We consider the past when we look at the history of similar disputes and the tradition that has developed in that area of law. We consider the present when we look at the coherence of alternative ways of resolving a dispute within the overall system of legal duties and responsibilities. Lastly, we look toward the future when we consider the public policy or social benefits that may be affected by the decision. You may notice that this formula is not unique to the law, but in general terms describes all institutional decision making.
An undergraduate degree in philosophy prepares a person to apply this type of decision making. Several courses, particularly the introductory courses, explore the history of various philosophic traditions. This is a way to become familiar with how ideas and their implementation change over time and circumstance. As individual philosophers are studied, the coherence of their ideas is studied. We look for internal consistency as well as harmony and discord with competing philosophic systems. Lastly, in philosophy we look at the way these systems of thought and reasoning actually tried to solve the problems of the world. I believe that a B.A. in philosophy is great training for those who will end up in the institutional decision making process, including the legal profession.
I should also mention the fact that law schools tend to teach in Socratic method, whereby the professor challenges the student with well placed questions, ultimately forcing the student to commit and then to defend a position. The law is taught this way because it is the process of analyzing the law rather than the memorization of endless lists of specific regulations that law schools strive to teach. I found that as a new law student, my philosophy background had prepared me for the style of teaching I encountered. While other new law students from various backgrounds struggled with the way law professors teach, I found the classes to be a natural continuation of the way the philosophy classes had been structured, and therefore had an advantage.
Majoring in philosophy provides an opportunity for students to learn the individual skills of rhetoric and conceptual analysis,. Students also learn the process of looking at issues based on tradition, coherence, and social benefit, which is training needed to become involved with institutional decision making such as law or politics. Lastly, the way philosophy is taught helps prepare student for the current style of legal instruction.
Although I have discussed the ways in which a philosophy degree prepares a person for the skills needed in various professions, I hope that your motivation as a philosophy encompasses more than vocational preparedness. Philosophy is designed to prepare you for more than a job. The love of wisdom is a life-long course in the problems and rewards of being a human.
Last Updated June 1, 2020