Skepticism About Philosophy’s Capacity To Improve Thinking

Philosophy departments often include in their pitch to undergraduates the claim that studying philosophy can improve one’s thinking skills. But does it?

Readers may recall a post from nearly two years ago discussing a meta-analysis of various studies that showed no difference in improvement in critical thinking skills across majors. At the time, I wrote, “Assuming the meta-analysis was relatively thorough, it appears that philosophers lack good empirical evidence for what I take to be the widespread belief that majoring in philosophy is a superior way for a student to develop critical thinking skills.”

I also posted, last year, about research that concluded that studying logic does, under certain circumstances, improve students’ logical reasoning skills, though the study did not provide a reason for thinking that studying logic in a philosophy course was better in this regard than studying logic in a math course.

Now entering the discussion is Neven Sesardić (recently retired from Lingnan University), in an essay in Quillette, complaining about philosophy departments committing basic fallacies in their advertising.

He has in mind the kind of information posted on the Value of Philosophy pages: lists of famous philosophy majors in diverse careers and data showing that philosophy majors do well on various standardized graduate school entrance exams.

He objects to departments using the former as evidence for the claim that the skills learned by studying philosophy are practical and marketable, he objects to the latter saying that when used to sell the idea of majoring in philosophy, it mistakes correlation for causation.

There may indeed be some departments misusing this information in the ways he identifies. However, I think that mostly—and perhaps this isn’t made sufficiently explicit—what’s going on is a defensive move. Most students come to college ignorant of philosophy and with stereotypes of philosophers as gurus on top of mountains or absent-minded thinkers falling into wells. That philosophy majors have succeeded in a wide range of careers and do well on standardized exams is new information that fleshes out their image of the philosophy major, and helps erode these stereotypes.

If fewer people (including potential employers and colleagues, but also just the general public) have the view that the study of philosophy is impractical, that will have the effect of making the study of philosophy less impractical.

That said, it would be great if there were sound studies showing the benefits of majoring in philosophy (and not just salary information). If you know of any, please share them in the comments. Perhaps such studies would be a project worthy of funding by the American Philosophical Association.

(Thanks to Jonny Anomaly for the pointer.)

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