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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James
James
4 years ago

Good paper on this topic is by Jason Brennan, Skepicism about Skepticism (I think it’s called). It’s a great paper discussing this topic to a little further extent.Report

quetzal
4 years ago

Sesardić is certainly right that the evidence does not *show* a causal relationship with studying philosophy and the practical benefits. And it is an embarrassing, self-interested error when philosophers suggest otherwise.
Nonetheless, the correlation is substantive *evidence *for causation, especially given also that philosophy often addresses proper thinking directly (as Sesardić acknowledges). Sesardić gives counter-evidence to neutralize this consideration, however. Even so, the upshot is that the evidence is a mixed bag. Thus, the point remains that there is *some* evidence for causation…and that means we can do a little better,than just settling for Justin’s defensive move. The evidence may not favor philosophy as much as we might hope, but there is some offensive juice in there.Report

Adam C
Reply to  quetzal
4 years ago

“Nonetheless, the correlation is substantive *evidence *for causation, especially given also that philosophy often addresses proper thinking directly (as Sesardić acknowledges).”

It’s not clear that this is true. Put aside the methods 101 issues with correlations: a) direction of causation problem and b) third variable problem. There are other basic problems. First, with enough data points, everything (nearly) correlates with everything (Meehl, 1990). This makes comparisons to r = 0 (the null) mostly meaningless. Second, not only do correlations not secure whether there’s a causal connection, they don’t necessarily tell you the correct direction of the association (e.g., X-Y might be positively correlated when in fact X causally decreases Y). Example: Studies show that taking vitamin E is negatively correlated with prostate cancer. When researchers ran the experiments, it turned out that vitamin E increased the risk of prostate cancer. The reason the correlation ran in the other direction owes to the healthy user bias (people who take vitamins have healthy habits like exercise and good diet which drive the positive association despite the harmful effects of vitamin E).

Proceed with caution when leveraging associations as support for causation. Associations are at best weak (to no) evidence and at worst misleading.Report

quetzal
4 years ago

Concurrently, to say that philosophy uses *false* advertising (strictly understood) would also go beyond the evidence.Report

Spencer Case
Spencer Case
4 years ago

Here’s a flat-footed response that comes to mind. At the beginning of the semester, my students don’t know the difference between a valid and an invalid argument. At the end of the semester, most can reliably distinguish the two. And the skill does generalize because a valid argument can be about anything. That seems like some evidence of improvement in critical thinking to me, and I don’t think my class is exceptional in this regard. What I would like to know is whether they remember anything about it five years later.

Is it cheating somehow to regard this as empirical evidence in favor of the hypothesis that studying philosophy improves thinking?

Also, it’s sort of ironic that Sesardic, himself a philosopher, casts doubt on whether the study of philosophy does anything to improve critical thinking skills. Sesardic seems to have developed this capacity somehow. It would be surprising if his training as a philosopher had nothing to do with it. Maybe that’s true, but it would be a counterintuitive truth.Report

Teerabhat Ruensiri
Teerabhat Ruensiri
Reply to  Spencer Case
4 years ago

It explicitly states that logic improve thinking, but it’s possible to learn logic from non-philosophy course and reap the same benefit.Report

B
B
Reply to  Teerabhat Ruensiri
4 years ago

I don’t really get this dialectic. Is the claim that (maybe) philosophy doesn’t improve thinking, as the headline reads? Or is the claim that (maybe) something else also improves thinking? The former claim seems implausible, and the latter claim is boring.Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  B
4 years ago

I see I should have left the digression about logic out of the post…Report

Alan White
Alan White
4 years ago

I posted the following on Leiter’s blog on this same issue, after he introduced the following inserted quote after Sesardić’s “huffing and puffing”–first the real quote:

“In reality, however, there is no justification for such claims. Getting higher test scores after studying philosophy does not show that higher scores are the result of studying philosophy. For all we know, it may be that philosophy students are brighter than average to begin with, and that this is why they perform so well on the tests. If that were true, their high scores would have nothing to do with their studying philosophy courses. Therefore, as long as this alternative hypothesis is not ruled out, no inference about practical benefits of philosophy is logically permissible….”

Then my post on Leiter:

“Speaking of huffing and puffing, here’s his first quoted paragraph with (relatively) consistent substitutions in *___*:

In reality, however, there is no justification for such claims. Getting higher *rates of cancer* after *smoking* does not show that higher *cancer rates* are the result of *smoking*. For all we know, it may be that *those who become smokers* are *more prone to cancer* than average to begin with, and that this is why they *test so highly for cancer*. If that were true, their high *cancer rates* would have nothing to do with their *smoking habits*. Therefore, as long as this alternative hypothesis is not ruled out, no inference about practical *hazards of smoking* is logically permissible….

Maybe he could just boldly offer an account of backward or attractive causation, whereby just entertaining the prospect that one may smoke attracts a large proportion of those already disposed to getting cancer? Maybe philosophy is such a magnet?

Or is this piece a job-talk for a Trump appointment?”

Given that there is some positive evidence for correlation between philosophy and critical-thinking-related practical success–both formally and anecdotally (think of the recent Washington Post piece listed here on DN)–Sesardic’s attempt to emulate the tobacco industry’s 60’s ad ignorantiam strategy is pretty pathetic.Report

Hasko vK
Hasko vK
Reply to  Alan White
4 years ago

That those prone to cancer are more likely to start smoking is a pretty crazy claim. That those who are already pretty smart are drawn to taking philosophy is not.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  Hasko vK
4 years ago

Thanks Hasko–you’re right. But both of your claims are compatible with (i) claiming that Sesardic’s reasoning is flawed in ad ignorantiam fashion, unless one wishes to convert it into some sort of modus tollens (where for an interesting argument one would have to show that there’s no good evidence for a connection between studying philosophy and improving thinking skills, which is the issue here), and (ii) that even some demonstrated attraction of philosophy to smart people also is compatible with the claim that studying philosophy improves thinking skills (the scope of his criticism is the issue after all). My point is that he argued poorly, and that there is some evidence that contradicts what he wishes to claim.

I admit I might be wrong to think that that studying philosophy improves thinking skills–but I need to see significant and replicated evidence to that effect, and not just logical possibilities leveraged to try to make a point.Report

B
B
4 years ago

If philosophy does not improve critical thinking, then what does? Is the idea supposed to be that philosophy majors pick up their skills elsewhere, or that they just had it to begin with? The idea that freshman would do as well on the LSAT as seniors do strikes me as pretty implausible. So maybe they pick up their puzzle solving skills in business class. (There is probably room to distinguish between critical reasoning and LSAT skills, but I’m lazy and don’t know how to do that.)Report

A Not
A Not
4 years ago

Neven Sesardic most likely didn’t get his thinking skills out of philosophical thought.Report

Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

This post is asking two fundamentally different questions:

1. What is the value of *studying* philosophy?
2. What is the value of *majoring in* philosophy?

I would say that not everyone who is doing (1) is doing (2), and that not everyone who is doing (2) is doing (1). But setting the Venn diagram aside, I think these two things can and should have very different lists of “benefits”.

Majoring in philosophy may (debatably) give you some caché with certain employers because it puts you in the same company as the CEO of overstock.com, or Google’s resident philosopher. It may also correlate to income level over time (arguably) and all of that may give you some sort of edge in terms of competing with peers in the free market. But this could only be true for certain general fields and markets (“business” or “marketing” or perhaps some sort of civil service career). Once you start comparing philosophy to, oh, I don’t know… Chemical Engineering, or Materials Science, or Industrial Geology, or Agricultural Genetics, or Computer Science, or even advanced Mathematics, philosophy just doesn’t hold a candle. Every time someone comes out with a list of highly-paid philosophers, they’re actually *doing something else* (as with the CEO of Overstock.com), in the marketplace. But, whatever advantage in the market that a major in philosophy gives you, it’s probably not because of your critical thinking skills.

Frankly, while I found studying philosophical logic a satisfying exercise (as a hobbyist), most of my structured critical thinking skills have come from my accidental career in IT: learning to analyse and debug broken systems and software, and then learning to program. Practice of good habits of thought like limiting heuristics, logical induction and deduction, and inference to the best explanation, are key debugging tools. Learning to work with abstract object and data models, and thinking about interactions, data flows, and meta-concepts, as a programmer, has given me the mental muscle to work with complex ideas and abstractions of the sort you might find in Kant (or Frege, or Russell). But this is beside the point…

The difference between *majoring* in philosophy, and *studying* philosophy (and, as I said above, these two need not be mutually exclusive), is that the latter has a very different end, than most universities are now pursuing (and have been pursuing since at least WWII). Studying philosophy is not about making you a better *employee*. It’s about making you a better *human being*. Every other major in most universities today, is about a *career path*: Computer Science is a *career* choice, Industrial Geology is a *career* choice, etc. But philosophy is a *life* choice. The benefit of studying philosophy (as opposed to majoring in philosophy) is that you get to think more about what kind of *person* you want to be, not what kind of *employee* you want to be…Report