What the Public Thinks of Philosophy and Other Humanities Fields


A new report from Humanities Indicators (a part of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences), based on a survey of over 5,000 U.S. adults, reveals and discusses various beliefs and attitudes the American public has towards the humanities, and includes information specifically about the public’s perception of and engagement with philosophy.

 “The Humanities in American Life: A Survey of the Public’s Attitudes and Engagement,” covers how the public engages with the humanities and how often, what they take to be the various kinds of benefits of the humanities, their views about the humanities and childhood, and the role of humanities in the workplace. Some findings include:

  • There is substantial engagement with the humanities in American life. However, very few people engage regularly in the full range of activities, or even in all the activities associated with a given discipline (e.g., someone who watches history shows is not very likely to also research history topics online).
  • Though Americans hold a generally favorable view of the humanities, especially as an area of education, their enthusiasm is relatively attenuated in comparison to other intellectual fields and even to some of the humanities’ component disciplines (especially history).
  • Many Americans do not recall being exposed to the humanities by their parents, and most adults wished they had taken more humanities courses in school.
  • And finally, a substantial share of Americans has been hampered at work due to a deficiency in one or more humanities skills, though the survey also reveals that many Americans do not think they need humanities skills in the workplace.

You can get a sense of what people take to be the value (and disvalue) in studying the humanities from the following chart:

How do things look for philosophy specifically?

Let’s start with the bad news. Philosophy is the least favorably / most unfavorably viewed humanities discipline:

True, it’s not the most loathed of the humanities, but that we could use “You Probably Hate French More” as a tagline for the discipline is not much consolation.

The report does not offer an explanation for philosophy’s comparatively poor showing, or how bad this is. After all, 77% of respondents had a “very” or “somewhat” favorable impression of philosophy, and that is only 12 points lower than the most favorably viewed of the humanities, history. One does wonder, though, how respondents interpret the “somewhat favorably.” If they take it to mean “at least a smidgen of positive feeling” then the “very favorable” category is probably the more informative indicator, and there, philosophy is 19 points behind history.

Here are some more specific details on the public’s impression of philosophy, courtesy of Robert Townsend, director of Humanities Indicators:

  • 37% of Black Americans have a very favorable impression of philosophy, compared to 24% of Asian Americans and 27% of White Americans
  • Americans in the lowest income quartile are somewhat more likely to have a very favorable view of philosophy than those in the highest quartile,
  • Self-identified political liberals are substantially more likely than conservatives to have a very favorable impression of philosophy. While 41% of liberals have such a favorable impression of the term, only 17% of conservatives are similarly disposed.

Despite philosophy’s relatively low favorability ratings

  • 25% of Americans said they wish they had taken more courses in it, and
  • 87% of Americans feel that teaching both ethics and logic to K–12 students is important (though about a third thought that elementary school is too early for these topics). 

Additionally:

  • Women are no more likely to wish they had studied more philosophy than men,
  • Black and Hispanic Americans are somewhat more likely than White Americans to wish they had taken more classes in the subject,
  • Americans identifying as politically liberal are twice as likely as conservatives to wish they had studied more philosophy,
  • 29% of Americans recall their parents often discussing ethical issues, though that is smaller than the share who remembered their parents rarely or never engaging in those conversations (36%),
  • Though a large majority of every age group consider the teaching of ethics important, older Americans are more likely than the youngest adults to see the value of teaching the subject to children,
  • Approximately three-quarters of Americans believe ethics ought to be taught both in school and outside (in the home, church, or community).

When it comes to engagement with philosophy:

  • 23% of adults “often” think about or researched the ethical aspects of a choice in their life (another 31% do so “sometimes”), and
  • The youngest adults, ages 18 to 29, are somewhat more likely to engage ethical questions than older Americans,
  • Americans with a college degree are more likely to engage in ethical questions than those with a high school diploma or less.

There are more details in the full report, which you can view here, along with philosophy-specific information here.  Many thanks to Robert Townsend for his work on this project and for sharing its findings.

guest
14 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
JTD
JTD
11 months ago

The title should be “What the US public thinks of philosophy and other humanities fields”. As is increasingly obviously to the rest of the world, the US body politic is a very different beast to the body politic of other countries.Report

Michel
Michel
11 months ago

I wonder: do people actually associate ethics and logic with philosophy? That is: do they know that’s where those things come from?Report

James S Kitterman
James S Kitterman
Reply to  Michel
11 months ago

I agree. It’s likely that many respondents don’t understand what academic disciplines make up the umbrella term of “humanities” and also don’t know the fields that make up the discipline of “philosophy.” They seem to think they have a better grasp of what “science” encompasses (or maybe not). For example, do respondents think “science” includes both the natural sciences and social sciences, or just one or the other? The survey choices imply that it’s both, but you have to wonder if that is correct. Those individuals who didn’t go on to college would not have encountered many of these umbrella terms, and thus it makes it difficult to talk about them intelligently when they are not well understood. The issue is how can that lack of knowledge be addressed.Report

Henri Perron
Henri Perron
11 months ago

“Self-identified political liberals are substantially more likely than conservatives to have a very favorable impression of philosophy. While 41% of liberals have such a favorable impression of the term, only 17% of conservatives are similarly disposed.”

I think there is a very pressing question here that *continues* to stare us in the face and beg for *genuine* engagement:

Why are conservatives not very excited about philosophy? Maybe we should ask them or read what they’ve already written about the matter lately as a starting point (which I think is a better starting point than “answering” the question with “obvious” and disparaging assumptions about conservatives).Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Henri Perron
11 months ago

It seems like a natural hypothesis to test would be whether “philosophy” is seen by some respondents as a replacement for, or in competition with, “religion”.Report

Fernando
Fernando
11 months ago

“America” no, use the correct term, please: USA.Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
11 months ago

Hi Fernando. I don’t see that it’s wrong to refer to the USA as America, just as there’s nothing wrong with referring to the United Mexican States as Mexico.Report

Wes McMichael
Wes McMichael
11 months ago

@Henri (I’m having problems with the “Reply” function).

I hope this is obvious without being scare-quotes “obvious” or disparaging in any way.

If we agree that a central tenet of conservatism is respect for tradition/traditional authorities and that philosophy, by its nature, challenges/questions tradition (even if it ends up supporting traditional answers in the end), then it looks like we have, at least, a partial answer. Even conservative philosophers’ respect for tradition looks different than non-philosophical conservative respect for tradition, which social scientists, like Haidt and others, associate with submission without challenging. I suspect this partially explains the differences in respect for philosophy. Maybe I’m missing something more sophisticated, though.

@Preston.

Many of my South American family members think it somewhat offensive that the term “America” excludes them (and Central *America* and about half of North *America*/Canada).Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
11 months ago

Thanks Wes. Given that we have terms to make clear whether we are referring to someone from Central, South, or North America, given that the use of “America” for the USA is analogous to the use of “Mexico” for the United Mexican States, and given that these uses are so well established as to be widely understood, this looks like a place where reasonable people can disagree, no?Report

Wes McMichael
Wes McMichael
11 months ago

@Preston

Definitely! I think it is *better* (i.e. more respectful) to use “USA,” but (with due respect to Fernando) by no means is the only “correct” term.

The analogy to Mexico seems a little different to me, since there aren’t dozens of other countries with equal claims to that name; it doesn’t appropriate the term in the same way.

This seems to divert attention from the main thread, though, so I’ll refrain from saying more, since I agree that reasonable people can certainly disagree.Report

More data
More data
11 months ago

Wes “dozens of other countries with equal claims to that name;” – isn’t the USA the only country (as opposed to continent, etc.) that has “America” in its name?Report

Dale E Miller
11 months ago

I’m more surprised by the comparatively low level of esteem for statistics than I am any of the results about the humanities in general or philosophy in particular. Does anyone have a hypothesis about that?Report

Samuel Sarri, PhD
11 months ago

How about applied philosophy, as in philosophy of business, medicine, law, and social and natural sciences? Does anyone have a hypothesis/hypotheses vis-a-vis “the philosophies of…”?Report

Henri Perron
Henri Perron
11 months ago

I’d just like to point out that you did more or less exactly what I suggested we shouldn’t do. You responded to the question with an (ostensibly passively contemptuous) assumption about conservatives: that the relevant respondents (conservatives) are in some way preoccupied with or steadfast to religion, and that part of this preoccupation/steadfastness could plausibly be perceiving philosophy as a threat to their (assumed) religious beliefs.

Do many contemporary liberal philosophers perhaps have a greater inclination to make or entertain judgements about conservatives than any inclination they may (or may not) have to actually engage with conservatives on a person-to-person basis? If so, are they even aware of it? Are they aware of how smug it can come across as?

@Wes

This I find a more plausible hypothesis (if, to my disappointment, we’re going to be squarely in the realm of positing hypothesis), but I think even this central tenant of conservatism of sorts is one that varies widely in degree. The are, of course, some conservatives who have a great deal of reverence for traditional values/authorities in many or even all aspects of life (evangelicals, for example, may be located at this area of the spectrum). But when I think of the conservatives that I know, most are closer in their behavior and outlook to the counter-culture of the 1960s than they are to evangelicals. That may seem rather odd or surprising, but if we keep our central tenant and its varying degree in mind we see that these conservatives’ reverence for traditional values is for a much smaller core of values than that of evangelicals. These conservatives I know are more or less concerned with many of the “conservative” values that are championed in the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Free speech, self-governance, gun rights, all that stuff — but almost none of them care about religion beyond a degree of religious freedom.

But to return to my perhaps shocking observation most of the conservatives I know are closer to the counter-culture of the 1960s than to evangelicals: I don’t know a single one who thinks the drug war is anything but a travesty, virtually all of them partake in some manner of recreational drug/alcohol use, many of them are musicians (either professionally or as a hobby), most of them are college educated, and they really want everyone to be as free as possible to pursue happiness. Some are veterans, some work in the trades — but the ironic thing is, if you simply saw or met these people somewhere, you probably wouldn’t suspect them of being conservatives (and I use the word “suspect” because, in my experience in academia, having what might be conservative ideas is definitely something that individuals are *suspected* of) at all unless you had some sort of political discussion with them. This is anecdotal, of course, but I suspect that a large portion of conservatives fit more in this category than commonly conceived conservative demographics.

One noteworthy comment I’ve heard from many of them — especially the ones around 40ish years of age and older — is that contemporary liberals, in demeanor, remind them much more of the “up-tight” conservatives of their younger years than contemporary conservatives do.Report

Wes McMichael
Wes McMichael
11 months ago

@Henri

You make a fair point. Maybe only part of the reason for the relative lack of interest in philosophy among *some* conservatives is, like I suggested, that it questions/challenges tradition (religious, political, or familial), but this is likely not the full explanation. I took a lot of philosophy classes in which my professors’ vocal liberal biases would have turned conservatives off. Maybe conservatives in your friends’ traditions would be turned off by this and think it to be a kind of “uptight” adherence to a non-traditional morality.

Another hypothesis (and this one is even more speculative, so my apologies) is that *some* conservatives value more practical majors like business, economics, etc. that lead to more lucrative careers. Philosophy, like other humanities majors, might appear to them to be a waste of time. Maybe this is a sentiment held by some of your friends, as well?

The lack of interest probably has several causes, some of which professional philosophers could (and should) control (e.g. vocal liberal biases) and others that are maybe just inherent to the discipline and inherent to conservative values.

Whatever the causes, I wish they weren’t so. I teach in a relatively conservative area (Fresno, CA), and I’d like to have more conservatives interested in the field. Philosophy, especially the intro courses I teach as a community college professor, is much more fun to teach when there are multiple, strong opinions being argued for.

Thanks for the discussion.Report