Study Philosophy to Improve Thinking—A Case of False Advertising?

Study Philosophy to Improve Thinking—A Case of False Advertising?

Neven Sesardic
Neven Sesardic
12 min read

A company advertises product X by claiming that it substantially improves memory and staves off dementia. The company provides no convincing evidence for these claims, and scientific studies fail to confirm the existence of the stipulated effects. Would you buy X? Probably not. Would the government and consumer protection agencies allow X to be freely marketed without at least a warning to potential gullible customers? Hardly, it seems.

Yet there is a similar product X, which has been sold to tens of thousands of people for decades without a murmur. I am talking here about studying philosophy at a university as a way of improving one’s thinking skills.

Obviously there are different reasons why students choose to study philosophy: they may find it intrinsically interesting or want to become professional philosophers or hope to discover the meaning of life or… But presumably an important reason for investing in studying philosophy—for the majority of students who do not plan to become philosophy professors—is the belief that this will make them better thinkers and perhaps also increase their chances of good employment. Were it discovered that the undergraduate study of philosophy in no way improves thinking or advances career opportunities, at least some parents might be more reluctant to pay a lot of money for their children to get a degree in philosophy. And it may well be that some of the prospective students themselves would be less inclined to incur a large college debt, with no expectation that it would generate some palpable benefit in the real world. The average student loan debt for American university graduates in 2016 was $37,172—which, according to some estimates, can cost borrowers $500,000 in lost retirement savings. Presumably some students might conclude that such a huge financial loss could not be justified by the expected enjoyment of the supervised reading of Plato, Kant and Wittgenstein.

Philosophy departments must be acutely aware of the widespread worry about the lack of practical utility of philosophy, which (if not alleviated) might seriously threaten their enrolment numbers. It is for this reason that departments so often try to reassure potential applicants that studying philosophy does add practical value.

For example, the Princeton philosophy department links to the American Philosophical Association’s list of well-known people from diverse fields who studied philosophy in college and then jumps to the conclusion that “skills acquired by concentrating in philosophy can thus be useful for a variety of careers.” But evidently the mere fact that, over the past century, around one hundred well-known people from different parts of the world studied philosophy cannot show that they became successful because of skills they supposedly acquired in philosophy courses. The inference is completely off-base. Surely the Princeton philosophers must be aware that similar lists of eminent people who majored in, say, English literature, economics, etc. could be (and have been) put together. Can we learn anything about the usefulness of these majors from the mere existence of such lists? Of course not.

The New York University philosophy department (widely regarded as currently the best in the United States, if not the world) asks on its website what a philosophy major is good for, and responds: “Students are right to wonder how their choice of a college major will affect their career prospects. Not to worry: research shows that majoring in philosophy is excellent preparation for a wide range of careers.” Although students are told not to worry, actually they should. The first cause for concern is that no research is actually cited. In fact, no research establishing this kind of beneficial consequence of studying philosophy has ever been cited in self-advertisements of other philosophy departments. Since this kind of research still faces a lot of serious methodological difficulties and obstacles (see below), it seems unlikely that at the present stage studies could unequivocally “show” the result claimed by the NYU philosophy department. Hence, all this gives us excellent reason to suspect that the NYU statement is false and that the research establishing “that majoring in philosophy is excellent preparation for a wide range of careers” simply does not exist.

The Harvard philosophy department says on its website that “the skills you acquire studying philosophy are highly marketable.” It further alleges that in contrast to “many specialized skills [that] eventually become obsolete” philosophy teaches general skills of clear thinking and critical approach and that consequently “these skills that philosophy teaches you will always be in high demand” and that “you can apply [these skills] to any line of work.”

Is this believable? Is it probable that merely by satisfying the basic requirements for a BA in philosophy at Harvard (12 undergraduate courses) you can acquire skills that will always be in high demand and useful to you in any line of work? What evidence is offered in support of this extravagant claim? Perhaps some independent and impartial studies or peer-reviewed research by scholars in psychology, education or other relevant disciplines?

No. The only two sources to which the Harvard philosophy department refers the reader on this matter are a frivolous article “Be Employable, Study Philosophy” originally published in the magazine The Tyee and a web page “Philosophy: What Can It Do for You?” run by a junior philosopher from Pepperdine University. The Tyee article is also recommended by philosophy departments at MIT, UC Davis, Ohio State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Middlebury, Northwestern, and Carnegie Mellon. The other source (the web page) is recommended to prospective philosophy students by one of the best philosophy departments in the world, at Rutgers University, and also by the departments at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, City College New York, Middlebury, and George Washington University. According to that web page, what philosophy can do for you is help you get high scores on various tests like the GRE, GMAT, and LSAT, and also “it gets you into medical school.”

Philosophy is awash in optimism about the practical benefits of studying philosophy. Philosophy departments tell potential students that “because studying philosophy improves one’s analytical skills, it affords a greater probability of success on standardized tests such as the GRE, LSAT, and GMAT” (Florida State University), they can be very successful “as a result of majoring in philosophy” and “tend to do well on the GRE and the LSAT” (Notre Dame), since philosophy develops analytical skills “it is no surprise, then, that students who major in philosophy do exceptionally well on tests required for admissions to graduate and professional schools” (University of Michigan), “studying philosophy can also help you get into graduate school [since] philosophy majors excel on standardized tests like the GRE, GMAT, and LSAT” (University of Wisconsin, Madison), given what they are taught in philosophy courses “it is therefore not surprising that philosophy students have historically scored more highly on tests like the LSAT and GRE, on average, than almost any other discipline” (University of Washington), “philosophy provides an excellent foundation for graduate studies” shown by the fact that “GRE and LSAT scores of Philosophy majors exceed those of most other majors” (University of Arizona), “because philosophy teaches students how to analyze difficult problems, philosophy majors almost always have the highest scores on any graduate school exam (MCAT, LSAT, GMAT, GRE) apart from hard science majors” (Claremont McKenna College), “philosophy helps us develop various important skills” and you can “learn more about how a degree in philosophy can give you an advantage in your career path” by acquiring the information that “philosophy majors outperform all other majors on both the Verbal Reasoning and Analytical Writing sections of the GRE” (Carnegie Mellon University), and so on.

All these statements, in one way or the other, amount to the causal claim that studying philosophy produces higher scores on those tests. Many other prestigious philosophy departments (including the two most highly ranked departments in the U.S. at NYU and Princeton) conspicuously emphasize the high scores of philosophy majors on the GRE and other tests. It is hard to see why this information would be given in that particular context if not in order to suggest, again, that studying philosophy will bring about the rise of those scores. At any rate, no one should have any doubt that this will be widely taken to be the intended message. Briefly: if philosophy departments ask “Why study philosophy?” and then say “Philosophy graduates have higher test scores” the public will think that what they want to communicate is: “Studying philosophy leads to higher test scores.”

Finally, even the American Philosophical Association officially endorses the statement that philosophy training raises scores: “That the discipline of philosophy trains students in highly transferable skills is evidenced by the fact that philosophy majors perform exceptionally well on the LSAT, GMAT, and GRE.”

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.

Notice the irony. In their very attempt to promote philosophy as a great way to improve one’s critical thinking and logic, philosophers have so massively fallen prey to one of the most common and easily detectable logical fallacies—post hoc, ergo propter hoc (that is, A is followed by B, therefore, A caused B). This should give us pause about rushing to accept the idea that philosophy improves thinking.

But wait, doesn’t philosophy focus very heavily on logic, analysis of arguments, fostering a critical approach, etc.? Shouldn’t this fact alone make us expect that exposure to philosophy would almost certainly lead to some improvement in thinking and reasoning skills? Not necessarily.

To establish that studying philosophy improves thinking and that this is useful for a range of careers after university, three conditions must be satisfied: (1) there has to be some improvement, (2) this improvement has to persist over time, and (3) the improved thinking has to be transferable to contexts outside of the learning environment.

With respect to (1), there is a lot of skepticism about the effectiveness of various attempts to teach logic and critical thinking. In a recent overview of this research field, one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of thinking, Philip N. Johnson-Laird, says that “no one knows whether a course in logic would improve our reasoning in life.” He also mentions the opinion of philosopher Stephen Toulmin that logic is actually inappropriate for the analysis of real arguments. (Princeton philosopher Gilbert Harman defends a similar view.) Speaking about all the proposed strategies of teaching informal logic and critical thinking, Johnson-Laird says that “no one appears to have demonstrated robust improvements in reasoning as a result of any of them.” Not all scholars agree with such a bleak evaluation, of course. However, even those who are more optimistic usually concede that the observed effects of teaching thinking are moderate at best, hence falling far short of transformative improvements that are often advertised as expected effects of studying philosophy.

Concerning (2), the benefits to thinking ability obtained in some studies typically taper off after a few months or years. But if the improvements in thinking disappear after a short time, studying philosophy will not lead to a lasting increase in either the students’ reasoning skills or in their employability because the whole point is always to insure significant improvement that is not restricted just to the learning period or its immediate aftermath.

With respect to (3), the problem is precisely about these “transferable” skills that “can be applied to any line of work” and that are alleged to be taught in philosophy classes. Do such all-purpose or “domain-general” skills exist at all, and if yes, can they be taught? Many psychologists and educationists think they cannot answer these two questions in the affirmative in good faith. For instance, a widely cited article on this very issue ends with the following words: “On the basis of the available evidence, however, drawn from many very different disciplines, we believe that the pursuit of [general transferable] skills is a chimera-hunt, an expensive and disastrous exercise in futility.” Another highly influential education researcher insists that “critical thinking is not a skill” and that “there is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context.”

The central problem for philosophers’ aspirations to teach thinking is that it is supposed to be about transferring what is learned in a philosophy class to a wide variety of very different real-life situations and in highly diverse jobs and careers. Empirical research has not found much support for this kind of transfer (so-called “general transfer”). In a well-known book about transfer of learning we read: “Again, beyond a minimal level, the literature clearly shows that we’ve failed to achieve significant transfer of learning, historically or currently, on any level of education.” In a highly influential article on transfer the author concludes: “Transfer has been studied since the turn of the [twentieth] century. Still, there is very little empirical evidence showing meaningful transfer to occur and much less evidence for showing it under experimental control.”

To see the disconnect between philosophers’ chutzpah of advertising their poorly articulated thinking-improvement method and the gloomy assessment of such prospects by many scholars who conduct research on this matter, consider (as an illustration) the following contrast. On one hand, prominent Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan writes that “of all the various fields and disciplines, there is one field that most centrally emphasizes the skills in question [improved critical thinking, communicating and being creative and original], and it is, indeed, philosophy” and that “one reason to study philosophy is that there is nothing better at improving your ability to think for yourself…” (He offers no justification for these claims.)

On the other hand, in the chapter “Learning to Think: The Challenges of Teaching Thinking” in the Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning, the authors review the literature, point to strong reasons for skepticism about thinking-improvement efforts, and then conclude: “These limitations are signs that the grandest ambitions regarding the teaching of thinking are yet to be realized.” Also, according to the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Education “research has shown that it is very difficult to improve people’s reasoning, with instruction in logical reasoning being notoriously difficult.” Furthermore, a recent meta-analysis of studies examining whether college really teaches critical thinking ends with a pessimistic conclusion that “the central limitation of the literature … is the inability to make clear causal conclusions,” mainly because “the studies reviewed do not distinguish the effects of college from ordinary maturation effects, a persistent problem in this body of research.” A widely cited article from 2002 also expresses skepticism about transfer: “The issue of whether generalizable reasoning skills transfer to reasoning contexts outside of formal schooling remains an open question in the opinions of leading researchers.” And so on.

Now since all this is public and easily accessible information, why do so many philosophers and philosophical institutions blissfully continue with their thinking-improvement advertisements, in the face of the accumulated research that gives ample grounds for skepticism or at least caution? And why do philosophers almost never find fault with these unrealistic promises of philosophy’s marvellous accomplishments? (One of the very few exceptions is Georgetown philosopher Jason Brennan who offered a clear and cogent criticism in two posts on a libertarian blog. I myself raised the same issue repeatedly in the course “Morality and Markets” that I taught in Hong Kong from 2012 until 2015, and also in an article and a book.)

Why so little resistance to the peddling of false hopes? A possible answer is that some philosophers must be aware that the prevailing optimism is unjustified but that they have not been willing to speak up and thereby harm their own discipline by destroying an important rationale for the existence and funding of philosophy departments in their current form and size.

This whole situation is quite an embarrassment for philosophy as a field. Kant famously called it “a scandal of philosophy” that it had to “assume, as an article of mere belief, the existence of things external to ourselves, and not to be able to oppose a satisfactory proof to anyone who may call it in question.” But philosophy publicly advertising that it can massively improve people’s thinking is in some ways a bigger scandal. For in this case there is no clear indication that philosophers are even aware that their promise rests on a mere article of faith. They apparently feel no need to provide any evidence that they can achieve their professed goal or overcome numerous difficulties that worry education experts. Out of the top 20 philosophy departments (according to the well-known Philosophical Gourmet Report), 17 of them put out unsubstantiated claims about important practical effects of studying philosophy. It appears that the disease has reached an advanced stage.

There is a moral problem here as well. With many leading philosophy departments and philosophy associations repeatedly assuring us that those who study philosophy will become much better thinkers, many students may conclude that even a huge investment of money and time in this kind of self-improvement would eventually pay off. If no goods are delivered these people will be harmed in a way that could have easily been anticipated.

This connects back to the company selling product X, mentioned at the beginning of this article. The example was not fictitious. The company’s name is Lumosity and it indeed advertised that its “brain training” games have the effect of fending off memory loss and dementia. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was not satisfied with the evidence given for this claim and consequently charged Lumosity with “deceptive advertising.”

The FTC explained further: “Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease. But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.” The case was later settled under the agreement that any future claims about the efficacy of Lumosity’s products would have to rely on human clinical testing that “shall be (1) randomized, adequately controlled, and blinded to the maximum extent practicable; and (2) be conducted by researchers qualified by training and experience to conduct such testing.”

Question: if Lumosity ran into such legal problems because of the poor evidence it had offered in support of the efficacy of its brain training games, could then philosophy departments be also charged on similar grounds, namely that their “mind training” practices, too, violate the “truth in advertising” laws because they are not backed by proper scientific evidence? It is hard to give a resolute answer without more detailed exploration, but the two cases do display worrying similarities.

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Neven Sesardic

Neven Sesardić has taught philosophy at universities in Croatia, the United States, Japan, England and Hong Kong. His books include "When Reason Goes on Holiday: Philosophers in Politics" (Encounter