Education, Features

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

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.

Filed under: Education, Features


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, 2016) and "Making Sense of Heritability" (Cambridge, 2005). He has also published articles in leading philosophy journals like Journal of Philosophy, Ethics, Philosophy of Science, and the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science.


  1. DiscoveredJoys says

    When I took my elder son around to visit several potential Universities for a degree course (in the UK, 15ish years ago) I particularly recall a large Business Consultancy saying that they would like to recruit Physics graduates because of their proven ability for critical thinking and discipline.

    Now that may have been a sales pitch for the Physics degree course, but I wonder if testable critical thinking about the objective world is more useful than subjective critical thinking about somebody else’s critical thinking?

    I may be a little tough on Philosophy, as it is practised, but if Philosophy is about something fundamental then you would expect different Philosophical schools to converge over time – they don’t appear to.

    • AS says

      What you learn doing hard science and engineering degrees is not “critical thinking” but rather “systematic thinking” and the scientific method. You learn to examine a problem in a formal way, enumerate the things which need to be considered, and then to use an evidence-based, documented approach to solve the problem. These are skills that can be taught (not everyone picks them up with the same “intensity” – and it’s not related to intelligence, but character, since often the smartest engineers are sloppy improvisers for example and they get by without doing things systematically), and these are skills which are transferable to certain other professions (business consultancy for example). I would not say they are necessarily applicable to “any line of work”. No one in the hard and technical sciences makes such claims anyway, at least not that often.

      • AS says

        Also, the fact that you have a physics or mechanical engineering degree simply signals that you are 1) smarter than average, most likely and 2) you were able to solve the various difficult problems that are part of the curriculum. Even if you have no “transferable skills” learned in the degree program itself, people still consider your degree “proof” that you are smart and capable and therefore desirable for jobs where smart and capable people are required.

        • Jim says

          You have also demonstrated that you are numerate, which is necessary in all but the “softest” business consultancies. The specifics of business mathematics (mostly arithmetic, actually) can be taught or acquired on the job, but concepts like percentages and double negatives (a credit for an expense, for example) can be baffling for many liberal arts majors who consider themselves to be well-educated. Financial formulas (annuities, payments, weighted average cost of capital, etc.) are beyond the ken, and the Black-Scholes formula for option valuation is “right out.”

          • > concepts like percentages and double negatives (a credit for an expense, for example) can be baffling for many liberal arts majors

            … mother of god

  2. Philosophe, amateur de la sagesse, c’est-à-dire de la vérité. (Voltaire)
    Philosopher, lover of wisdom, that is of the truth.

    Does the study of philosophy make you a “lover of the truth”. I don’t think so.

  3. kurtzs says

    Perhaps above average intellects make up the bulk of those seeking this major, particularly in the analytic schools of philosophy. As an NYU graduate in Philosophy, and part time graduate student there in it, I can say that some of the training helped me after I left and entered the world of financial derivatives. Around a decade later, a specialization in currency options opened up a door where analytic skills and thinking outside the box enabled an early exit from business. (age 46) Some luck was of course involved. I wanted to explore nature, systems thinking, forestry, mycology, and organic gardening, and to refine my nordic skiing and fishing skills. I don’t regret my academic field one bit.

  4. Spencer Case says

    How did Sasardic develop the skills to level this sustained critique? Did his philosophical training have nothing to do with it?

      • Rod Stoneman says

        Thinking empirically and numerically is part of the contention. I’d see it as problems arising from an instrumental approach to theory / philosophy exacerbated by student fees and loans in a neo-liberal approach to higher education.

  5. Everything I needed to know about philosophy came to me in two stages: 1) grasping Euclid in high school; and 2) realizing it was not “mere belief” that reality consisted of the set of all existents, with myself simply one of them.

    Until philosophy ceases to be “a footnote to Plato,” and Kant, it will wander in the land of zombies, where the ghouls devour innocent human minds.

    • Joe King says

      What do you mean by “1) grasping Euclid in high school; and 2) realizing it was not “mere belief” that reality consisted of the set of all existents, with myself simply one of them.”? And why was it all you need to know about philosophy?

  6. My primary comment here is unconventional, and in the form of video. But I will say a few things first.

    It seems that if philosophy were to deliver on its promise of augmented critical thinking, this would carry into grad school. There would be some pretense of philosophers giving MA-holders skills that would translate into employment beyond what the BA does. But this is clearly not the case; the MA is overwhelmingly seen as a path to academia and nothing else. So either the people who advocate this believe all of the critical thinking improvement stops at the BA level, or they don’t really believe what they’re saying and are just parroting the line for funding. Given the risks of funding cuts posed to philosophy departments, I’m inclined to believe the latter.

    Further, if philosophy were truly *the* place where critical thinking can be refined to a degree better than all other disciplines, the discipline would be fairly taboo-less. But that’s clearly not true: there are party lines about stereotype threat in the profession that treated as true before the conversation has even started, and philosophy isn’t even an empirical discipline. Philosophy can’t even have an honest discussion about putting your epistemology where your mouth is in cases of witness testimony as they pertain to sexual harassment.

    So, I’m inclined to side with the author here. I liked this article so much that I made a video response to it here:

    • (my name is not “Admin”, that’s just my WordPress login. sorry.)

    • Interesting comment per “the MA is overwhelmingly seen as a path to academia and nothing else.” It would seem that there may be more significant determinants at work here, e.g. institutional/occupational/professional behavioral norms. There’s also likely some selection bias in the conclusions made from anecdotal experiences (to which my following example is also implicated in).

      In the late 2000s, I contacted the department chair of the philosophy program at a nearby large public university. I’m an experienced and accomplished cyber and risk professional who was at the time architecting a new program at a global financial firm and wanted further educational depth in meta-cognition and systems theory (e.g. Niklas Luhmann, Bruno Latour, as well as power relations theorists in the Foucault orientation, etc). I possess a finance and banking undergraduate, though I’m known as an expert in the technology and risk realm. As an interdisciplinary, graduate level philosophy seemed to be an appropriate path to help me analyze and understand complex social, micropolitical, microeconomic systems that created the structures that gave rise to the risk ( e.g. philosopher Paul Virilio’s nearly topological argument that the sinking of the Titanic was latent within its construction – a potent potentiality architected within the system awaiting the conditions for its expressibility to emerge is but an example of why systems risk theory is so important in massively complex organizations with transactions and technologies moving at extreme velocities).

      The department chair was perplexed: “Your undergraduate is in business? No… our typical graduate student has a philosophy undergraduate and is here to study full time so they can become a philosophy professor and teach future students who want to become academics.” It sounded like a Ponzi scheme but she was sincere.

      This is hardly an indictment of the study of philosophy, but rather as to how our academic institutions and greater society have distributed the meaning of what it is to study philosophy and why (Deleuze & Guattari “What is Philosophy”, along with Jacques Rancière’s “The Philosopher and His Poor” both come to mind here).

      I’d support the original post’s claim that as instantiated in the contemporary U.S. academic regime, philosophy is a highly impaired pursuit if the objective is the expansion of analytical and meta-cognitive abilities. Too much of the collective institution sustains a political/policed orientation that the purpose of the practice is to sustain a pipeline for the perpetual generation of philosophy professors. But of course, this has no relevance to the question of whether or not philosophy educations improve thinking.

  7. I liked the article. I have always thought that one simple suggestion of the possible etymological origin of the word philosophy is very apt.: ‘lover of false argument’

  8. Are the GRE, LSAT, and GMAT good measures of critical thinking? I know that ETS claims this is so. Are there others measures of these skills? How do philosophy majors do on these measures?

      • Dave says

        Perhaps you missed the footnotes:


        As mentioned earlier and in previous posts on our blog about GRE scores, these data represent intended graduate major, not necessarily undergraduate major.

    • Jim says

      Assuming that they are good measures of critical thinking, wouldn’t the better test be the differential between percentile rankings on the SAT taken in high school and the GRE, four years later? Presumably, some majors would, for large enough groups, have a positive average impact on test score percentile ranking, while other majors would necessarily have a negative effect.

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  10. Santoculto says

    Maybe psychology is better to improve thinking than philosophy itself. Philosophy is at priori for thinkers, for people who supposedly already have a good thinking skills. Philosophy should be the place to teach new generation of governors because its function should be to improve society via macro-levels. Philosophy more than a technical job is a existential transcendence, a deep self knowledge and knowledge about part or reachable reality itself. Because its super perfectionist and innately re-evolutionary nature in the kingdom of mediocrity philosophy become excessive or no make sense. Philosophy and pragmatic materialism are, in my view, natural enemies, the late is like a anti-philosophy.

    Wisdom is the generalization even the progressive totalitarianism of intelligence in thinking and behavior. Usually we engage with certain frequency with subconscious stupid or non-ideal thinking and behavior. Wisdom is to know and understand not everything but what you have psychologically and cognitively available for you. Self knowledge is important not to improve intelligence but to control and reduce stupidity and by this neutralization of stupidity increasing intelligence.

  11. Alan Grey says

    Going to the gym allegedly helps your strength which helps in many areas of life. But the benefits taper off if you stop going to the gym. Additionally, it is hard to show a consistent benefit as many people join the gym, and pay the fees but don’t gain strength. We should definitely never go to the gym.

  12. Santoculto says

    First thing to do to improve your thinking skills. Know yourself better. You don’t need read any philosopher to improve your thinking even i find interesting also to do it. But to improve yourself the conversation only can start from yourself. Three intellectualities: intellectual independence, intellectual honesty and intellectual humility.

  13. Simon Penner says

    Two comments.

    One: you all might be interested in checking out a book called Academically Adrift (amazon link here. It’s a study of the idea that college teaches critical thinking skills. The book itself is very interesting, but I’ll give you a spoiler: they found that college generally does not improve students’ critical thinking skills.

    Two: I’ve never understood the point of a philosophy degree. I mean, ignoring the “college is for signaling” fact, as I understand it, the way philosophy undergrads work is as follows: first, they read famous and important philosophy works. Then, they discuss them, both with other students and with learned scholars on the subject. But… you can do that online! Most of the philosophy works are public domain, and for the ones that aren’t, they aren’t that expensive on Amazon. And intelligent discussion fora are everywhere. If _the act of studying philosophy itself_ was what improved one’s employment prospects, I can think of ways to study that cost much less than a hundred grand.

    • (1) That’s not all philosophy students do. (2) you could literally say the same about nearly any discipline. You can study/discuss most things online, including biology, mathematics, etc. The difference is that at university you get a guided education by experts in their field. That’s the point.

    • Petey says

      As to your second point: “I’ve never understood the point of a philosophy degree.”

      Then you are not asking yourself the right questions. Perhaps a philosophy degree would help?

      Do not confuse education as education with education as a credential. A college degree is efficient evidence. The evidence, the credential, says, “you can take the degreed person’s learnedness on faith.” The efficiency of this evidence derives from its message, “this person was formally educated by others, specifically the people at X.” One who is self-educated online may be just as learned as the Harvard man, but he has to do a lot more to prove it, and he has a much lower success rate.

      If all one cares about is being educated, rather than proving it, one can indeed get to the same place (again, perhaps somewhat less efficiently) with a good library and time.

      As to your first point: I think you misrepresent the book’s argument when you say it concluded that “college generally does not improve students’ critical thinking skills.” The book was an indictment of modern campus culture and its diluting effect on critical thinking, not a broad pedagogical rejection of college. Far from rejecting it, the authors were defending traditional education and calling for a return to traditional education they believe had produced more intelligent adults.

  14. Pingback: Skepticism About Philosophy’s Capacity To Improve Thinking | Philosophy with Onbester

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  16. Keith Russell says

    Sometimes you can show students what they are not capable of. This is useful. Sometimes you can situate their skills in contexts they were not previously aware of. This is useful.

  17. Djordje says

    I like this article because I am also irritated by false advertising in education. I was studying philosophy without any expectation about job or future. That kind of advertising is not present only in philosophy. It exists in IT education also. There are a lot of messages like “become a software engineer for three weeks” etc.

  18. Gavirio Vicuta says

    Studying philosophy, as a career, is a form of emotional avoidance.

  19. Petey says

    Two problems with this article, one specific and one general. Re the specific, the author seems to have committed his own logical error in mistaking the absence of proof for a claim with proof of its opposite. As to the general, this article perhaps would have been better framed as a critique of false advertising in higher education egenerally, with philosophy education as an example, than as a critique of philosophy as a discipline. I am unaware of a major that does not claim to improve thinking. What basis has the author for singling out philosophy, other than the author’s own background in philosophy?

  20. sanford paris says

    The author apparently thinks studying “philosophy” or “Logical Reasoning” are supposed to leak their way into your brain as if they were some miracle drug to make you smarter. If you go through the motions without thinking about the premises, their ramifications and their likelihood of mattering, save your money and just take 2 aspirins. This is the dumbest article I’ve read in awhile. Our brains are not some magic cookie mix where you just add face time in a course and voila, you know something you didn’t know before.

  21. Robert Seddon says

    There seem to be two or three claims being targeted here:

    1) Philosophy degree courses cultivate thinking skills.
    2a) Possessing thinking skills increases one’s chances of finding employment.
    2b) Possessing a philosophy degree increases one’s chances of finding employment.

    If you’re deciding what or whether to study with the purpose of increasing your attractiveness to employers, then (1) is uninteresting in itself. If (2b) is true, you don’t need to know why but to what extent. (Whether philosophers get hired is certainly a good emprical question, but crucially distinct from whether employers should hire philosophers, would hire more philosophers if better informed, etc.) However, when it comes to writing all those applications, obviously you will not write that you should be hired because you have a philosophy degree and possessing a philosophy degree is an employable trait. You’ll read the person spec. and you’ll do your best to sound like a match for whatever employers say they need. Hence ‘transferrable skills’ and whatnot.

    Of course it’s cynical blather. It’s the job market.

  22. DJMe says

    Pedantic…really not even worth the skim. However the photo is nice. Real journalism would cite the place. Alas. All FAKE!

  23. David says

    Maybe what is bring developed in STEM (Philosophy too) is a general tenacious, stick with it problem solving mind set. After all, if you are fortunate to possess a serious and stick with it mind set you can learn economics, history, or any science you are interested in without attending any formal classes at a college or university (you would only be lacking the debt and stamped ticket that allows you to be employed in a STEM field). Perhaps, it is the ‘not giving up’ attitude & the sense of delayed gratification that is transferable – not much else

  24. T Laughlin says

    well. first of all, let’s not connect luminosity with philosophy. please. i have a degree in philosophy. why? i wanted to look at the deep questions, the one which have no answers but which require a reach for understanding of some sort. next, i am of the curious sort, not just searching for answers, but a better question. i feel like the quest has enriched my life and i don’t need the tangibility of a higher test score or “proof” of the empirical type. i don’t think sorts like that are meaningful anyway. i tend toward the more intangible, the negative space, the atmosphere, what isn’t sensory but exists, awareness, what comes from one so deeply that one can’t fathom its origin. philosophy is a drink of ice cold, pure, refreshing water that quenches thirst for a time, until one needs another, and another. it is a break from the mundane, the trivial, the machine. it is, of course, the least we can do, and the most.

  25. Pingback: Study Philosophy to Improve Thinking—A Case of False Advertising? | Quillette | Plant Health Solutions

  26. Max Dugan says

    the process of philosophical thinking: good. The conclusions? Folk mythology. Pick a card…..ANY card.

  27. Max Dugan says

    Let me guess….somebody over there didn’t like my previous comment and already has the flag in hand…..heheh.

  28. Whenever I teach logic or critical thinking classes I spend a bit of time on rhetoric and fallacies. I make the students practice identifying them in various examples and cases. Then I ask them to find some examples on their own. Most of them seem to show real improvement at discovering and identifying rhetorical devices. Being able to more readily spot such bs seems to be an important step in becoming a more critical thinker.

  29. Carlos Paz de Araujo says

    The UTILITY of philosophy is not “Critical Thinking” to be used in other “practical subjects”. It surely is not for stupid multiple choice exams to go to graduate school. The utility of philosophy is in everything. Although today a castrated subject by academicians, there is nothing, including nothing itself, that is not philosophy. And, this includes even the philosophy of something “Not have any philosophy” . The error is to limit philosophy departments to what is defined by academicians as “Philosophy”. Science, cosmology,history,medicine,engineering, the Internet, AI, etc. – What of these are not Philosophy? So, to reduce Philosophy to a skill to pass standardized exams or enter other “practical” activities is so stupid that I am sure it came from the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters with a PhD in theater lightings.

  30. Santoculto says

    Maybe most of people study in philosophy academic departments can be called ”history of philosophy” as we have in arts, ”history of arts”. Philosophy must be extremely practical and in politics… BUT

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