New Philosopher

What’s philosophy for?

Once a year, my university hosts an open day for (mostly) high school students who are considering what they might like to study after graduation. Over the course of the day I’ll speak to many students – and their parents – who like the idea of studying philosophy at university. But the idea also makes them nervous: philosophy sounds like fun, but they want to know what they can ‘do’ with it.

It’s a perfectly reasonable question, particularly when making such life-shaping decisions. Philosophy is fun, but bills have to be paid, and you don’t exactly see a lot of ‘Philosopher Wanted’ job ads. The students and their parents are looking for what we might call an ‘instrumentalist’ answer. They goods studying philosophy will lead do. So that’s the sort of answer we tend to give: “Philosophy gives you a great set of critical reasoning skills!” we say. “Those skills will be crucial no matter what job you do!” Then, under our breath, we mutter “But of course, that’s not what it’s for.”

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Susanna Siegel is Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. She currently works on topics in the philosophy of mind and epistemology. Her books The Contents of Visual Experience and The Rationality of Perception were published by Ox