Arnold Kling  

The Philosophy Major

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In an ongoing discussion, Bryan writes,

why are there so few libertarian academic philosophers? And why do economists across the political spectrum have so much more appreciation for the benefits of markets than the general public, the typical college grad, or the typical philosopher for that matter?

Speaking as an undergraduate econ major/philosophy minor, I'd say that studying philosophy typically leads not to "willingness to grapple with ideas," but to blanket skepticism.

I am not making any sort of claim about academic philosophers. I really should not have tried to make a claim about what philosophy teaches. The claim I wish to make is one of selection bias. What sort of person does the philosophy major select?

I contend it selects someone with more of an interest in ideas for their own sake than the typical undergrad. I contend that it selects someone with a greater desire to put together a coherent world-view than the typical undergrad. I contend that it selects someone with a lower need for conformity, intellectually and otherwise, than the typical undergrad.

The result is that a philosophy major will be a "high-variance" intellect. While everyone else clusters around a mean that is a muddled mixture of folk Marxism, paternalism, environmentalism*, and a grudging tolerance for markets as a necessary evil, the philosophy major is more likely to stray from the consensus. The result may or not be libertarian--it could go in the other direction.

But my guess is that if you find a passionate defender of free markets, chances are you will find someone who at some point developed an interest in philosophy. I suspect that the typical econ major favors free trade more from a consensus-conformity perspective than from true conviction, and if the wind blows hard the other way, the econ major will readily sacrifice free trade principles.

*Bryan and I both attended this talk by Deidre N. McCloskey, at which she said in an aside that our schools today teach environmentalism as a more-or-less official religion, to fill the void left by secularism. The talk was mostly just a series of insightful asides.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Education

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Matt McIntosh writes:

I think this is a much more reasonable set of propositions. Without fail, every single person I know who has a deep understanding of markets also has/had an interest in philosophy (though very few majored or minored in it). But as you say, philosophical predispositions are high variance, so I still think a few basic economics classes do more good on the whole than a lot of philosophy classes.

dearieme writes:

Study philosophy and you learn to argue, as it were, with Aristotle. You've got to raise your game. Study economics and you argue with...oh, say, J K Galbraith. No contest.

dearieme writes:

And the study of philosophy can encourage accuracy, such as spelling University correctly IN DUTCH!

PrestoPundit writes:

I think that it is true that you find extreme intellectual talent in philosophy -- especially among a small elite of folks who think harder and take into consideration more difficult and more diverse factors than folks in most every other discipline. Here's an example. Darwinian biology has all sorts of very complex conceptual puzzles and problem, for example the unit of selection problem or problems with concept of "fitness." These are the hardest intellectual problems in the discipline. The folks doing the best work in this area are mostly philosophers, e.g. David Hull and Alex Rosenberg, among many others.

This elite of philosophers usually does something that most other disciplines don't do -- they take into consideration a diversity of disciplinary research programs. And they aren't naive about the philosophical pre-suppositions built into the various disciplines they are working with -- while those within a discipline (say economics) are naive to the exteme about the problematic philosophical traditions that form the very foundation of their research programs (e.g. "empiricism" and "scientific testing" in contemporary economics.)

A sound understanding of the free market and a liberal society requires a multidisciplinary background and a sophistication about all sorts issues typically grappled with in philosophy. Take a look at what you will find in the writings of perhaps the best economist / liberal theorist of the last 100 years. In Hayek you will find a sophisticated understanding of the law -- and of the philosophy of law. You will find deep knowledge of economics -- and the philosophy of economics. You will find scientific psychology -- and the philosophy of psychology. You will find the interplay of epistemology and social theory -- and the history of that interplay. It's multidisciplinary stuff mixed together in a rich stew.

It isn't simply statistics and mathematical manipulation.

You are more apt to find this sort of deep grappling with multiple knowledge domains by an elite within the philosophy profession than you are likely to find in any other discipline.

Barbar writes:

It should also be pointed out that some people "support free markets" not because of a deep understanding of economics, but because it fits with their ideological preferences. For example, for people inclined to believe in meritocracy and who see that their money doesn't benefit them as much when the government takes and spends it, it often just takes a couple of Econ 101 graphs to be fully convinced of the power of free markets and the ruinous nature of regulation. Not everyone who is a libertarian is a brilliant thinker (that's a bit of an obvious understatement but it looks like it needs saying here).

"Philosophy" means "love of wisdom" and, as I have argued for many years, not just philosophy, but the whole of academic inquiry ought to have, as its basic intellectual aim, to seek and promote wisdom - wisdom being, roughly, the capacity to realize what is of value in life for oneself and others, thus including knowledge and technological know-how, but much else besides. The proper job of philosophy today is to try to get across to the rest of the academic enterprise the urgent need to bring about a revolution in the aims and methods, the whole character and structure, of academic inquiry so that the basic aim becomes wisdom.

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