Monday, November 24, 2014

Philosophy on Top

MELBOURNE – Last year, a report from Harvard University set off alarm bells, because it showed that the proportion of students in the United States completing bachelor’s degrees in the humanities fell from 14% to 7%. Even elite universities like Harvard itself have experienced a similar decrease. Moreover, the decline seems to have become steeper in recent years. There is talk of a crisis in the humanities.

I don’t know enough about the humanities as a whole to comment on what is causing enrollments to fall. Perhaps many humanities disciplines are not seen as likely to lead to fulfilling careers, or to any careers at all. Maybe that is because some disciplines are failing to communicate to outsiders what they do and why it matters. Or, difficult as it may be to accept, maybe it is not just a matter of communication: Perhaps some humanities disciplines really have become less relevant to the exciting and fast-changing world in which we live.

I state these possibilities without reaching a judgment about any of them. What I do know something about, however, is my own discipline, philosophy, which, through its practical side, ethics, makes a vital contribution to the most urgent debates that we can have.

I am a philosopher, so you would be justified in suspecting bias in my view. Fortunately, I can draw on an independent report by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI), a Swiss think tank, to support my claim.  

GDI recently released a ranked list of the top 100 Global Thought Leaders for 2013. The ranking includes economists, psychologists, authors, political scientists, physicists, anthropologists, information scientists, biologists, entrepreneurs, theologians, physicians, and people from several other disciplines. Yet three of the top five global thinkers are philosophers: Slavoj Žižek, Daniel Dennett, and me. GDI classifies a fourth, Jürgen Habermas, as a sociologist, but the report acknowledges that he, too, is arguably a philosopher.

The only Global Thought Leader in the top five not involved in philosophy is Al Gore. There are more economists in the top 100 than thinkers from any other single discipline, but the top-ranking economist, Nicholas Stern, ranks tenth overall.

Can it really be true that four of the world’s five most influential thinkers come from the humanities, and 3-4 from philosophy? To answer that question, we have to ask what GDI measures when it compiles its ranking of Global Thought Leaders. 

GDI aims to identify “the thinkers and ideas that resonate with the global infosphere as a whole.” The infosphere from which the data are drawn may be global, but it is also English-language only, which may explain why no Chinese thinker is represented in the top 100. There are three eligibility requirements: one has to be working primarily as a thinker; one must be known beyond one’s own discipline; and one must be influential.

The ranking is an amalgam of many different measurements, including how widely the thinkers are watched and followed on YouTube and Twitter, and how prominently they feature in blogs and in the wikisphere. The outcome indicates each thinker’s relevance across countries and subject areas, and the ranking selects those thinkers who are most talked about and who are triggering wider debate.

The rankings will no doubt vary from year to year. But we have to conclude that in 2013 a handful of philosophers were particularly influential in the world of ideas.

That would not have been news to the Athenian leaders who considered what Socrates was doing to be sufficiently disturbing to put him to death for “corrupting the youth.” Nor will it be news to anyone familiar with the many successful efforts to bring philosophy to a broader market. 

There is, for example, the magazine Philosophy Now, and equivalents in other languages. There are the Philosophy Bites podcasts, many blogs, and free online courses, which are attracting tens of thousands of students.

Perhaps the growing interest in reflecting on the universe and our lives is the result of the fact that, for at least a billion people on our planet, the problems of food, shelter, and personal security have largely been solved. That leads us to ask what else we want, or should want, from life, and that is a starting point for many lines of philosophical inquiry.

Doing philosophy – thinking and arguing about it, not just passively reading it – develops our critical reasoning abilities, and so equips us for many of the challenges of a rapidly changing world. Perhaps that is why many employers are now keen to hire graduates who have done well in philosophy courses.

More surprising, and more significant still, is the way in which taking a philosophy class can change a person’s life. I know from my own experience that taking a course in philosophy can lead students to turn vegan, pursue careers that enable them to give half their income to effective charities, and even donate a kidney to a stranger. How many other disciplines can say that?

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    1. CommentedNathan Coppedge

      I have considered the problem of philosophy's value. My conclusion is that philosophy promotes the viable value of complexity, which combines exponentially with numerous other advantages. When seen in a coherent way, this is one of the ultimate, great, untapped resources.

      My book, The Dimensional Philosopher's Toolkit (not the original Philosopher's Toolkit by Baggini and Fosl), arrives at new logical methods based partly on the concept of complexity. Complexity is indeed important, and I hope that ultimately, or soon, world leaders will incorporate complexity more directly in the ethical systems that, as some have said, influence economics.

      There is also a thrill to philosophy and philosophical knowledge gathering that has advantages for encouraging vitality about any given subject, or life in general. Although I suspect there are other areas that are equally general, philosophy is at least the Western vantage point on the most vital inquiry into the potential of existence.

    2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      I was rather surprised to see Mr. Singer mentioning the "Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI). Here in Switzerland not many people know who exactly Gottlieb Duttweiler was, although the grocery stores, the Migros, a chain he helped build up, since he started the business in the 1920s, is a household name. Migros is the biggest retailer in the country, with a turnover of more than 16 billion.
      Some have heard of the Gottlieb Duttweiler Prize, which is awarded to individuals with outstanding achievements for the common good, or those with extraordinary courage and persistence. The prize is only awarded, when a winner is found. In the past Wiki-founder Jimmy Wales, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer and former Czech president Vaclav Havel had been awarded the prize. Few in and outside Switzerland have heard of the GDI as a think tank. Now that Mr. Singer mentions it, no doubt it will be known to a wider world.
      Humanities are an important discipline, as they help build character, shape creativity and promote resilience. These qualities are vitally important in preparing young people for the future, on whom a society and country relies in order to sustain and thrive.
      The success of an individual has much to do with his knowledge of science and technical skills, that are well blended with the understanding drawn from the liberal arts and humanities. The globalised jobs market of the future would require creativity and innovation from young people and an ability to be resilient to change. If I have to start my life all over again, I would still opt for humanities.

    3. CommentedStephen Pain

      At the heart of economics, is philosophy. We must know how best to distribute and make use of scarce resources. The most important economists, were moral philosophers. Throughout the world we see examples of abuse of power and denial of rights. We see the spread of fundamental religion worldwide. In order we sort out the fairest systems of rights and duties, we need phllosophers. We need philosophers inside and outside of religion to tackle issues connected with harm. With respect to our environment and the progress of technology, we need philosophers to examine and analyse what amounts to a sustainable future. In all sectors we need philosophers. If you leave the fate of a man or woman to an economist or lawyer - they would be executed. We need real philosophy once more, not metaphilosophy that looks at cultural phenomena on a superficial level. More Hume than Homer Simpson, please.

    4. CommentedJohn McDonald

      I'm no philosopher, but maybe that's why I can see the inbreed bias in the rankings. "Influence" = popularity with one's contemporaries. (Socrates would have failed that one.)
      And "working as a thinker" is just fine, but it is usually the "doers" who get things done. So it all depends on how you define "on top."

    5. CommentedHamid Rizvi

      The reason enrollment in the Humanities is declining is the result of ill formed decisions driven purely by the paycheck. Now, with all the brouhaha over science education these same biases towards education in humanities is slowly creeping into the Western world. Traditionally, in the West a child was allowed the room to grow make decisions, change decisions result of changing interests based on associations and experiences. Unlike, some of the countries like in India where parents from the outset decide their children’s careers. Individual natural interests or evolving interests are never taken into consideration when choosing a child’s career in the process stifling important skills like decision making. It should then come as no surprise that majority of Indian origin engineers are turned down in key decision making positions. An indicator of such a trend are the winners of the National Geographic spelling bee competition where 8 out of the last 10 champions were kids of Indian origin. Little robots in the making!
      The undergraduate curriculum taught in the US is by far in my humble opinion the best around the World. It encompasses broad areas of Philosophy, art, sociology, psychology and languages. From this base of a wider perspective a young person then begins to make not only choices but brings with them a wealth of knowledge whose benefits are not easily quantifiable but one that assists them in careers ranging from Art history (president Obama’s favorite) to nuclear physics. No wonder than professional schools like medical schools are now asking prospective students to bring a diversity of majors; that humanities education has to offer.

    6. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      I agree that philosophy in general is a good tool allowing the person to rise above the mundane reality and try to see the whole picture, its interconnections and create a system about it.
      Especially today when we evolved into a globally interconnected and interdependent human system, the usual self-centered, local, "micromanagement" has become futile and many times destructive, since in a global, integral system for any action one should see the whole system in its entirety, with all its intricate interconnections in order to make the action positive and not harmful for the system.
      Every aspect of the deepening global crisis from economics to finances, from health care to geopolitical conflicts, from education to the social network shows that the usual knee-jerk reactions, instinctive responses just make things worse not better.
      Thus we really need a "birds-eye" viewpoint, and a truly working "theory of everything" in order to solve the crisis and in order to survive.
      But philosophy alone cannot help here since philosophy usually is disconnected from actual facts, action on the ground, and today when our common boat is sinking fast we simply do not have the time for philosophical debates, different theories to emerge.
      We need practical action right now, a working practical method that can save the ship and steer it into the right direction before it is too late.
      For example most people agree today that the greatest problem, the core cause of the global crisis is our own inherently self-serving, egoistic nature. But almost nobody has any idea how this nature could be changed, adjusted in a way that we make our human system work in a sustainable manner, adapted to our evolutionary conditions.
      The human "patient" is terminally ill, it needs more than a clever article, or idea/theory, or a book, it needs the medicine dripping through its veins before it is too late right now.