This article is going viral: Why read old philosophy?
Since 2008, we’ve been in what can be described as ‘philosophy boom’, as articles and stories about philosophy frequently go viral on sites such as Reddit, 4Chan, and Hacker News, and there seems to be a lot of interest in the subject on Quora and elsewhere. The resurgence of philosophy can be explained by several factors:
Philosophy, especially in recent years, is finding a home in many theoretical STEM applications (such has computer science, set and logic theories, quantum physics, etc.)., and the two are becoming increasingly intertwined. Philosophers seek to emulate physicists, and physicists seek to better understand philosophy. The former is related to the so-called ‘physics envy’ in economics, but such envy also seems to be reversed for STEM subjects, too.
To wit, when the insufferable pedant Neil Degrasse Tyson proclaimed philosophy as ‘useless’, he was instantly met with strong rebuke – by other physicists, including the brilliant Sean M. Carroll, who is much smarter and more accomplished than Tyson can ever hope to be, defending philosophy.
Additionally, both physics and philosophy involve abstractions, are subtle, and tend to be very specific and precise in terminology.
The study of philosophy is analogous to understanding the ‘source code’ behind declarative statements, giving a deeper understanding than is otherwise revealed prima facie, or (in the case of source code), rendered on a computer display. A low-information political pundit may extol the ‘goodness’ of ‘freedom and liberty’ as it applies to common situations such as politics. Philosophy, however, goes deeper by inquiring what it means for something to be ‘good’, what the concept ‘freedom’ means, and whether the two are always mutually inclusive. Whereas punditry is concerned with the present, philosophy seeks to understand antecedents and origins, building on the body of prior philosophical work. This is analogous to source code, which is the antecedent of the output, and newer programming languages are derived or inspired from older ones. Similarly, regarding mathematics, applied mathematics manipulates existing concepts to get outputted results (the answer). Abstract and pure mathematics takes it a step further by trying to determine the conditions where answer is or isn’t possible. This is probably why so many people in computer science, physics, and mathematics are enamored with philosophy, and the other way around.
Second, the study of philosophy, although it may not have as many direct real-world applications as engineering, biology, or computer science, is still valuable for signaling intellect. Philosophy majors have as high of SAT scores as STEM majors. Philosophy is useful for study because it helps us organize our thought processes and reasoning, with a rigor that one wouldn’t otherwise hold themselves to, as the source code analogy above shows. This is probably why philosophy majors are sought for employment, because the degree signals above-average critical thinking and analytical skills.
For example, from the Fire Thirty Eight article Philosophers Don’t Get Much Respect, But Their Earnings Don’t Suck, here’s an infographic that shows how philosophy majors not only make good wages (as high as most STEM subjects) but also have high scores on the GRE and LSAT, both of which are good proxies for IQ. Because philosophy majors are smart, they can readily grasp non-philosophy concepts, which is valuable for employers, who benefit from having employees who are quick to learn and can anticipate needs.
And actually, philosophy is respected, or at least online based on my own observations. As mentioned above, not only do philosophy articles frequently go viral and get a lot of up-votes and positive comments, there is a lot of discussion online about philosophy, and people online seek philosophers for their insight and wisdom. But also, the monastic pursuit of knowledge, deep ‘truths’, and abstractions, in a culture of instant gratification, reductionist narratives, superficiality, and 24-7 entertainment disguised as information (infotainment), is commendable and meritorious. The sacrifice of immediate wealth and ‘payoff’ (having a low time preference) pays dividends long into the future, as others who seek ‘immediate employment’, after many decades, still find themselves in a personal rut, unable to advance beyond the 9-5 grind of being an invisible, unimportant person. Peter Thiel, possibly one of the smartest and most successful people alive as measured by net worth and accomplishments, majored in philosophy:
After graduating from San Mateo High School, Thiel went on to study philosophy at Stanford University. During Thiel’s time at Stanford, debates on identity politics and political correctness were ongoing at the university and a “Western Culture” program, which was criticized by The Rainbow Agenda because of a perceived over-representation of the achievements made by European men, was replaced with a “Culture, Ideas and Values” course, which instead pushed diversity and multiculturalism. This replacement provoked controversy on the campus, and led to Thiel founding The Stanford Review, a paper for conservative and libertarian viewpoints, in 1987, through the funding of Irving Kristol.
That was many decades ago, and now he’s a billionaire..of course, his wild success cannot be generalized to everyone, but his story is example of how delayed gratification can lead to massive payoffs later, as opposed to to skipping college to seek immediate employment and gratification.
Regarding how philosophy is respected, from an earlier post SJW Narrative Collapse, Part Infinity:
The fact that the story went so viral, making it to the front page of Reddit, but also the intense, impassioned discussion in the comments, is further evidence of how finance is so important to millennials, who would rather debate regulation and high frequency trading than waste time on mind-numbing, disposable pop culture entertainment. This is more evidence of how intellectualism has become so important, contrary to pronouncements of how America is ‘dumbing down’. There is a huge demand for intellectualism that the internet and communities like Reddit, Hacker News and 4Chan are satisfying.
An from the post Millennials and Misconceptions in which I give an example from Reddit of how stories and comments that praise education and the attainment of knowledge are up-voted, whereas posts that advocate a more parochial, narrow-minded appeal to ‘instant gratification’ are down-voted.
A STEM degree is preferable, but that doesn’t make the liberal arts useless in the eyes of millennials, provided the degree has some degree of intellectual rigor and are not completely useless or commercialized (like degrees ‘child development’ or ‘search engine marketing’).
A Google search reveals many more examples on Reddit of philosophy majors being respected, so this belief that philosophy majors are unappreciated or are ignored is thoroughly debunked. Maybe as recently as a decade ago, this may have been the case, but online, especially on Quora on Reddit, there is a huge outpouring of interest in philosophy, as millennials see the value of it, along with other intellectualized subjects such as physics, math, and computer science. This also ties in with the post-2008 ‘explosion‘ of ‘intellectualism culture‘.
But also, why is there so much interest in learning complicated, esoteric math concepts? All things ‘smart’ have gotten more attention as of late, such as as theoretical physics, quantum mechanics, philosophy and math (as well as all these things melded together)…It’s like the AP-math class of high school but expanded to include almost everyone, not just a dozen students.
But does this contradict pragmatism. No, because pragmatism is intellectual of nature. Pragmatism, similar to utilitarianism, seeks to maximize resources and outcomes, based on the preponderance of empirical evidence, versus all alternatives being considered, which can include delayed gratification and the purist pursuit of intellectual endeavors, if over the long-run, one derives desirable quantifiable results, such as wealth or status, from such deferment. Pragmatism is contrasted to deontological ethics, the latter which is rule-based, not outcome-based, but this can be easily reconciled, as is often the case online, by stipulating that one’s ‘rule’ is to always choose what leads to the most optimal long-run outcome.