Philosophy means business

If you study engineering, medicine, law, or almost any of the other subjects taught at university, you learn this, and you learn that, and in the end you know some things that others do not. Philosophy is different, and rather unique in that regard. After studying it for many years, I feel like I know not more but less than when I started, and I suspect the feeling is common among philosophers. That is because philosophy is not so much about providing answers as it is about asking questions. A consequence, unfortunately, is that the value of studying philosophy is easily underestimated. After all, what use is an academic discipline that cannot provide definite answers? With so many mundane yet significant day-to-day problems, why waste time and resources on splitting hairs and pondering in abstract thought? The concern behind these questions might seem particularly relevant in Tanzania, where a large portion of the population still lives in poverty and there is an understandable longing for immediate practical results, and it might be part of the reason why the Department of Philosophy at Tanzania’s oldest public university, the University of Dar es Salaam, was finally established only five years ago, in 2013.

Despite its inability to provide definitive answers, however, philosophy is anything but the futile hair-splitting it is commonly perceived to be, and relevant to virtually every aspect of human life. Its greatest value lies in teaching us how to think clearly and critically, and how to tell a good from a bad argument, which in turn enables us to make more informed decisions, be better citizens, and live more meaningful and authentic lives. Philosophy is the invitation to free ourselves from prejudice and bias, and the all-too-often narrow boundaries of religion, culture, and tradition, and to think for ourselves.

While students of philosophy do acquire some knowledge during the course of their study, namely of the history of philosophy as well as of philosophical concepts, terms, and theories, more importantly they actively engage with ideas, and the relations between ideas, and develop a profound appreciation for how proper attention to empirical facts, being logical and open-minded, and clarity are key to doing that well. Students of philosophy are taught and encouraged to embrace and internalize the value of respect for diverse perspectives, and of a thoughtful, sincere, and civil exchange of ideas and opinions, even and especially if those are controversial.

The skills students acquire while studying philosophy are useful not only in the pursuit of philosophy, narrowly construed. Rather, they are readily transferable to almost all areas of human intellectual activity. It is no coincidence that some of the world’s most successful executives, including Hedge fund manager George Soros, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, were philosophy majors. Philosophers are problem solvers. They think independently, they convince and persuade, they know how to conduct research and manage information, and they can communicate and argue effectively in speech and writing. Industry and other non-academic employers are waking up to these facts, and increasingly recognize and learn to appreciate the unique and highly useful skill set philosophers bring to the table. If you are a recruiter, you should take a closer look next time a philosophy graduate’s CV lands on your desk. Your company will thank you.

Students of philosophy no longer sit under olive trees, pondering the meaning of life and stroking their beards. They gain real-life qualifications and workplace skills. Some of them become professional philosophers, and there is a great need for more of those in Tanzania, but most do not. They become lawyers, politicians, diplomats, journalists, educators, businessmen, bankers, social workers, and the list goes on, and philosophy, through their lives and work, will continue to shape the world and the way we live.

Versions of this article were published under the following titles:
“Philosophy means business,” The Citizen (Tanzania, 29 September 2018)
“Philosophy means business,” Dhaka Tribune (Bangladesh, 8 October 2018)