increased American interest in philosophy

An article called “In a New Generation of College Students, Many Opt for the Life Examined,” in the Times, reports that the number of undergraduate philosophy majors is climbing across the country. The interesting thing is that the reasons given for the increase in enrollment are far from traditional justifications for philosophical inquiry. A student at Rutgers, Didi Onejame, is said to think that philosophy “has armed her with the skills to be successful.” What are these skills? “It’s a major that helps them become quick learners and gives them strong skills in writing, analysis and critical thinking,” says the executive director of the APA. Students also, apparently, find it “intellectually rewarding,” “a lot of fun,” good training for asking “larger societal questions,” and a good choice for an era when the job market changes too fast, supposedly, to pick a more reliably marketable field.

So in other words, the justification for philosophy is partly “fun” and intrinsic interest (the metaphysics of the Matrix figure in a photograph), but largely and perhaps predominantly economic necessity and marketable skills. Insofar as philosophy is, well, sold this way, it’s suggestive of Bonnie Urciuoli‘s work on the empty terms of liberal arts marketing rhetoric, of what Don Brenneis calls “the consequentiality of the semantically vacuous.” Certainly in this article, it’s unclear that philosophy really teaches skills; and if it does, it’s also unclear that they are particularly vocationally useful.

Careerism in philosophy, incidentally, has been condemned at least since Francis Bacon, who argued in the Advancement of Learning that the urge for “lustre and profession” was exemplary of the error of “the mistaking or misplacing of the last or furthest end of knowledge.” This article, as far as one can judge from the journalist’s choice of quotes and interview topics, takes precisely the opposite position. Here, philosophy is all about its instrumental value for individual advancement. The journalist emphasizes, with an eye to her reader’s probable doubts about the discipline, that philosophy needn’t be “luxury,” be “frou-frou,” be “people sitting under trees and talking about stupid stuff” (said Onejame about her preconceptions of her major).

Unsurprisingly, the one person who does take a more traditional view of philosophy, as the master discipline that founds all others, is not a student but rather the Chancellor of CUNY, Matthew Goldstein. Goldstein comments that philosophy “is really at the core of just about everything we do. If you study humanities or political systems or sciences in general, philosophy is really the mother ship from which all of these disciplines grow.”

Luckily, the journalist manages to discover a less academic function for philosophy: that of reproducing heteronormative sexuality.

Jenna Schaal-O’Connor, a 20-year-old sophomore who is majoring in cognitive science and linguistics, said philosophy had other perks. She said she found many male philosophy majors interesting and sensitive.

“That whole deep existential torment,” she said. “It’s good for getting girlfriends.”

So even existential torment turns out to be yet another skill, ready to be put to use on the dating market. And the student in question seems quite aware of the fact: content with her instrumentalism.