A decision to study philosophy in college is, necessarily, a decision to spend some time in tedious discussions with relatives and other well-meaning adults discussing what on earth you plan to do with yourself after graduating. One advantage of doing so is that if a decade out you find yourself as a working journalist you’ll always have a ready quip at hand when asked why you went into journalism as a career: I didn’t want to get a PhD and it turns out the philosophy industry has been in a slump for the past couple of millennia.
That said, though I would by no means argue that I had any such thing in mind when I first stepped onto the Yard, it seems to me that in retrospect philosophy is among the very most practically useful fields of study one can undertake.
The essence of professional life is that one is rarely the most knowledgeable person in the room on whatever subject is being discussed. And yet, one is expected to be able to contribute something. One common approach is to filibuster; be repetitive or dilatory; or simply to reveal one’s ignorance. A much superior approach is to be regularly able to contribute something beyond detailed knowledge of the subject matter. Add a dose of logical rigor and analytical scrutiny to the conversation. Draw a distinction. Provide a counterexample to the principle being invoked. Reveal an ambiguity.
In other words, deploy the philosopher’s toolkit.
As a professional writer, the skills of a philosophy student are particularly useful to me. But it turns out that both the business and philanthropic worlds consists substantially of people writing things: Emails, memos, proposals, requests for proposals, memos about requests for proposals, the whole nine yards. And in essentially any of these applications, nothing is more in demand than brevity and clarity—precisely the skills of philosophical writing.
While I'm a staunch defender of philosophy as an extremely practical course of undergraduate study, it's also worth saying that there are many problems in the world and destitution among graduates of highly selective American universities isn't really on the list. In strict economic terms, whatever you concentrate in things will almost certainly work out fine.
The best reason to study philosophy in school is that your college years are the best time to study philosophy. Learning is not something that stops when formal education ends. But some things are easier to pick up on the job or look up on the web. The uncharacteristic thing about the central problems of philosophy is that they are the deepest, hardest problems that humanity has been able to devise. If your curiosity is piqued one Sunday afternoon, you can’t find the answer on Wikipedia or even do something as simple as picking up a relevant book.
Many people, it seems to me, manage to go through life without becoming entranced by philosophical problems. And good for them. But if you are the kind of person inclined to ponder them, there’s really no place to do it quite like Emerson Hall. The nature of these problems is that they have no agreed-upon answers. They are best explored through genuine exploration, in a community of other students and scholars eager to discuss them. There’s space and time for many things in post-college life, but that kind of collaborative discussion of esoteric ideas isn’t necessarily high on the list. If you don’t make time for philosophy now, it’s one of the hardest things to do later. And in the end, I promise you’ll still come away with a job and a career.
Matthew Yglesias is Slate's business and economics correspondent. He is the author of Heads in the Sand and The Rent Is Too Damn High.