Welders and Philosophers

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

W6a00d8341c562c53ef01b7c7f5cbdb970b-800wiAt the fourth Republican Presidential Debate, Senator Marco Rubio asserted that the country “needs more welders and less philosophers.” The small corner of the internet where professional philosophers reside promptly was awash with repudiation, criticism, and outrage (for example, here and here). We were, we have to admit, puzzled by it all – both by Rubio's statement and by the philosophers' outrage.

Senator Rubio's remarks were patently silly. First, the rationale Rubio offered, that “welders make more money than philosophers” is false. Moreover, the proposed reason, even were it true, is irrelevant – the social value of a profession is not a matter of the income paid to those who practice it. Surely no one would argue that hedge fund managers and reality TV stars are more socially valuable than nurses and carpenters simply on the basis of the difference between their respective paychecks. Finally, Rubio's reasoning is self-defeating, as there is no better way to decrease the earning power of a welder than by flooding the labor market with more competitors. For sure, Rubio's case was more rhetorical flourish than serious reasoning; he intended to draw a line in the sand between two perspectives on the role of education in society. His welders-versus-philosophers line was just window dressing for his view that education should aim to produce serviceable labor, not people who think.

Now, given these easy criticisms of Rubio's remarks, one might think that we were outraged by his claims. Many of our colleagues certainly were, and our inboxes and social media feeds quickly filled with missives of all shapes and sorts. But, we admit again, we found this phenomenon even more curious than Rubio's statement.

Here is why. There is nary a day that goes by without someone making a joke or remark to us about philosophy's alleged uselessness. Philosophy's oldest story highlights this. Thales of Miletus, who Aristotle counts as the first of the philosophers, apparently was walking one night and gazing up at the stars, contemplating their eternal motion. And then he fell in a well. A Thracian serving woman witnessed the fall, and laughed at him, urging that he should think about where he was putting his feet. Philosophy starts with a pratfall, and everyone, even those who have never taken a philosophy course or read any of the great books, gets the joke: It's not just that somebody fell in a well, it's that it was a philosopher.

Such is the initiation today's philosophy students endure upon declaring their major. There are jokes about certain unemployment after graduation, the dismissive “what can you do with that?” question from relatives over Thanksgiving dinner, the patronizing assessment that studying philosophy must involve nothing more than undisciplined bullshitting about the “meaning of life.” The fact that philosophy bakes no bread is familiar to philosophers and non-philosophers alike. Non-philosophers are regularly the first to point it out, and philosophers then acknowledge it and then go back to doing what they do.

But Thales's fall had a follow-up, one that is less often mentioned. After people had criticized Thales for pursuing philosophy instead of wealth, Thales bought all the olive presses around Miletus during the winter. Then olive season came around, and, as he owned all of the presses, he was able to rent them out at the most advantageous prices. He'd also predicted that the crop the coming year would be a particularly large one. He was right. Once he'd made a large sum of money, he then declared that philosophers could make money if they wanted, but they choose to pursue other ends.

Thales's point is too often taken to be that philosophy really does provide marketable skills, and it is a common trope among philosophy faculty to emphasize to undergraduates how well philosophy majors do in law school, or how many leaders in politics and business majored in philosophy at university. But the proper lesson to draw from the tale of Thales and his olive presses, however, is that philosophy's value resides precisely in what makes it appear useless. Thales's point was that he could make money, but chooses not to because he prefers to pursue something else. Here we follow Thales. Philosophy's value doesn't consist in its capacity to develop skills and capacities that make philosophers useful to someone else. Rather, philosophy provides the kind of training that enables philosophers to make sense of themselves, to rationally consider the question of what is worth pursuing. And that allows them to make sense of much else.

The great irony about the professional philosophers' reactions to Rubio's comment is that his statement contains nothing that they've not heard before. Rubio expressed the kind of sentiment philosophers all must make peace with: people who don't know much about philosophy regularly disparage it for its uselessness. One can try to explain philosophy's value to them, but such explanations are predictably unmoving, precisely because the case for philosophy's significance inevitably draws upon a conception of value that is alien to anyone inclined to think that philosophy is valueless. To them, it all sounds like more bullshit. And so we tend to revert, like Thales, to making the economic argument. Philosophy majors have high LSAT, GRE, and MCAT scores, high mid-career earnings, and they know when to buy all the olive presses. It's not the best argument, but at least it gets heard.

Philosophers all know exactly how such discussions proceed, because we so often find ourselves in the position of having to defend our discipline. Notice that this rarely happens with any of the applied or theoretical sciences. And even within the Humanities, it seems philosophy gets the worst of it. Everyone knows that the language arts develop writing skills and impart cultural knowledge, and history is about real events. But in the popular mind, it's not even clear what philosophy about. It looks like so much idle chatter. But philosophy's value can even be seen in these moments of disparagement.

Consider that when someone criticizes philosophy for being useless, that person is employing the concept of usefulness, and also affirming that whatever is useless shouldn't be pursued or taken up as an occupation. But when something is useful, it must be useful for something, useful from the perspective of some aim or project. Nothing is useful, full stop. Accordingly, to state that, say, welding, is useful, is to say that welding is useful for accomplishing something, such as a well-built bridge. And to affirm that people should be welders because welding is useful is to claim that welding is useful for achieving aims and purposes that are worth achieving. Similarly, to say that philosophy is useless is to say that it is not useful for accomplishing anything that's worth accomplishing.

There's the rub. As Aristotle is widely reported to have noted in his lost work Protrepticus, when one deliberates about whether one should do philosophy or not, one has already started doing philosophy; more generally, to try to figure out whether some activity, occupation, or endeavor (philosophy included) is worthwhile is to be engaging in philosophy. Philosophy is, among other things, precisely that discipline which tries to figure out what's worthwhile. Philosophy is sticky like that – if you've asked whether you should philosophize, you're already at it. Consequently, none of us has the option to not philosophize, but instead weld; our choice rather is between philosophizing that is disciplined, reflective, and sincere, and philosophizing that is haphazard, knee-jerk, and reckless. Of course, one need not major in philosophy in order to live a philosophically reflective and authentic life. But one must nonetheless engage in philosophy in order to do so. And this is no less true of Senator Rubio. In stating that the country needs “more welders and less philosophers,” he may have intended to express contempt for those who choose philosophy as an occupation. But his statement is itself an exercise in philosophy. And, more importantly, in recognizing that his claim stands in need of reasons, Rubio committed to philosophizing in a disciplined way. So now that his proposed reason — “welders make more money than philosophers” — has been shown to be false, he ought to either retract the claim or supply a viable rationale. Failing this, we can only conclude that Rubio is in fact a proponent of haphazard and reckless philosophizing, and thus someone incapable of proposing an actual criticism of professional philosophy.