Neven Sesardic, in his 2017 paper in Quillette, “Study Philosophy to Improve Thinking–A Case of False Advertising?”, raises a question of interest to philosophers, academics in other disciplines, potential employers, and perhaps to the editor of Quillette, a clear thinker who studied philosophy at a university.
He notes that a company advertising product X by claiming that it improves memory without offering convincing evidence would not be permitted to continue without at least a warning to gullible customers. Yet there is a similar product X, he claims, sold to tens of thousands of people for decades without a murmur. He is talking about studying philosophy to improve one’s thinking.
Randomized clinical trials can test claims about the effects of a drug on memory, but no such trial can establish a causal connection between studying philosophy and improving thinking. Yet evidence can be amassed by other means. There are no trials about the effects of studying statistics, but there is no serious doubt that study of the subject often improves one’s ability to distinguish solid statistical arguments from bogus ones, but not in all cases and perhaps not on average. An undergraduate taking one course may or may not see an improvement, but if one goes beyond claims about undergraduates and focuses solely on statisticians with Ph.D.’s, there are many bits of evidence available which when combined will leave the doubters gasping for air.
Let’s begin with scholars in other disciplines. Here are the views of two of the country’s leading psychologists, Professors Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker: “… we have found philosophers to be the best reasoners in the academy”.
Hans Eysenck, the world’s leading psychologist before he died, wrote that unlike some of his colleagues, he welcomed philosophers’ contributions to discussions of psychology because of the logical edge they bring.
There is also the issue of inter-disciplinary contributions. Sesardic’s third criterion for establishing that studying philosophy improves thinking is that the improved thinking, if there is any, has to be transferable to contexts outside of the learning environment. This condition is met when philosophers make important contributions to disciplines besides their own. Can they do this?
Many doubt that anyone can do this. In a book on questions of evidence, here is what the distinguished geneticist R.C. Lewontin says about any scholar attempting to make contributions to another field: “The problem that confronts us when we try to compare the structure of discourse and explanations in different domains of knowledge is that no one is an insider in more than one field, and insider information is essential.” He is right that insider information is essential and because of the extreme specialization in chemistry, physics, psychology, neuroscience, medicine, and other disciplines, it is almost never the case that one is an insider in more than one field. Philosophers are the exceptions.
Here is what the President of the Association of Behavior Therapy and a Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at Brown University said about a book challenging the behavioristic foundations of behavior therapy. “This could be the most important book yet written on behavior therapy; it is perhaps not surprising that the field had to await the clear thinking and insightful analysis of a philosopher before such a book was produced; the book is a breakthrough; it represents the most advanced thinking on this subject to date”. Three years after the publication of the book there was a paradigm shift from an allegiance to behaviorism and conditioning principles to cognitivism.
The recently deceased philosopher of science, Adolf Grünbuam, wrote what is generally agreed to be the most important work on the evidence for Freud’s theories and therapy. Simply put, he completely undermined the evidence. Psychoanalysts were so concerned about his challenge that they coined a new diagnostic category: Grünbuam-phobia
Another philosopher followed with a book on the same topic. One leading scholar said of this work, “After it … Freudianism stands in need not of more persuasive advocates but only of an epitaph”.
The psychologist Hans Eysenck added that the author “comes as close as humanly possible to a truly independent, objective, and unbiased conclusion … his book is a landmark in the ongoing dispute about Freud’s true contribution”.
Philosophers, including Professor Grünbuam, have made numerous contributions to physics recently detailed by a physicist writing in Scientific American. Many other examples in medicine and other fields can be cited. One is A Treatise on Probability, one of the most important books ever written on the foundations of probability. The work was submitted as a Ph.D. thesis by someone studying philosophy with Bertrand Russell at Cambridge. The author, John Maynard Keynes, later became better known for his seminal contributions to economics.
At a time when the foundations of medicine, neuroscience, psychology, and even intelligence reports have proven to be extremely fragile, these fields, despite Lewontin’s generally correct pessimism about inter-disciplinary contributions, can benefit from the clear and logically rigorous thinking of philosophers trained to think about ultimate foundations.
In his Quillette paper, Dr. Sesardic makes important points about other topics, most of which I agree with, but it is not false advertising to say that studying philosophy often improves one’s thinking skills, but as with statistics, not in all cases and perhaps not on average if we restrict the claim to undergraduates. There is substantial evidence that professional philosophers can make significant contributions to other fields; they can do so because as Eysenck said they bring a logical edge to the task; this is no accident; it is a result of their training in logical analysis and their proclivity to pursue answers to fundamental questions no one else is asking.
Edward Erwin is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami. He is the author of numerous books, including The Concept of Meaninglessness (1970, 2019), Behavior Therapy: Scientific, Philosophical and Moral Foundations (1978), and The Rejection of Natural Science Approaches to Psychotherapy (2010). Edward also served as editor of The Freud Encyclopedia (2002) and was co-editor of Ethical Issues in Scientific Research (1994). He is currently working on a book about evidence.