Philosophers falsely advertise themselves, again

Two days ago British Philosophical Association (BPA) issued an open letter expressing a worry over the future of philosophy programs at the University of Hull. The letter received support from heads of philosophy departments at King’s College London, St Andrews, Birkbeck, Durham, Reading, Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Warwick, Aberdeen, Sheffield, etc.

Here is the most problematic part:

Instead of being a narrowly vocational qualification, philosophy degrees equip students with a wide range of highly-valued and sought-after skills, and there is compelling evidence that graduate employers have a high regard for philosophy degree-holders.

Let us look at two highlighted claims in turn.

The statement in green lacks empirical confirmation. There is little evidence for the contention that studying philosophy develops a wide range of highly valued skills (beyond a narrow philosophical context). To see in more detail why such a claim is flimsy see my essay Study Philosophy to Improve Thinking—A Case of False Advertising?.

The claim in blue may be technically true but it is intended to suggest something highly questionable. Let us concede that employers do have a high regard for philosophy degree-holders. Why is that? Is it because (a) by studying philosophy students acquire valuable generic skills, or is it rather because (b) students who choose philosophy tend to be self-selected for, say, intelligence? The answer is far from clear.

The British Philosophical Association obviously wants the readers of its letter to accept (a), because only (a) can serve as evidence for its claim about the great value of studying philosophy. In fact, in the context of its campaign for the importance of philosophy BPA would have no reason to make its blue claim at all if it did not expect that the claim would be understood as the defense of (a). Yet it offered no argument whatsoever for why (a) should be believed to be true rather than (b).

This is disappointing. Philosophers are supposed to be particularly good at logic and careful argumentation, but when their narrow professional interest is at stake, even major philosophical associations and prominent philosophers are happy to resort to sophistical reasoning, obfuscation, and intellectual dishonesty.


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