Philosophy on Top
Mareeg.com-MELBOURNE – Last year, a report from Harvard University set off alarm bells, because
it showed that the proportion of students in the United States completing bachelor’s
degrees in the humanities fell from 14% to 7%. Even elite universities like Harvard
itself have experienced a similar decrease. Moreover, the decline seems to have
become steeper in recent years. There is talk of a crisis in the humanities.
I don’t know enough about the humanities as a whole to comment on what is causing
enrollments to fall. Perhaps many humanities disciplines are not seen as likely to
lead to fulfilling careers, or to any careers at all. Maybe that is because some
disciplines are failing to communicate to outsiders what they do and why it matters.
Or, difficult as it may be to accept, maybe it is not just a matter of
communication: Perhaps some humanities disciplines really have become less relevant
to the exciting and fast-changing world in which we live.
I state these possibilities without reaching a judgment about any of them. What I do
know something about, however, is my own discipline, philosophy, which, through its
practical side, ethics, makes a vital contribution to the most urgent debates that
we can have.
I am a philosopher, so you would be justified in suspecting bias in my view.
Fortunately, I can draw on an independent report by the Gottlieb Duttweiler
Institute (GDI), a Swiss think tank, to support my claim.
GDI recently released a ranked list of the top 100 Global Thought Leaders for 2013.
The ranking includes economists, psychologists, authors, political scientists,
physicists, anthropologists, information scientists, biologists, entrepreneurs,
theologians, physicians, and people from several other disciplines. Yet three of the
top five global thinkers are philosophers: Slavoj Žižek, Daniel Dennett, and me. GDI
classifies a fourth, Jürgen Habermas, as a sociologist, but the report acknowledges
that he, too, is arguably a philosopher.
The only Global Thought Leader in the top five not involved in philosophy is Al
Gore. There are more economists in the top 100 than thinkers from any other single
discipline, but the top-ranking economist, Nicholas Stern, ranks tenth overall.
Can it really be true that four of the world’s five most influential thinkers come
from the humanities, and 3-4 from philosophy? To answer that question, we have to
ask what GDI measures when it compiles its ranking of Global Thought Leaders.
GDI aims to identify “the thinkers and ideas that resonate with the global
infosphere as a whole.” The infosphere from which the data are drawn may be global,
but it is also English-language only, which may explain why no Chinese thinker is
represented in the top 100. There are three eligibility requirements: one has to be
working primarily as a thinker; one must be known beyond one’s own discipline; and
one must be influential.
The ranking is an amalgam of many different measurements, including how widely the
thinkers are watched and followed on YouTube and Twitter, and how prominently they
feature in blogs and in the wikisphere. The outcome indicates each thinker’s
relevance across countries and subject areas, and the ranking selects those thinkers
who are most talked about and who are triggering wider debate.
The rankings will no doubt vary from year to year. But we have to conclude that in
2013 a handful of philosophers were particularly influential in the world of ideas.
That would not have been news to the Athenian leaders who considered what Socrates
was doing to be sufficiently disturbing to put him to death for “corrupting the
youth.” Nor will it be news to anyone familiar with the many successful efforts to
bring philosophy to a broader market.
There is, for example, the magazine Philosophy Now, and equivalents in other
languages. There are the Philosophy Bites podcasts, many blogs, and free online
courses, which are attracting tens of thousands of students.
Perhaps the growing interest in reflecting on the universe and our lives is the
result of the fact that, for at least a billion people on our planet, the problems
of food, shelter, and personal security have largely been solved. That leads us to
ask what else we want, or should want, from life, and that is a starting point for
many lines of philosophical inquiry.
Doing philosophy – thinking and arguing about it, not just passively reading it –
develops our critical reasoning abilities, and so equips us for many of the
challenges of a rapidly changing world. Perhaps that is why many employers are now
keen to hire graduates who have done well in philosophy courses.
More surprising, and more significant still, is the way in which taking a philosophy
class can change a person’s life. I know from my own experience that taking a course
in philosophy can lead students to turn vegan, pursue careers that enable them to
give half their income to effective charities, and even donate a kidney to a
stranger. How many other disciplines can say that?
Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate
Professor at the University of Melbourne, is the author of several books,
including Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, The Life You Can Save, and the
forthcoming The Point of View of the Universe (co-authored with Katarzyna de
Copyright: Project Syndicate,