Why do people study philosophy?

Gera Bogdanov
John Worrall  ·  10
Professor, Dept. of Philosophy, Logic & Scientific Method, LSE, London

Well, one of the things that you learn from studying philosophy is to make sure you have a question straight before starting to answer it. As it stands, this is an empirical question about students’ motivations – to answer it you’d have to put it to a sample of philosophy students and see what their responses are. I would predict a whole range of answers: ‘it sounded like I’d spend a lot of time with my hand under my chin thinking and looking deep, without needing to do much work’; ‘my boy/girlfriend chose philosophy and I wanted to be with him/her’; who knows?

There is a wide range of fundamental questions about the universe and the role of humans in it that seem unavoidable for the reflective person.

What is really being asked, I suppose, is ‘what (good) reasons are there for studying philosophy? ’. This is a normative, rather than empirical question. Before trying to answer it, one further clarification (one of the frustrating things about philosophers is that they are so keen on clarity, that it often takes a while for them to get going!): my answer applies only to the heavily analytic, heavily logic-based style of philosophy in the current Anglo-American tradition. I doubt that there are any good reasons at all to study the postmodern, largely French (though often Hegel-inspired) ‘continental philosophy’ that is also on offer. Indeed there seem to be good reasons not to study ‘continental philosophy’: it appears to prevent you from thinking straight.

OK, so lots of good reasons for studying analytic philosophy are linked to Socrates’ famous dictum ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. There is a wide range of fundamental questions about the universe and the role of humans in it that seem unavoidable for the reflective person. ‘What space, if any, do the laws of nature as they apply to humans leave for a notion of human “free will”?’ ‘Are there objective standards of morality - of right and wrong; or merely culturally accepted norms that differ from culture to culture, without any one set of such norms being “correct”?’ ‘What, if anything, is special about the scientific method of arriving at theories about the universe on the basis of observational and experimental evidence? Is science “the royal road” to truth? Is any such claim compatible with the historical fact of ‘scientific revolutions’, such as those associated with relativity and with quantum theory, in which science seems radically to have changed its collective mind about the likely structure of the universe?’ And so on.


It is really valuable to be able to spend time thinking about such issues, understanding how others have developed arguments that attempt to answer those questions, identifying strengths and weaknesses in those arguments and trying to come up with one’s own (reasoned) answers. And not just valuable for its own sake - thinking hard about such issues creates any number of important “transferrable skills”: the ability to summarize succinctly a complex body of information, the ability to discern the main lines of an argument, to identify gaps in arguments and consider analytically the plausibility of proposed ways to fill those gaps.

Finally, it’s important not to think that, by choosing to study philosophy, one heads off into the highly abstract ether, cutting oneself off entirely from issues of any practical important. To take but one example, philosophical analyses of scientific confirmation - of what it takes for something to be evidence for a theoretical claim - have direct relevance for ongoing and highly practical issues in medicine and in particular the methodology of clinical trials. But my favourite example of a purely philosophical problem turning out to have enormous practical consequences also shows that one need not go round carrying the label ‘Philosopher’ in order to be doing philosophy. Alan Turing was a mathematician, or mathematical logician, but his ground-breaking work began as a problem in pure analytic philosophy: what exactly does it take for a piece of reasoning to count as a ‘computation’? It was through thinking (hard!) about this apparently entirely theoretical, impractical issue that Turing was led to the concept of a ‘Turing machine’ – a concept which forms the theoretical basis for the digital computer that has so radically transformed our lives.


31 января 2017  ·  < 100
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Why do revolutions happen?

George Lawson  ·  10
Associate Professor in International Relations at the London School of...

As to where a revolution will happen next, I have no idea. But, I think you can look for signs. You might look for regimes that are overly reliant on a foreign backer, because if that foreign backer then lets them go, it might be that those regimes are more fragile than you think.

Another thing you might look at is regimes that rely overwhelmingly on what you might call despotic power or coercive power rather than infrastructural power. Infrastructural power means that you have lots of institutions that connect the state to civil society. So it’s something that democracies are very good at. If I’ve got an everyday grievance, if the bin man doesn’t collect my rubbish, then I can contact Islington Council. They might not do anything about it, but at least there’s someone I could ostensibly speak to.


An authoritarian regime lacks those kind of intermediary associations. Every crisis or every dispute becomes existential, so they rely overwhelmingly on despotic and coercive power to strike fear into their people rather than have these intermediary associations that channel grievances effectively.

"What determines a revolution’s success? A mistake often made by protestors is to think that you can simply replicate the last revolution and it will happen again here."

The third thing you might look at is more demographic. You might look at a young population where people don't get the jobs they think they're entitled to. One of the things that happened in the Arab world and North Africa is you get this demographic bulge where you get a bunch of young people that come through – they’re educated, they’ve at least finished high school, sometimes they’ve finished college, and they come out and there are no jobs. Middle-class people in those countries are less likely to have jobs than people who left school very young. And so those people might well think this is a corrupt regime, it’s personalistic, it’s nepotistic, it rewards its friends, but there’s no meritocracy going here, and if you can’t leave then you better fight and do something about it.


What determines a revolution’s success? A mistake often made by protestors is to think that you can simply replicate the last revolution and it will happen again here. You saw that very powerfully in the Arab uprisings, that once Tunisia happened, people thought, ‘We’ll just do the same thing – we’ll go and occupy a square and we’ll have these similar slogans, and we’ll set ourselves up with Western media, we’ll use social media to particular ends, and we’ll have these parallel slogans and the same kind of organisational makeup and it will work’.

"If a regime maintains its hold over the coercive apparatus, the military, the ministry of interior, the secret police and so on, it can actually survive a long time."

It turns out that actually authoritarian regimes are not stupid all of the time, and actually they’re quite astute at learning. So a really, really crucial point is less about the protesting side than the regime side, that if a regime maintains its hold over the coercive apparatus, the military, the ministry of interior, the secret police and so on, it can actually survive a long time.

Another big factor in a revolution succeeding or not is whether the regime has powerful foreign allies. Equally, if those allies give up on the regime then the thing can go up in smoke quite quickly – the big example of that is 1989 in Eastern and Central Europe when Gorbachev effectively says to his client states: ‘You’re on your own. We’ve backed you for so long, we’ve put down protests before, but now you’re going to have to generate your own form of popular sovereignty’, and regimes collapse within a year.

10 января 2017  ·  < 100
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Do people learn about society from TV shows, and is this bad for society?

Arsenii Khitrov  ·  120
PhD researcher at the Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge. Philosophy...  ·  t.me/theorchard

Studies have shown that people do learn a lot from TV series, and that TV series, in turn, are often based on public perceptions of reality. This cycle of social knowledge that travels between audiences, television series, and anyone who is depicted in series has been dubbed the “feedback loop” by media scholars. This term is based on the idea that the relationship between media and society is dialectical: shows feed into society and vice versa. Interestingly, studies show that not only lay people are involved in the feedback loop – professionals whose jobs are depicted on shows are part of it as well.

This cycle of social knowledge that travels between audiences, television series, and anyone who is depicted in series has been dubbed the “feedback loop.”

Let’s take law shows, for example. In the USA, everyone has to do jury duty. So jurors are laypeople, some of whom may have watched law shows. NPR conducted an investigation into this, and they found that prosecutors have complained that shows like CSI make their job harder, since jurors demand unrealistic and non-existent testing procedures to convict suspects. Prosecutors fear that when they don't show the kind of technology that TV shows have depicted, juries might let criminals get away with murder. But shows also affect what investigators do - some investigators run extra tests that are useless just to show the jurors that they used various technologies to obtain lots of high-tech evidence. This has been called “the CSI effect.” It’s taken so seriously that some US states now allow lawyers to strike potential jurors based on their TV habits. Yet online we can find recommendations for law students to watch law shows, for example here. Alongside this, projects like this one have emerged that battle the CSI effect by training law practitioners to be wary of it. Below is a video from this project for judges.


Video: Part of the CSI Effect Theory online training for officers of the court at NFSTC

Other studies on the feedback loop have focused on cop shows. Recently I carried out a study of how people discuss police shows in Russia on forums dedicated to Russia’s most popular cop show (called Glukhar, a show from the 2000s). I also examined the content of a forum where real policemen talk about the show.

I found that the forum threads dedicated to the fictional show contain many accounts of real-world issues related to the police. When viewers referred to real-world police-related issues they talked about their personal experience, stories heard from others, stories from news media, their expectations from and their normative positions towards the police, and, finally, what they saw as common knowledge, what “everybody knows”. They also refer to the fictional show as to a source of factual information. Many users of these discussion forums state that the show explains life, gives them criteria by which to measure real life events and people, and proposes a justification of corruption and crime. The same was true for the forum used by police department employees! So my research confirmed that this popular police show actually frames not only what ordinary viewers think and expect from the police, but also what police chiefs expect from their employees (you can read my paper for more on this).

Research confirmed that this popular police show actually frames not only what ordinary viewers think and expect from the police, but also what police chiefs expect from their employees

But is it “bad” for society that people learn about the world through shows? This is a hard one to answer. I would say that showrunners should take the evidence above seriously and perhaps should keep it in mind while producing seemingly “realistic” shows about doctors, lawyers, the police, politicians. While it would be worrisome to think that doctors actually draw from what they saw on the show “ER” in their treatment of patients, there is no evidence to suggest that any have done this. But it is possible that viewers who are not trained medical professionals can apply what they heard on the TV screen to their judgments about their own health. And it is certainly the case that viewers tend to draw conclusions about professions depicted in shows and apply those to real-life professionals. But people gain knowledge from a variety of sources in all areas of life, so it would be hard to single out TV shows and to say “this knowledge is bad for society.” And while we are seeing a real golden age of shows about various professions today, there is also a lot more information available today to viewers who want to find out if the shows depict “reality.” For example, here’s a surgeon who offers his take on medical shows. Then again, there is also a lot of misleading information on the internet. So perhaps the question about the influence of TV shows is actually a question about the influence of any kind of knowledge – it can lead to good or bad things. And we can’t really control or predict that.

27 февраля 2017  ·  < 100
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What economic philosophy will come after neoliberalism?

Jana Bacevic  ·  60
PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge, Department of Sociology...

This is an extremely interesting and important question. In the past years, critics are increasingly proclaiming that neoliberalism has come to an end, or at least become too broad or too vague to be used as an explanatory term.

Yet, neoliberalism has proven to be remarkably resilient. This, as Jamie Peck  has argued, may be due to its propensity to ‘fail forward’, that is, perpetuate rather than correct or reverse the mechanisms that led to its failures in the first place – the economic/fiscal policies following the 2008 economic crisis are a good example. Or it may have to do with what Boltanski and Chiapello have dubbed ‘the new spirit of capitalism’, meaning its capacity to absorb political and societal challenges and subsume them under the dominant economic paradigm – as reflected, for instance, in the way neoliberalism has managed to coopt politics of identity.

But the success of neoliberalism has arguably less to do with its performance as an economic philosophy (at least after 2008, that is patently not the case – even IMF has admitted that neoliberal policies may be exacerbating inequality), and more to do with what seems to be the consensus of political and economic elites over its application. Neoliberalism allows for the convergence of financial, governmental, military, industrial and technological networks of power in ways that not only make sustained resistance difficult, but also increasingly constrain possibilities for thinking about alternatives.

This is not to say that heterodox economic ideas are lacking. Alternatives to mainstream (or neo-classical) economics range from Marxist and Keynesian approaches, to post-Keynesian, participatory, or 'sharing' economies, and the philosophy of degrowth. Yet, in the framework of existing system of political and economic relations, successfully implementing any of these would require a strong political initiative and at least some level of consensus beyond the level of any single nation-state.

In this sense, the economic philosophy to succeed neoliberalism will be the one that manages to capture the ‘hearts and minds’ of those in power. While the Left needs to start developing sustainable economic alternatives, it seems that, in the short term, economic policies will be driven either by some sort of authoritarian populism, (as for instance in Trump’s pre-election speeches), or a new version of neoliberalism (what Will Davies has called “punitive” neoliberalism). Hopefully, even from such a shrunk space, alternatives can emerge; however, if we are to draw lessons from the intellectual history of neoliberalism, they will require long-term political action to seriously challenge the prevailing economic order.

11 ноября 2016  ·  < 100

Is there a link between someone's levels of education and their propensity for liberal values?

Jana Bacevic  ·  60
PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge, Department of Sociology...

This link is often brought up – most recently in relation to the analyses that show that, in the 2016 US presidential elections, the most consistent difference in voting preferences was between those educated at college (tertiary) level, who predominantly voted Clinton, and those who voted Trump – the majority of whom did not have college education. This is also related to the longer-standing, but now particularly relevant, discussions about the purported 'liberal bias' in American higher education. So let’s look at the evidence.

When trying to understand how education and values are connected, it is very important not to mistake correlation with causation. Seeing that two effects occur at the same time does not mean that one is necessarily causing the other. Statistical analyses that show that higher proportion of voters for Clinton were highly educated do not suggest it was their education that decided how they would vote: after all, a large portion (up to 43%) of college graduates did back Trump. In a related fashion, it makes sense to recall that the majority of Tea Party supporters were highly educated. Therefore, it would be wrong to assume that levels of education automatically translate into specific political preferences. In order to understand the link, we need to look deeper: to the level of causal mechanisms.

Social scientists have different understandings of how causality operates. For instance, do people adopt liberal views while they’re in education? Or does having liberal views make them more likely to end up at university in the first place? Historical materialists assume that it’s one’s relationship to the means of production – in other words, their class position – that influences their values. To the degree to which the dominant class is liberal, then, education institutions will both reflect and reproduce these values. Rational choice theorists, by contrast, assume people act in ways that maximise their personal gain in a given situation; however, their assessment of the ‘situation’ is also influenced by their position in social structure. This would mean that those coming from more privileged social backgrounds are more likely to pursue and value higher levels of education.

Most interpretations, of course, fall somewhere between these poles. Rather than aiming to assess whether education determines values (or vice versa), we can try to understand how they are related. Institutional environment, in this regard, certainly plays a role. To the degree to which the values such as pursuit of knowledge, openness to debate, and academic freedom are liberal, we could say that universities reflect this ethos; however, there is very little evidence of a systemic liberal 'bias' in any specific system of higher education. Furthermore, it is important to bear in mind that political preferences are influenced by a host of other factors – family, occupation, location, peers and friends, to name but a few – and, while some of these correlate with education, not all do.

One aspect in which higher education does seem to matter are attitudes towards social justice: namely, recent research across a number of political contexts suggests the highly educated are more in favour of redistributive social policies. When these policies are taken up by liberal political parties (as, for instance, was the case under Obama’s administration in the US), we could reasonably assume the highly educated are likely to back them. However, this has more to do with generational effects and class stratification, than with education alone. In sum, though education certainly matters, understanding how different aspects come together to form stable preferences is an ongoing and fascinating endeavour.

13 декабря 2016  ·  < 100

Why are there so few women in technology?

Naomi Climer  ·  21
First female president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (The...

The number of women in engineering and technology varies significantly from one country to another depending on a variety of factors. Overall, the summary issue seems to be around the image of technology and technologists, which affects the view of parents and teachers, of girls and of employers - creating challenges all the way along the chain.

There is significant evidence suggesting that gender stereotyping starts to show up as early as age 5 through things such as girls toys (dolls, dressing up etc.) and boys toys (cars, building blocks, adventure games etc.). It means that - at an unconscious level - girls and boys are absorbing messages about what they’re supposed to be like and - again often at an unconscious level - parents and teachers are giving them the same messages. The extent of this and the particular messages girls and boys receive vary by country and culture, but it’s a serious issue that makes it harder for boys and girls to pursue their dream or interest if it doesn’t fit with the perceived norm.


  • Only 9% of engineers in the UK are women but the US doesn't fare much better. In this video, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg explains why the percentage of US computer science graduates dropped from 37 % to only 13 % over the past 30 years
    This continues into the workplace where similar unconscious stereotypes exist that can make it hard to be hired and hard to be promoted. Companies can do a lot in terms of looking at their processes to make sure that they’re not accidentally discouraging any particular group such as by advertising all promotions and agreeing clear criteria for the role ahead of seeing the candidates rather than just selecting someone (where unconscious bias tends to dictate that the person selected is likely to be someone similar to the people choosing). All of this is lifelong, fairly subtle and in most cases, unintentional, which makes it extremely hard to change as we need society as a whole to make a simultaneous and sustained effort to have any lasting impact.

Companies have multiple issues around fostering diversity - everything from their brand image which may give the impression that the company is not very female friendly (i.e. the way the company advertises its products), the language it uses in its adverts (e.g. ‘dominant company with aggressive strategy’ is statistically more likely to appeal to men. ‘World-class company with aspirational strategy’ is statistically more likely to appeal to women’), the way a company socialises (lots of evening company networking events are more likely to be less feasible for people with caring responsibilities which (for now) are more likely to be women).


  • Successful female tech entrepreneurs explain what challenges women face in the industry
    Tech companies have the starting position of a shortage of women applying for roles when they’re advertised because so few women pursue those subjects. But even with a small pipeline, companies can do much more to attract and retain women, but it does need a great deal of attention to detail to make sure every aspect of company life is inclusive.

I’m frustrated that there are so few women in technology because technology is truly embedded in our lives, it affects the ways that we live, work and play. So it’s incredibly important that the teams designing and building this life-changing technology are representative of the whole of the society they’re affecting.

In the UK, the situation is particularly abysmal. Only 9 per cent of engineers in the UK are women – the lowest proportion in Europe.

I’ve been working with the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) to research this issue and to try some things to start shifting the balance.

Part of the IET’s mission is to inspire the next generation of engineers. Not enough young people want to become engineers, while parents and teachers often don’t understand what an engineering career involves. Today engineering covers everything from designing our future cities and transport to coming up with new healthcare technology.

The IET’s research tells us that changing parents’ perceptions is really important, as they will influence their children’s choices.

And here we encounter some of the gender stereotyping issues: Half of UK parents feel that engineering careers are more for boys, and children’s views are largely similar. Overall UK parents and children are unaware of what engineering actually is or have outdated perceptions and are likely to see engineering as difficult, messy and dirty, but, when shown the right images of engineering, both parents and girls become much more open to it. The messages that seemed to have the ability to change the perception frequently had to do with creativity, the vast range of jobs on offer and the ability to make a difference in the world.

We’ve concluded that there is no single solution to attracting more young people to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects and become engineers. But we do know from IET research that if we could show children and parents that engineering careers are diverse, creative – and an opportunity to make a difference – we could significantly boost the number of children and particularly girls studying STEM subjects and opting for a career in engineering.

We have also seen evidence that role models are important, so we work hard to make sure that young women engineers are as visible as possible to inspire others.

One such activity is our Young Woman Engineer of the Year Awards recognising outstanding young female engineers and technicians for their achievements. Winners of these Awards become ambassadors for engineering, visiting schools, acting as media spokespeople and fronting initiatives to showcase engineering as an aspirational career for girls.

I was also happy to see such a strong role model for girls in the new Star Wars film where the character Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) is an extraordinarily capable, technical young woman who solves many problems and is a core member of the team.

To help improve the image of engineering in the UK, the IET has run initiatives such as Engineering Open House Day. Last year we gave parents and children the opportunity to come and see the engineering that goes on behind the doors of places like the Royal Opera House, ITN News and the National Space Centre. These days help us open children and parents’ eyes to how fascinating and creative engineering is. We hope that we can help parents see how broad the possibilities are and especially to realise that engineering is for girls.

Finally – looking at the workplace – my own experience in leadership taught me that companies can do a lot more to encourage diversity in the workplace. Sometimes companies will say that it is hard to have a diverse workplace when they can’t find diverse applicants for their jobs, but I’m convinced companies can do more in recruitment and retention of diverse teams. The companies that are successful in this are likely to have a competitive advantage, as they’ll be more attractive to a wider range of potential employees.

To support companies with diversity goals, the IET and Prospect (the union for professionals, with many members in the science and engineering sectors), have launched new practical guidance, Progressing Women in STEM Roles. This guidance supports employers working in STEM related industries to take action to improve their gender diversity and inclusion. Over half (57%) of businesses in the UK do not have gender diversity initiatives in place and 41% have acknowledged that they could do more to recruit staff from diverse backgrounds. The new guidance gives employers suggestions and best practice examples of how they can not only take steps to attract more female candidates, but also ensure that women in their organisation have a fair and even playing field to develop and to progress their careers.

So – there’s lots going on, but change is very slow – the number of women in technology hasn’t moved enough and I believe it does need continued focus to make sure we can convince girls and women that engineering is a fantastic place to be. For those of you already in engineering and technology, I would really encourage you to shout loudly about what you’re doing – make yourself visible! It really matters that we have diversity for shaping the world we live in for the future, we need different sets of skills, attitudes and approaches if we are to get the best outcome for this planet as a whole.

Find out more about the Institution of Engineering and Technology here

29 января 2017  ·  < 100