During the 2016 Republican party primaries, Sen. Marco Rubio declared “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” Although Rubio’s objective was to criticize the stigmatization of vocational training, his words nonetheless exemplify the attacks that philosophy has undergone recently. Yet as we look at our modern world, the central questions raised by philosophy — and, in particular, ethics — seem central to understanding and analyzing major issues. Not only that, but studying philosophy as part of a varied curriculum can open new avenues of thought.
At Yale, philosophy seems to me to be dismissed as a discipline for the pretentious eager to demonstrate their knowledge of intellectual history. It’s a trophy, a way to project superiority over peers who have never heard of the principle of sufficient reason or the ontological argument. Furthermore, philosophy is often characterized as having no significant applications to the “real world.” I vehemently disagree; not only does philosophy provide a moral compass for the modern citizen, it also equips us with skills required to understand our world, make informed decisions and ask useful questions when complicated issues arise.
Looking back at history, many of the greatest thinkers have also been keen students of philosophy. Throughout his early years, Albert Einstein often met his friends over dinner to discuss the works of Hume and Spinoza, among others. Much later in his career, having received unprecedented recognition for his advances in physics, Einstein cited the importance of these discussions in developing his outlook on the world and on science. Moreover, philosophers pioneered academic fields that stand as cornerstones in our modern understanding of the world. Descartes pioneered a new scientific methodology in his “Meditations on First Philosophy.” Nietzsche influenced abstract expressionism in Germany and the United States. To claim that philosophy was the sole basis of these major advances is perhaps an overstatement. Nonetheless, the discipline provided the aforementioned thinkers with tools to interpret, analyze and create new ways of studying their world.
Yale prides itself on its liberal arts program, and nearly every student cites Yale’s undergraduate academic program as one of the most important reasons for their choice of school. The general climate here is one of openness and cross-disciplinary interest. Still, I worry that philosophy is not given as much attention as science or humanities in our conception of a balanced education. Many of our modern world’s most distinguished figures have credited their success to their study of philosophy; Aung San Suu Kyi, Benazir Bhutto and David Foster Wallace, to name just a few.
Perhaps the most useful area of philosophy for students at Yale and elsewhere is ethics. The vast majority of Yalies deplore the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria and Iraq, the famine in Somalia or the rise of isolationist nationalism in the United States and abroad. As we are given extraordinary opportunities and resources that will later allow us to shape the world, do we not need a strong background in ethics to address these crises? In many ways, the Yale community already reflects this sense of global duty. On campus, students were unafraid to stand up to the Yale administration to push fossil fuel divestment. Various projects throughout campus reflect a vision of a more unified and sustainable community. These engagements reflect a strong desire to use our privileges for something other than personal gain. Asking ourselves ethical questions about our place in the greater global community can help us to answer central issues regarding the areas where our skills are valued and needed. We need not look further than New Haven to see this necessity. Yale’s campus and community have extraordinary resources, yet 14 percent of New Haven citizens live below the poverty line. At what point does civic responsibility take precedent over our personal ambitions? As we move forward in our lives, philosophy can perhaps give us some insight as to our duty to give back, and make the world we inhabit a slightly better place.
I hope to see philosophy reemerge at Yale not only as an academic exploration of human inquiry and thought, but as a moral framework to lead us to reflect on the world we inhabit and make change for the better. The crises we face are simply too urgent for us to be mere spectators. We have to be ethical agents of change, and philosophy seems to be a solid foundation on which to derive principles and morals. As students and citizens, it’s our duty to do so.
Raphael Veron is a freshman in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .