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A degree in philosophy

What can I do with it?

München, 10/23/2015

LMU philosopher Stephan Hartmann brings the practice of his discipline into focus and has organized a conference that points to the wide variety of career paths open to philosophy graduates.

That most philosophy graduates end up driving taxis is a myth: A conference last week at the MCMP highlighted the skills they really acquire and the careers open to them.

What do you want to do with that? This is one of the standard queries that are thrown at students who dare to mention that they are taking a degree in philosophy. Stephan Hartmann, Director of the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy (MCMP) at LMU, an Alexander von Humboldt Professor and an internationally recognized expert in his field, uses mathematical methods to bring analytical philosophy down to earth. He and his colleague Dr. Gregory Wheeler have organized a conference for their students that takes as its title the very cliché cited above and sets out to counter the widespread prejudice that academic philosophers are by definition out of touch with reality. With “What do you want to do with that? Answers from Philosophers from Outside the Academy”, Hartmann wishes to demonstrate that the notion of studying a subject like philosophy, which has no obvious connection with the classical professions, is not so outlandish as it might appear. “We want to provide our students with food for thought. There are many interesting career paths outside the groves of academe to which a degree in philosophy gives access,” he affirms.

The problem-solver
A capacity for rational organization, the ability to think in cross-disciplinary terms, presentation skills: As the graduate surveys conducted by the German Higher-Education Information System (Hochschulinformationssystem, HIS) show, only after they have embarked on a non-academic career do many Humanities graduates realize that their studies have equipped them with a range of skills which are highly sought after in the workaday world. Indeed, Stephan Hartmann asserts that the study of philosophy in particular imparts a whole set of practically useful skills: “Our students learn the art of analyzing complex issues and interrelationships and grasping their import. And they learn to write well.” Moreover, at the MCMP, they also learn how to work with mathematical tools. At Master’s level, computer simulations are an indispensable element of the curriculum. “Philosophers are accustomed to dealing with abstract problems and become familiar with a wide variety of problem-solving techniques,” Hartmann adds.

The career of Jeffrey Helzner is an object lesson in how valuable this intimate knowledge of various methods and short-cuts in finding one’s way to the heart of concrete and practical problems can be. Helzner, a former philosophy professor at Columbia University in New York, now works for a company in which he applies insights from decision theory (which he once taught to his students) to concrete problems. “Philosophers pose basic questions, such as: ‘What constitutes a rational decision, and how can it be best characterized?’ And it is fascinating to discover that decision theory is not just a formal tool in an intellectual game divorced from reality,” says Hartmann. At the conference, his students have the opportunity to interact with Jeffrey Helzner and other philosophers who have already established themselves in the non-academic labor market.

A question of attitude
By comparison with their peers in other fields of knowledge, Humanities graduates are more likely to be self-employed. For instance, philosopher Dr. Rebekka Reinhard has done just that. As a lecturer and coach who advises private individuals and company executives on issues relating to personality development and stress management, she has adopted the motto: ‘Philosophy works!’ “The important thing about philosophy is that it takes a clear-sighted and unprejudiced approach to problems. Indeed, critical, unbiased inquiry is the basic function of philosophy, and this is why it can motivate people to investigate and reflect on problems for themselves,” says Hartmann.

“Anyone who wants to make a mark as a practical philosopher needs three qualities – a passion for the subject, self-discipline and a willingness to experiment,” says Reinhard. When asked where experimentation comes in, she replies – “Everywhere!” She herself has built her career on three pillars. In addition to individual counseling, she is often engaged by firms to give lectures and workshops, and the third pillar is her work as an author. And what was the most important skill that her study of philosophy taught her? “Above all, I learned to think,” she says. “I learned the art of concentrated and nuanced thinking.”

The company set up by philosopher Andreas Edmüller has been providing advice for business firms for 25 years. His motto is ‘The World of Business needs Philosophy’. And he identifies the primary capability that he acquired from his study of philosophy as follows: “The ability to dissect and construct logically consistent arguments. Philosophy teaches one how to analyze complex issues and penetrate to the essence of a problem, and it also helps one to extend one’s general knowledge,” says Edmüller.

“Lots of philosophers who advise businesses employ a specific ethical theory, a kind of toolbox, to analyze the empirical context of a decision-making situation in a firm,” Hartmann explains. He then goes on to point out the importance of keeping up with developments in the academic field, so as to avoid the risk that the practical application of one’s philosophical toolbox will become routine and static.

Seeing the wood, not just the trees
In Stephan Hartmann’s view, philosophy as a discipline is marked by a sharp divide between the often rarefied sphere of the academic mindset and the rough-and-tumble of the practical world. “We must do more to make our presence felt in the real world,” he concludes. Indeed, many of the problems that MCMP researchers work on are derived directly from everyday practice. Under the supervision of Hartmann and his colleague Hannes Leitgeb, they utilize mathematical methods to analyze concrete situations and issues. Among many other things, they subject the decision-making mechanisms employed by the EU’s Council of Ministers to rigorous analysis and investigate how new social norms evolve.

The conference is also designed to help bridge the gap between theoretical reflection and practical application. “I am looking forward to the discussions and informal conversations. It would be very interesting if particular constellations encountered in the practical application of philosophical insights could be shown to have repercussions for theoretical models,” he observes. Indeed, his own interest in philosophy was sparked by his fascination with mathematical physics while he was still at school, which is why he decided to study both subjects at university. “The great advantage of studying philosophy,” he says, “is that philosophy turns up everywhere. Although our research at the MCMP is, in some respects, highly specialized, philosophy always strives never to lose sight of the broader context. For generalists – people with a wide range of interests – it is a terrific subject to study, because it opens up a fantastic spectrum of possibilities.”