A professional human being

Professional human beings

Professional human beings. Art by Felicita Sala

Recently I’ve seen a spate of articles along the lines of ‘What Philosophy Can Do For You’, focusing on the high results that philosophy students score on graduate school admissions exams: Philosophy Gets You Into Medical School! and cheerful employability statistics: Highly Marketable Skills! as well as the impressive earning potential of graduates: The Degree That Pays You Back! I’ve even seen pitches like If you want to succeed in business, don’t get an MBA. Study philosophy instead.

It’s strange, because career advancement and commercial success are the most peripheral of all the benefits of doing philosophy. Oddly, the articles I’ve been seeing lately haven’t even touched on the central reasons why philosophy is such a meaningful pursuit for many people like me.

More than a decade ago, as I was completing my Honours degree and wondering about my future directions, I came across an interview with Alex Pozdnyakov, a philosophy student on the other side of the world. He said something unforgettable: “I have this strange phrase I use when people ask me why I chose philosophy. I tell them I wanted to become a professional human being.”

Perfect, I thought. That’s what I want to be.

Virtual offices of a professional human being

Virtual offices of a professional human being. Art by Yelena Bryksenkova

I’ve worked in various jobs since then, and on-the-job training has made me into various kinds of professional – intelligence analyst, project manager, editor, teacher – but no training has shaped my humanity as deeply as philosophy has. And that’s because it has two superpowers.

#1 Philosophy can set you free

Thinking philosophically makes it possible for us to question authority and reflect critically on our received wisdom in all domains. In fact, philosophy demands that we interrogate our own beliefs and values (as well as the beliefs and values of others). This is liberating indeed – especially for young people in the thick of figuring out who they are, what’s right and wrong, where their allegiances lie, and where they belong in the social world. Developing a philosophical way of enquiring, thinking and talking about these fundamental issues is priceless. It cultivates doubt without helplessness, and confidence without hubris.

In her video Freedom to Think Differently, or at All, philosophical counsellor Cori Wong says:

    If there’s one thing that will help us become more disciplined in the way that we think, it will be developing the skill to go slow and pay closer attention to the steps that we take along the way. This will let us look back at what we’ve come to think and know, and see the steps that were made along the way to get us there. Then we can identify where a different idea or question could have been posed that could have led us to a different position.

    We’re not looking for timeless truths, but rather opening up the possibility for new questions. And this leads to changes in the world, in our experiences and our relationships, in how we think of ourselves, how we live our lives, and what kind of people we are.

“That’s the cool thing about philosophy”, Cori says. “It can’t help but shape you and inform your every action.”

#2 Philosophy can enchant your life

    Philosophy, if it cannot answer so many questions as we could wish, has at least the power of asking questions which increase the interest of the world, and show the strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the commonest things of daily life. – Bertrand Russell.
Ordinary things are extraordinary

Ordinary things are extraordinary. Art by Yan Nascimbene

Our everyday experiences are replete with philosophical meaning. It takes someone with a keen philosophical sensibility to recognise that tucking into a tin of tomato soup raises questions about how we can make informed personal and political decisions based on imperfect knowledge; or that hanging out your housemate’s washing raises questions about whether the world is a collection of discrete things or rather a function of one’s mind. Still, with a combination of guidance, curiosity and attentiveness, anyone can begin to tune in to the puzzles that lie beneath the surface of ordinary life.

It might be called developing a philosophical ear. As we attend more closely to the peculiarity of the world – and the remarkable fact that we can experience it at all – more and more philosophical questions present themselves. They may baffle us, but they also rejuvenate us by loosening the tarnish that habit puts on the wonder of things. “Philosophy has to be living,” says public philosopher Damon Young. “It has to answer the questions you have in your life. It has to move you, it has to touch you, it has to inspire you.”

So while academic achievement, career advancement and financial success are no trifling things, they’re simply visible husks that may grow around a philosophical life. The hidden kernel is made of freedom, enchantment, and a professional mastery of what it means to be human.


The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children in Australia.



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7 responses to “A professional human being

  1. Thanks Michelle. That’s a great post. I have been guilty of re-posting some of the philosophy-is-good-for-your-career articles. I suppose it’s partly because philosophers often feel under siege from – and perhaps too apologetic towards – those who ask what it’s good for. The references to high scores and successful careers seem to indicate that philosophers are a smart bunch, and not just losers and slackers who couldn’t do anything else. Of course, we needn’t feel so apologetic, and philosophy shouldn’t be judged by such ‘worldly’ standards, which are liable to change in any case. The examined life is an end in itself.

  2. I’ve just read an article that I thought was very relevant to this discussion (The Decline of Humanities). Philosophy is specifically mentioned, and perhaps it is the least vocational of the Humanities, the ultimate armchair pursuit (if we ignore ethics committees). The issue sees to turn on a distinction between ‘value’ and ‘monetary value’. Can some pursuits have a cultural value that is distinct from monetary value and, if so, should society support them financially?

    Turning the argument around, the position of the Humanities (and, a fortiori, Philosophy) with regard to practical/monetary value could be seen as a strength, as it represents a degree of independence. To rely on sources of funding, be they state or private, is, at best, to relinquish some of that independence, and possibly, at worst, to enter into a Faustian pact!

  3. Here’s another recent article (marking World Philosophy Day) that calls into question the tendency to find only ‘pragmatic’ value in Philosophy:

    http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/11/defense-philosophy-2013111112262881317.html

    “we are not going to defend philosophy “pragmatically” as something that can be equiped with critical reasoning skills that are highly prized in today’s complex economies. Rather, we shall defend it existentially, that is, as an invitation to become thoughtful and critical members of a democratic society as the UNESCO suggests.”

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Simon, and please excuse my late reply. Mike LaBossiere’s article on the humanities does a wonderful job of highlighting the dual value of philosophy both for practical employment, and for personal moral, aesthetic or other intellectual purposes.

    The Al Jazeera article provides a nice complement by emphasising the value of philosophical enquiry for a healthy and democratic society, in which things of public value are not considered in solely economic terms. It’s also a timely defence of the value of philosophy scholarship and education. I’m glad to see these articles because I think it’s really important for debates about our educational priorities to play out not just in academic and government forums, but in the public arena, too.

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