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Tech Leave You Cold? Major in Philosophy!

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If I had to choose one word to explain why I chose philosophy as my college major, that word would be "Nausea."

I'm talking, of course, about Nausea, Jean Paul Sartre's 1938 novel featuring a character so gloriously miserable one might say he put the "agonist" in "protagonist." I read the book during the summer of 1968, after my freshman year at Bucknell, in preparation for a course devoted to the Nobel-refusing French philosopher, a course that inspired hours of late-night (literally) sophomoric conversation about Being, Nothingness and the soul-dissatisfying absurdity of man's existence.

What I learned about existentialism, Greek philosophy, history of philosophy, analytic philosophy, philosophy of religion, ethics, logic and a full senior-year seminar on one book -- where Martin Heidegger substituted "Time" for Sartre's "Nothingness" -- was invaluable for its own sake. And here's the bonus: philosophy turned out to be more relevant for my career than all the business and management books I forced myself to read -- combined.

The ability to think clearly and act decisively is the philosophical gift that keeps on giving. When I was hired as publisher of the lefty alternative newspaper LA Weekly in 1983, I had little-to-no idea what I was doing. My only previous employment, editing a NY-based music magazine, had nothing to do with politics, alternative newspapers, Los Angeles, or how to be a publisher.

I found myself supervising an unruly pack of punks, anarchists and malcontents (not that there's anything wrong with that), most of whom did know what they were doing and whose philosophy was founded on the hard-core principle that authority figures suck by definition. The Socratic Method -- asking question after question to get to the root of a problem -- allowed me to learn the job by doing the job. And though I couldn't tell you the difference between a converse and a contrapositive if my life depended on it, logical reasoning mitigated my natural inclination to take personally the rough and tumble of life at the Weekly.

The practical benefits of philosophical study can be applied to any line of work. My Bucknell comrade in Nausea Dr. Marc P. Posner, now a pioneering organ transplant surgeon, says, "In the world of organ transplantation, ethical standards regarding organ allocation are essential in providing equal access for all patients. For me, metaphysics provides the scaffold for dealing with daily life and death circumstances for patients and their families, especially in the absence of religious belief on the part of the care giver."

But isn't it better, during these digital times, to choose some tech-oriented subject as your major? Peter Groff, chair of the Bucknell Philosophy Department, says that while the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) attract many more majors and a far greater share of funding than do the humanities, there's something of a renaissance happening in philosophy at Bucknell.

"Contrary to the old clichés about how 'philosophy bakes no bread,'" Groff says, "philosophy majors generally do quite well for themselves in whatever career path they choose. They consistently score in the top ranges of the GRE, GMAT, LSAT and MCAT -- it's one of the best possible preparations for graduate, business, law or medical school. And those who go directly into the working world advance very quickly in their chosen careers--according to the Wall Street Journal, we're apparently tied with math for the highest salary growth by mid-career among all majors."

The last thing Groff wants to do, though, is reduce the value of philosophy to its utilitarian efficacy: "Nobody is drawn to philosophy because they think it's going to help them get into law school or pull a bigger paycheck over the long haul. That's simply a side effect. They're initially drawn to the subject because they love it and see its intrinsic value. One could argue along with Aristotle that the practice of philosophy is one of the few activities in life that constitutes an end in itself: we freely pursue it for its own sake and not as a means to something else."

That rational inquiry into fundamental philosophical questions is the condition for genuine happiness and freedom -- and that sustained reflection on these questions constitutes the highest and noblest activity of human life -- is an idea handed down from the ancients. Asked about Socrates' rather extreme claim that the unexamined life is not worth living, Groff said, "That quote may sound kind of arrogant and absolutist when it's taken out of context. But I think what he was getting at was the idea that philosophy is really about the 'care of the self.' The love and pursuit of wisdom can be something purifying and transformative. It can help us become better, healthier, more fully actualized people. In that respect, I think the ancients got it right."

If reductionist neuroscience (philosophy is dead! free will is an illusion!) and the glorification of computer coding (Steve Jobs and Sergey Brin are the Plato and Aristotle of the modern age!) produce a certain "nausea," why not try philosophy for a more nourishing understanding of the world? That it might enhance your career is the icing on the cake.