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A Philosopher’s Education

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Author’s Note:

Years ago, a high school student asked me about majoring in philosophy in college. This is my answer. 

My own education should not be a model. I made many mistakes I hope you will not repeat.

The Great Books

The best kind of education is a liberal arts education, particularly one emphasizing great books, East and West. Such works have stood the test of time. Contemporary authors and trends have not, and most of them will not. Since the tradition of liberal education is long and your life is short, you will save time if you allow it to winnow out the bad works for you. While contemporary academia measures progress in terms of the multiplication of trivial and trendy options, the great books will introduce you to the most momentous options in thinking about yourself and the world.

If you would like a list of great books, check out St. John’s College in Annapolis or Santa Fe. St. John’s has the best curriculum in the world. I would not, however, recommend attending St. John’s, because its dogmatic commitment to teaching by discussion encourages superficiality. Only the surface of the student’s soul is brought into contact with the surface of the text. Deep understanding and deep personal transformation happen only by accident.

A liberal education will not just prepare you for a specific career, it will prepare you for life as a whole. Since most people change majors and careers, many specialized classes become wasted classes. But nobody ever looks back and regrets a class on Plato or Dostoevsky or Dante. Nobody ever regrets spending time learning to appreciate classical music and fine art. Nobody regrets taking courses in psychology, for these help one gain self-knowledge. Finally, nobody regrets studying classical and modern languages like Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian.

I recommend a liberal arts education even to students who think they may eventually pursue careers in business, law, medicine, and other professions. Undergraduate degrees in business, pre-law, or pre-med are not necessary prerequisites for graduate or professional school, and they take time away from liberal studies. The freest time in the lives of most people are their undergraduate years. Explore, create, and prepare yourself not merely for working, but for living. You will have to spend the rest of your life being “practical” anyway. So why rush into it?

Majoring in Philosophy

If you plan to major in philosophy, and particularly if you plan to go to graduate school, you must be aware that most philosophy departments are terrible. A lot depends on finding the right place.

First, go to a program that is pluralistic and oriented toward the history of philosophy. Pluralism simply means that a number of different philosophical traditions is represented on the faculty. The main philosophical traditions today are Anglo-American “analytic” philosophy, “Continental” philosophy, which encompasses such schools as phenomenology, structuralism, deconstruction, Marxism and neo-Marxism, “American” philosophy, including pragmatism and process philosophy, and Thomism, which is confined almost entirely to Catholic universities. A commitment to teaching the history of philosophy means that all other philosophical schools, from the pre-Socratics on down, are represented as well.

Such departments give their students the most freedom to grow intellectually. It would be terrible to become interested in Hegel or Nietzsche in a program entirely oriented toward contemporary analytic philosophy, or interested in analytic philosophy of mind in a program with no faculty in that area.

The best pluralistic and historical department in the country is Boston University’s. Other top departments are at Emory, Vanderbilt, and Penn State. Most of the major Catholic universities also have pluralistic and historical departments.

The second best kind of department is predominantly Continental. Although such programs can be trendy and politically correct, at least one can study the history of philosophy. The worst kind of department is entirely analytic. Unfortunately, this includes all the “top” departments in the country, from the Ivy League to Stanford and Berkeley. Such programs are caught up in ephemeral trends, intolerant of alternative viewpoints, and shallow in covering the history of philosophy. Moreover, the history that is taught is usually distorted by the analytical perspective of the teachers.

An analytic department is less of a problem for undergraduate studies. I took my undergraduate degree from an analytic department. I found it bearable to the extent that I took history of philosophy classes. The best history of philosophy classes, however, were offered in the political science, history of science, and intellectual history programs. As for graduate study: Judging from the results, analytic programs are intellectually stultifying and should be avoided, no matter where they are or how much they promise.

Second, when choosing a department, you’ll need to look into the availability of funds, not only for scholarships, but also for travel abroad, summer language study, etc. The richer the university, the better the funding. This is an especially important consideration for graduate study. There is nothing more alienating than working part-time while trying to study.

Third, the “placement” of students coming out of a department is very important. Undergraduates should find out how well students do in getting into the graduate program of their choice. Graduate students should find out what percentage of Ph.D.s are getting jobs, and where.

Finally, one should ask to look at current course descriptions, which often are very different from what is found in the catalog, and find out just how much teaching a department’s leading scholars actually do.

Be Open to Change

The best advice about college is not to assume that you will be the same person coming out that you are going in. A real education will make you aware of new aspects of yourself and the world. You will become more aware of your own talents, temperament, and interests. You will acquire new values and discard old ones. You will learn about options for thought and action that you never dreamed of.

You will never realize this potential for transformation, however, if you enter college with the assumption that you are fully mature and that the purpose of college is simply to satisfy your present preferences. That assumption will lead you to seek out only classes that reinforce your present thinking and values rather than challenge them. You will discover fewer options — and since awareness of real options is part of freedom, you will be less free.

As a human being, you will never be omniscient and infallible, and you will never be perfect. Therefore, you should never act as if you are — particularly at the age of eighteen! Omniscient, infallible, perfect people are also, of course, ineducable people. There’s no point in getting out of bed in the morning, much less going to college, if you are convinced that you are good enough the way you are now. 


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  1. Sirfessor
    Posted July 18, 2016 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    “It would be terrible to become interested in Hegel or Nietzsche in a program entirely oriented toward contemporary analytic philosophy, or interested in analytic philosophy of mind in a program with no faculty in that area.”

    Totally agree. My one relative quit his PhD program partly because he liked analytic philosophy and the school taught mostly continental philosophy, which he detested. The school admissions people mislead him into thinking the curriculum was more mixed than it really was. Plus, he sort of chose the school because his wife had been accepted there.

  2. Posted July 17, 2016 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    Just don’t waste your time reading any niggers and you’re golden:

    I have now read the original source of the quote: Elizabeth Venant (1990), “A Curmudgeon Stands His Ground”, The Los Angeles Times, 3 December, pp. E1-E2. Venant does indeed quote Adler as saying about blacks,

    “They didn’t write any good books.”

    Interestingly, and rather disturbingly, in response to a question about whether the “Great Books” list is “too Eurocentric”, Adler is quoted as saying, “[Asians] came to the West, they better learn Western culture. If they want to stay Japanese, they should stay in Japan.”

  3. Tobias Müller
    Posted July 16, 2016 at 5:46 am | Permalink

    Hello, very informative text. One question though:
    “I would not, however, recommend attending St. John’s, because its dogmatic commitment to teaching by discussion encourages superficiality.” What method of teaching would be preferable to teaching by discussion?

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted July 16, 2016 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      Lecturing. Teaching by discussion is usually just the blind leading the blind.

  4. rhondda
    Posted July 15, 2016 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Forgive me, but I find it quite amusing that scientist types want a list of prescribed books on philosoply, when this whole site is about that. Shall we begin again at the beginning? Oh, wonder and awe.

  5. Mighty
    Posted July 15, 2016 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    On graduate school:

    I’m applying to two or three garadute programs this year to study either creative writing or screenwriting, depending where I get accepted (I find screenwriting programs to be more honest). I have reservations in that I know these institutions are centers of liberal dogma. My instinct is to respectfully challenge these people beginning with my personal statement and writing sample. My application will leave no doubt I’m a man of the Right.

    I can’t pretend to be a leftist to curry favor with admission committees or fellow students so I imagine I wouldn’t become good friends with most professors or students. However, spending two or three uninterrupted years studying and practicing the craft of writing seems like an escape to paradise. Most programs give students access to other departments as well, which is also very appealing.

    Greg, or anyone who can offer insight, what are your thoughts in regard to my ideological orientation as it relates to entering a graduate institution?

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted July 15, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Honestly, I would not recommend that you go to such a program at all. It strikes me as a huge waste of time and money. If you want to learn screewriting, read a couple of books on the subject, then buy and analyze some of the greatest screenplays ever written. Whenever you watch a movie or TV show, ask yourself how you could improve upon it. One book I highly recommend on fiction writing in general is Ayn Rand’s The Art of Fiction:

      If you do go in as an explicit rightist, you will probably be eliminated in the application stage, though. Higher Education is not staffed by liberals. It is staffed by Marxists and SJWs. They reject anyone who openly flouts PC dogmas.

      • Mighty
        Posted July 15, 2016 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

        I understand.

        And I started reading “The Art of Fiction” yesterday. I’ve read a lot of books on craft and this one in particular is among of the best. Rand had a deep understanding of human psychology.

        • Greg Johnson
          Posted July 15, 2016 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

          Her analysis of how to create dramatic conflict, with examples from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is particularly brilliant.

    • Posted July 16, 2016 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      For the cost and time of graduate school you could get a camera, and make commercials and have an immediate impact.

      And sideline on nationalist topics, scenes, conflicts or insights in 2 minutes. You could also get the Two-Film School Crash course book and learn about reverse budgeting to make movies.

      On psychology, I’d recommend Clotaire Rapaille

      Use Concrete 5 to make your websites. Very easy.

  6. Harrison Bergeron
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    As a former Johnnie (Annapolis), I must disagree on one point, Greg. While I didn’t get my BA or grad degrees from St. John’s, I have an intense love and loyalty toward St. John’s and the great books curriculum. You are right: I remember an entire class session at St. John’s where we spent the hour in navel-gazing over the beginning of Euclid’s “Elements.” (“A point is that which has no part.”) Yes, we thought we were super smart and super cool, but it ultimately was mental masturbation. However, I must say that the lecture format of both my undergrad and grad years had some advantages and disadvantages. As an undergrad, it is good because you are learning and acquainting yourself with the scholarship and methodologies of your discipline. In grad school, you should be able to synthesize that and have something intelligent to say. In truth, I feel that the seminar/discussion of my grad courses were far more impactful toward my formation as a scholar than taking notes in a lecture course. They both have their place, but they also have their limitations.

  7. Carpenter
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    I started out double-majoring. Philosophy was one of those majors. I liked some classes, but overall the philosophy classes left me cold and since I was busy with my other major I ended up not really caring much for my philosophy major, which didn’t seem to matter much because I still ended up doing decently in those classes despite not putting much effort into them. In the end, I ended stopping just a couple credits short of getting that degree (a really silly mistake seeing as how I was so close) and so I guess it ended up being a minor.

    “The best advice about college is not to assume that you will be the same person coming out that you are going in. A real education will make you aware of new aspects of yourself and the world. You will become more aware of your own talents, temperament, and interests. You will acquire new values and discard old ones. You will learn about options for thought and action that you never dreamed of.”

    I went in at a time when I was beginning to really question the values of our society. I came out WN.

  8. Vlad
    Posted July 14, 2016 at 11:54 am | Permalink


    Would you consider compiling a comprehensive reading list for those of us that have degrees in sciences but wish to self-educate in philosophy?

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted July 14, 2016 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      I’ll add it to my 5000 item long list of things to do.

    • Guest
      Posted July 14, 2016 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      I am not Greg, but if you want 1 book (barely a book, as it is 101 pages long), Thomas Nagel’s
      “What Does It All Mean” is the one I go back a lot.

      2 masters degrees, top 20 universities in Europe and US. Currently a seasonal farmhand.
      Do not do as I did, kids.

    • Ogier the Dane
      Posted July 14, 2016 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      “If you would like a list of great books, check out St. John’s College in Annapolis or Santa Fe. St. John’s has the best curriculum in the world”

      • Vlad
        Posted July 14, 2016 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        I’m in England, I’ll check the university websites to see if they publish reading lists for the courses.

        @Greg, I sent you an email mate.

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