Philosophy just got its biggest-ever donation—from Wall Street

Think outside the box.
Think outside the box.
Image: Reuters/Yiorgos Karahalis
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The measure of a man, according to Plato, is what he does with his power. Wall Street’s Bill Miller has taken the adage to heart, donating $75 million to philosophy—a branch of study that has been critical, he says, to decisions he has made in his career.

Miller (officially William H. Miller III), an investor famous for beating the Standard and Poor’s 500 index for 15 years in a row, was a graduate student for three years in Johns Hopkins University’s PhD program. His gift to the school, announced yesterday (Jan. 16), will nearly double the size of its philosophy department—bumping the full-time faculty from 13 to 22 professors, and creating new courses and scholarships for graduate students. It’s the largest gift to any college’s philosophy department ever recorded.

Philosophy  “has made a huge difference both to my life outside business, in terms of adding a great degree of richness and knowledge, and to the actual decisions I’ve made in investing,” Miller, 67, told the New York Times (paywall). And he told Bloomberg that “the habits of analysis that philosophy teaches—rigorous analytical techniques—are something that’s essential to investing.”

While investors often bandy about the word “philosophy” to describe their personal strategies in money management, very few have credited their work back to ancient philosophers themselves, the two most notable exceptions being George Soros and Carl Icahn, the former being an open admirer of Austrian thinker Karl Popper, and the latter majoring in philosophy at Princeton. Johns Hopkins president Ronald Daniels called Miller’s gift “so wonderfully contrarian,” adding that it is “spectacular” for a leader in a quantitative field to draw attention to a discipline as old as philosophy.

Other departments in the humanities, many of which are feared to be dying out these days as jobs get more specified, are no doubt perking up in hope. Unfortunately, literature and art history majors who scored big on Wall Street are few and far between.