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Pontification is often pointless, and that's ok.
(Reuters/Yiorgos Karahalis)
Pontification is often pointless, and that’s ok.
IN PRAISE OF FOLLY

The secret to brilliance lies in being totally, utterly useless 

By Olivia Goldhill

Earlier this month, investor and fund manager Bill Miller committed a $75 million donation to the philosophy department of Johns Hopkins University, prompting media outlets and even some of those in the field to opine on its value. Apparently, the endorsement of a billionaire indicated to some that philosophy, a much-maligned and frequently dismissed subject, is, in fact, worthwhile.

Miller, who was once a philosophy graduate student at Johns Hopkins, isn’t the only member of the rich list with a philosophical background. After Miller’s donation was announced, the Financial Times pointed to other affluent former philosophers as further evidence of the subject’s importance: “If you really want to understand how to create an enormous fortune from nothing, you should look to someone like George Soros, who studied…philosophy. Or consider billionaire investor Carl Icahn…another philosopher.”

There are plenty of rich and powerful one-time philosophy majors: French president Emmanuel Macron, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, and PayPal founder Peter Thiel, to name a few. Anyone who studies philosophy with the explicit goal of following in their footsteps, though, will entirely miss the point.

The subject teaches students how to think—even and especially those who believe they already have this skill—by forcing them to question and revise the assumptions that beset all beliefs. Nothing is taken as a self-evident truth in philosophy: Seemingly solid facts, such as whether what we see is truly real, or whether someone retains some inherent constant “self” throughout a lifetime, are found to be deeply uncertain.

Questioning self-evident truths can, unexpectedly, lead to practical applications. For example, philosophers Gottlob Frege and Charles Sanders Peirce created a formal system of logic to describe the most basic concepts: Instead of saying “Olivia is a journalist,” one should formulate using first-order logic, as in “there exists X such that X is Olivia and X is a journalist.” This simplistic system of logic is far from superfluity;  it is the foundation of computer coding and thus of modern technology. But rather than being the explicit purpose of the field, these useful applications tend to unexpectedly develop as the byproduct of revolutionary ideas. Philosophical thoughts often end up most useful when their usefulness is willfully ignored; when they are pursued for their own sake, rather than with an eye half-focused on some practical end product.

Philosophy isn’t the only field that shuns practicalities, stumbling upon greatness by indulging in knowledge without a clear use. When asked how radio waves could be used, the man who discovered them, Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, replied: “It’s of no use whatsoever. This was just an experiment that proves the maestro [James Clerk] Maxwell was right.” Maxwell was a scientist who predicted the existence of electromagnetic radiation. Hertz considered his finding theoretically fascinating in that it provided evidence for Maxwell’s theories, but not practically useful.

The ideas explored in philosophy and the theoretical sciences are “useful” or not depending on how you define the word. Those who consider knowledge a valuable end in-and-of itself will perceive anything learned as inherently useful, regardless of whether it has any further applications. But by the dominant meaning of the word—where something is “useful” if it’s applied toward a practical end—esoteric subjects such philosophy are useless though valuable.

If you want to secure a six-figure salary then the most practical path is to study engineering, law, or inherit a large fortune. Studying philosophy could well develop skills needed to become a billionaire but, then again, it might very well not. And trying to squeeze investment lessons out of Kant and Hegel will only distort the ideas and importance of the subject. The true value of philosophy can only be discovered if it’s pursued for its own useless sake.