The beauty of philosophy

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The beauty of philosophy

There are certain questions that I am always asked in Korea. “How old are you?,” “Are you married?” and “What was your ‘major’?” The first question is easy enough to deal with, but the second elicits a pitying response, as though someone who was 32 in Korean age ought to be truly desperate to get married. Just to be clear, I’m not in any rush.

But the way people respond to the last question is more interesting. I took a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics, with equal focus on all three. When I start with the word “philosophy,” a very perceptible look of quizzicality or disappointment usually spreads across the other person’s face. Then I continue with “politics,” which is met with a ‘so-so’ kind of reaction - neither approval nor rejection.

Then, I end the sentence with “economics.” Faces instantly brighten upon hearing this word. “Ah, so you can get a job!” is the implication. All over the world, people seem to value economics much more highly than philosophy, but nowhere more so than Korea, I am sure.

When working at Korean firms, I came to notice that an economics degree is considered highly desirable among new applicants. A philosophy degree, by contrast, marks a person out as an effete lover of pointless intellectualizing, or someone who failed to gain acceptance for the course they really wanted (economics, for instance).

But philosophy was the most useful thing I ever studied. It teaches you how to argue, and cut through the illogical nonsense we are constantly bombarded with by the worlds of politics, media and business. It definitely helped me become a better writer as well, forcing me to think things through and express myself in a clearer fashion.

Philosophy also makes you humble. Despite thousands of years of philosophical tradition, there are still questions which are unanswered, and unanswerable. These also happen to be the most important questions. During my time as an MBA student (my second degree), I was regularly shocked by the way in which classmates would try to make something up when it was obvious they didn’t know the answer. Philosophy taught me that it can be good to say “I don’t know.”

In contrast, Economics was taught to me as a subject that held answers. It was highly mathematical: If you use this equation, you will arrive at the correct solution (unfortunately for me, I’m pretty terrible at math). Economics though, deals in human activity, leaving plenty of room for ambiguity and exception. The economists and economic writers I like are the ones who acknowledge that, and accept their limitations. But in an undergraduate program, there isn’t any room for that.

A dose of humility and common sense amidst the “infallible” formulas propagated by Nobel prize-winning economic theorists would have been very useful in 1997 and 2008. A philosophically inclined investor would, I think, be much more likely to say “it may be unlikely that (X disastrous event) will happen, but it is certainly possible. And is it really true that I can use an equation to work out how unlikely it is?”

When I worked as an equity trader, I was constantly surprised by how little economics I actually used. Certainly there are basic principles that are required - “what does it mean for currencies, stocks and bonds when interest rates go up?” for example - but a lot of this is just a matter of common sense. More often than not, psychology and ambiguity came into play as well. And these are harder things to understand. Philosophy seemed to help prepare me for them.

At risk of stealing from Alain de Botton (whose huge success in Korea is an interesting phenomenon in itself), philosophy can also improve your outlook on life. Though Nietzsche, for instance, is considered a blackhearted nihilist by most, his writing is extremely uplifting. When I read Nietzsche, he seems to be telling me that there is nothing to believe in, but that this in itself is liberating. We are free to believe in ourselves. This was wonderful for a confused 19-year-old Daniel. Philosophy might not help you get a job. But this is a result of society’s prejudice against philosophy, rather than a problem with the subject itself. This is a shame, because philosophy might just make you a little bit better at your job, and a happier person as well.

* The author is the Seoul correspondent for The Economist.

by Daniel Tudor
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