Bill Miller was a doctoral student in philosophy at Johns Hopkins who later went on to be one of the most successful portfolio managers in finance, beating the S&P 500 for fifteen consecutive years, 1991 to 2005.Despite what conventional wisdom may suggest, reports of the death of humanities-related philanthropy, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated. IP's Higher Ed vertical is replete with examples of funders giving big to support the liberal arts.That said, giving generally flows to the "usual suspects" like endowments, blended curriculum, and digitization projects. All of which makes investor Bill Miller's $75 million donation to John Hopkins University's philosophy department both unique and tantalizing.According to the school, Miller's largess will allow Hopkins' department to nearly double in size, while also supporting graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and new courses aimed at attracting undergraduates. Deemed "wonderfully contrarian" by university president Ronald Daniels, the gift also appears to be the largest by far to a philosophy department anywhere in the world.
Miller is a rare donor who can articulate how the liberal arts—and philosophy in particular—influenced his life and career.
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," he said.I put this together with some recent reported research from Google that revealed that the most successful managers and team leaders at the company were not the ones with the highest technical skills, but the ones with the highest skills in working with people.
So what does a philosophy department do with a big whack of money? By "double in size" I assume that they mean to hire more professors, maybe acquire or build a new building, accept more graduate students, offer more undergraduate courses and so on. I kind of hope they don't spend a bunch of money on hardware and "research." Buying a lot of complex machines that go "beep" is really not necessary in philosophy.
I wonder if the strength of philosophy does not lie in its meagre departments and lack of flashy technology? At bottom, the practice of philosophy is pretty much people sitting around thinking and talking to other people. More perhaps than any other discipline, instruction in philosophy is nothing more than a teacher sitting on one end of a log and a student on the other.
I was very blessed in my early days at university by taking a 100-level philosophy course taught by a newly-minted PhD. There were only twenty or so students in the class. We had assigned reading such as Bishop Berkeley's dialogues between Hylas and Philonous that we found outrageous as it made the absurd claim that the physical world did not exist, only our perceptions. Once we got to class and started discussing the matter, we soon found that, no matter how absurd the proposition, defeating our professor in argument was far from easy. As we ranted on with our poorly stated arguments he would walk back and forth in the front of the room. Once we ran down, he would pause, look over at us and say the words we came to realize signaled our doom: "May I rephrase that?" Once rephrased, which he did in the fairest way possible, we would quickly come to see the poverty of our arguments.
Over the years I have come to see the tremendous value of that course to my thinking generally. We were engaged in the actual practice of philosophy, just as Socrates and the Athenian youth did in the 5th century BC when philosophy was largely invented. There are not a lot of public intellectuals these days that have these kind of skills in debate. Public space has long been polluted by a host of logical fallacies that Medieval thinkers would laugh at. Perhaps the most predominant of these is the use of straw man arguments where you state your opponent's position in the most absurd way possible. This is endemic in much public debate.
One public intellectual that seems to have philosophical skills in abundance is Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson. The value of these was made painfully evident in a recent interview he did with BBC's Cathy Newman. She was used to interviewing people with the usual rudimentary intellectual skills and frankly, expected to encounter a bigoted reactionary. Instead she found herself faced with a brilliant thinker who was armed with a great deal of research into the topics she brought up. I recommend watching the interview with close attention to what was said:
You might notice that Ms. Newman is constantly misrepresenting what Prof. Peterson is saying and every time he catches her on it. He also turns her most bold attack on him back on her with undeniable logic, which brings her to a stuttering halt. How often does that happen with a big-time television journalist?
I very much hope that Johns Hopkins sticks to genuine philosophy in its department expansion and does not wander off into fashionable nonsense. We are in desperate need of people who can actually think and not just mindlessly parrot "talking points."