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Philosophy: The One Subject Harvard Should Require

The things I learn in class at Harvard aren’t so important in the grand scheme of things. Sure, Math 55 is a worthwhile experience — but if you haven’t heard of Sylow p-subgroups and Frobenius reciprocity, I can assure you that you’re not missing out on anything essential to a good life. Or suppose you’ve never learned any computational linguistics — I’m sure there’s still hope for a fruitful education.

But that’s not true, I argue, of philosophy. Can we live deep lives without ever considering why racism and prejudice are wrong, whether God exists, whether death is really the end? These questions matter to every one of us as students, citizens, and human beings — whether we think about them or not. To evade them is to miss out on the most profound and practical truths we can ever hope to know or think about.

That is why, more than any other subject, Harvard should require students to take philosophy. Quantitative reasoning? We studied that in high school. Expository writing? Harvard liked our admissions essays. (And if they didn’t, we must have had some talent that compensated.) Science and history and economics and music have each changed the world, but anyone can live a meaningful life without knowing much about them. This is not true of philosophy, which teaches us to examine the very meaning and importance of our existence.

Furthermore, the methods of philosophy are clearly and directly useful in every other discipline. To borrow from the Harvard College Handbook for Students, philosophy teaches “the ability to think and write clearly, the ability to bring to light unnoticed presuppositions, to explain complex ideas clearly, to tease out connections and implications, to see things in a broader context, to challenge orthodoxy.”

Yet we live in a time when philosophy — along with many of the other humanities — is attacked as fruitless, impractical, soft, and unprofitable. These accusations come even from well-respected thinkers and academics. Take the late physicist Stephen Hawking, who famously said “philosophy is dead.” Or biologist Richard Dawkins, who suggests that a philosopher is someone who “won’t take common sense for an answer.”

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Are these criticisms accurate? Is philosophy inferior to science? Is it worth studying? I believe there should be no debate. Not only is philosophy worth studying, it is the only subject that Harvard should require all students to take.

Philosophy lies at the foundation of every other academic discipline, including science. For instance, debates about the proper methods and scope of science lie squarely in the realm of philosophy. Science can’t justify the scientific method without begging the question. Similarly, philosophy informs the study of government, anthropology, theology, and countless other fields of inquiry.

This is why so many of the greatest thinkers of all time, in any subject, have also been philosophers. Albert Einstein once claimed that philosophical insight is “the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.” For a university whose motto is Veritas, this should be a powerful incentive. Every Harvard student, regardless of concentration, can profit from philosophy.

Perhaps because of this foundational role, philosophy is arguably the oldest academic discipline in the world. Every ancient civilization had schools of philosophy associated with it. From Confucius and Lao Tzu of China to Plato and Aristotle of Greece to Ibn Sina and Al-Ghazali of the Islamic empires, philosophers have commanded the course of intellectual history. To truly understand the progress of human knowledge about the universe, it is absolutely necessary to be familiar with important philosophical developments.

Learning philosophy also helps students think for themselves. Most immediately, philosophy helps students sort through the mass of conflicting claims that come from scholars at the University. For example, Science professor Lisa Randall ’84 has said that “believing in an external deity is an unscientific way of thinking.” Many other prominent Harvard scientists — like Astronomy professor Karin Öberg or Biology and Mathematics professor Martin A. Nowak — are open about their religious beliefs and do not agree with Randall’s assessment. The different messages that students get from teachers at Harvard have a real impact on how they see the world, and it is difficult to evaluate those messages rigorously without some philosophical experience.

Finally, we all think about deep things like religion, life after death, and objective morality. It’s helpful to have those beliefs challenged and bolstered by classroom experience and exposure to more intellectual diversity. This is, unfortunately, not provided by many high schools.

The value of studying philosophy is well-supported and clear. More than any other subject, philosophy addresses the most fundamental and relevant questions for humanity, and in particular for future scholars and academics. Currently, the only requirement that comes close to philosophy is a general education course related to Ethical Reasoning. This is almost inconsequential and fails to stimulate interest or enrollment in more rigorous philosophy classes.

Harvard is known for producing leading thinkers and researchers. In order to continue this legacy, the College must ensure that its students learn the lessons that only a philosophy class can teach. To achieve this, the College must add philosophy to its set of general education requirements for students.

Philip C. LaPorte ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Apley Court.

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