Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer gazed at the sea of college students gathered before him for commencement. The graduates would ask many questions after they left school, he predicted:
“The science graduate will ask, ‘Why does that work?’
“The engineering graduate, ‘How does it work?’
“The economics graduate, ‘What does it cost?’
“And the liberal arts graduate, ‘Do you want French fries with that hamburger?’”
Breyer’s joke at the 1997 Stanford University ceremony underscores a perception in popular culture that humanities majors face tough career prospects, especially compared to those with what are perceived to be more marketable skills, like engineers and scientists. And philosophy majors in particular? They’re destined to ponder the meaning of life while searching for a way to make a living—or so the stereotype goes.
In reality, college graduates who major in philosophy can do quite well. They report earnings that rank highest among humanities majors, and many excel in fields including law, business, medicine and politics, as well as academia. Just ask Justice Breyer—who studied philosophy before going to law school.
Trained to use logic and reasoning to analyze questions big and small, challenge assumptions and examine problems in broad strokes and great detail, philosophy majors acquire intellectual tools that are as relevant in today’s digital age as they were at the time of Plato and Aristotle.
This timelessness explains why top administrators and professors at USC continue to view philosophy as an essential discipline that sharpens the minds of all students—whatever careers they decide to pursue.
Core of the Humanities
The repute of the philosophy department at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences has steadily grown during the last decade. It’s ranked as the 8th-best philosophy program in the U.S. and 9th best in the world, according to The Philosophical Gourmet Report, a biennial publication that bases its 2014–15 rankings on the reputation of faculty members (New York University is ranked No. 1 in the world).
Since 2004, USC has shot up 38 places in the closely monitored rankings, fueled by a focus on attracting seasoned scholars and promising rising stars. It has also developed innovative programs such as an interdisciplinary major in philosophy, politics and law, the first of its kind in the U.S. when USC launched it in 2010.
“I think philosophy is really at the core of everything we do in the humanities,” USC Provost Michael Quick says. “It hits all the right buttons, such as who or why we are, and what kind of people we want to be.”
Quick praised the leadership of Scott Soames, an expert in the philosophy of language, philosophy of law, and the history of analytic philosophy. Soames was recruited from Princeton University in 2004 and has been director of USC’s philosophy department since 2007.
“Scott has provided us a vision for how one builds a great department, as well as an ability to find and recruit great faculty,” says Quick, a neuroscientist.
Philosophy is really at the core of everything we do in the humanities. It hits all the right buttons, such as who or why we are, and what kind of people we want to be.Michael Quick
From his office in Mudd Hall, home of the School of Philosophy, Soames can barely contain his enthusiasm when he talks about the advances made by the program, which has about 200 undergraduate majors and 40 graduate students.
“Come back in five years, and we’ll be No. 1,” Soames says.
It isn’t bluster.
Ask Brian Leiter, who manages The Philosophical Gourmet Report. Leitner notes USC’s recent appointment of David Wallace, a philosopher of physics known for his novel interpretation of quantum mechanics. Wallace arrives on campus from the University of Oxford this summer.
“With this appointment, I’d say USC is in the very top cluster of programs in the world, including Princeton, Michigan, Yale and Harvard, and ahead of Stanford,” says Leiter, who is also director of the Center for Law, Philosophy and Human Values at the University of Chicago.
“If the department builds up in the history of philosophy, it will be giving NYU a run for its money,” Leiter adds.
Wallace will be joining an impressive faculty that includes Ralph Wedgwood. The specialist in ethics and epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, came to USC from Oxford in 2012.
“It’s a wonderful department,” Wedgwood says. “It’s just great in a classic kind of way. It’s got excellent philosophers who work hard and who are devoted to excelling in teaching and research, and it’s got great leadership.”
The department includes John Hawthorne, recognized as a leading contributor to the fields of metaphysics and epistemology; Jonathan Quong, an expert in moral and political philosophy who selected USC over Oxford; and Gabriel Uzquiano Cruz, a specialist in philosophical logic, the philosophy of mathematics, metaphysics and the philosophy of language.