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How good does one need to be in mathematics to do good work in philosophy of

How good does one need to be in mathematics to do good work in philosophy of mathematics? Does one need to be able to *do* original math research, or just read and understand math research, or neither? Or does the answer depend on the topic within philosophy of math? If so, which topics are those in which math knowledge is most useful, and in which is it least useful?

You certainly don't need to be able to do original research in maths to be able to work on the philosophy of maths. But you will need to be able to follow whatever maths is particularly relevant to your philosophical interests. How much maths that is, which topics at which levels, will depend on your philosophical projects. For example, compare and contrast the following questions (not exactly a random sample -- they all happen to interest me!):

  1. "Is our basic arithmetical knowledge in any sense grounded in intuition?" Evidently, you don't need any special mathematical knowledge to tackle that.
  2. "Can a fictionalist about mathematics explain its applicability?" Again, I guess that acquaintance with the sort of high school mathematics that indeed gets applied is probably all you really need to know to discuss this too.
  3. "Just what infinitary assumptions are we committed to if we accept applicable mathematics as true?" Here you do need to get more into the maths, and know quite a lot about what can be reconstructed in various weak subsystems of full analysis, and about what infinitary assumptions these subsystems need.
  4. "Is there a unified justification for all the axioms of the standard set theory ZFC?" You better know a bit of set theory to tackle this -- but you perhaps needn't know much about e.g. large cardinal axioms that take us beyond ZFC!
  5. "Do we need axioms that take us beyond ZFC? -- and if so, what?" For this, by contrast, you will need to know more about the fancier reaches of set theory.
  6. "Does category theory in any sense provide 'foundations' for mathematics rivalling the set theoretic approach?" Well, plainly, you better know some category theory to tackle this one.
  7. "Why is the question whether P = NP so hard?" And you'll need to know qutie an amount about complexity theory for this one.
  8. "How satisfactory is Lakatos's model of the growth of mathematical knowledge?" Here, by contrast, you'd be better equipped if you know a little about a lot of mathematics, rather than a lot about a little, so your discussions aren't to suffer from an impoverished diet of examples.

And so it goes. What maths you need to know will vary a lot with which philosophical questions bug you. And sometimes it is difficult to tell in advance, when you start thinking about a topic, just how embroiled you will need to get in the mathematical nitty-gritty. But that's part of the fun.

Suppose someone in some remote corner of town is endowed with the gift of

Suppose someone in some remote corner of town is endowed with the gift of sublime philosophical wisdom and insight. When presented with centuries-old paradoxes s/he can simply see the correct answer. Think of him/her as the Susan Boyle of philosophy. Has Philosophy become so institutionalized that this person would have little to no chance of having his/her response heard in a respectable venue? What are the chances that this person might get the attention s/he deserved?

I'm not quite sure what is meant by "sublime insight"! But anyway, serious philosophy involves negotiating your way around thickets of argument. Philosophical originality is a matter of finding new moves to make (or breathing new live into old moves) in argued debates that have usually been developing and deepening for many years, in some cases for thousands(!) of years. Generations of philosophers have explored the options on (as it might be) the liar paradox, or the free-will problem, or the nature of consciousness, with ever-more sophistication, piling distinction upon distinction, argument upon argument. And yes, of course, lots of progress is made -- refining the options, working out their costs and benefits, and often engaging with the relevant science (or work in logic, etc.) as that develops.

Now, it is hard enough for graduate students who've devoted five, six, or more years studying philosophy to start making much progress -- they have to get to grips with so much first, in order to reach the cutting edge (just as it is hard for budding physicists to get to the frontiers, for example). Someone coming from outside the academy is going to find things even tougher -- unless they have an equal amount of time at their disposal, and then they will still need access to libraries if they are not going to spending their time reinventing the wheel. It wouldn't impossible for a philosopher with no institutional attachment to make a mark: just terribly difficult without the time and support that such attachments bring to those of us lucky enough to have them.

Well, I am a math major. I am about to graduate, and I wish to attend graduate

Well, I am a math major. I am about to graduate, and I wish to attend graduate school in philosophy. I took one class in the philosophy of science. I know it is not enough, but I really have a deep passion for philosophy. I read alot on metaphysics, philosophy of mathematics and science by myself. It is to the point that I can understand much of the material in professional philosophical papers. I have a deep interest on the issue of ontological commitment to abstract objects, and the nature of the laws of nature. I really want to be a philosopher. What can I do?

I suggest:

1. you talk to the philosophy professors at your school and ask them lots of questions. Hopefully, there is someone that who has a good sense of what it takes to get into grad school in philosophy, to succeed, and to get a job.

2. you explore websites at some PhD and MA programs. There is also some useful information at

3. if you remain interested (as I hope you do!), you consider putting off graduation one semester and taking more philosophy courses. I fear that only one course in philosophy will take you off the radar at many programs (I suspect it would take a lot--e.g., very high GRE and GPA--to get some PhD programs to consider you, when they have so many applicants that are philosophy majors or even have MAs in philosophy).

4. you consider applying to MA programs in philosophy to strengthen your background (though it will still help to have more courses in philosophy to get in to MA programs).

5. you will need a polished writing sample with a philosophical argument in it and you will need at least three letters of recommendation (and I think at least 2 of them need to be from philosophers).

None of this is meant to dissuade you, and your outside reading will be helpful (it's just a bit hard to make it evident in an application).

I hope this helps. And good luck!

Imagine I have a phD in philosophy; nothing special, just your run-of-the-mill

Imagine I have a phD in philosophy; nothing special, just your run-of-the-mill doctorate in philosophy from a University with a decent philosophy program. How difficult would I find it to land any lectureship at any University, even if I am willing to move to anywhere in North America or Europe? I would like the same question with regard to community colleges and liberal arts colleges (whatever they are???) as well. For instance, is it a lot easier to get a professorship at a Community College than a University?

Eric Silverman's reply, if anything, sounds over-optimistic. Certainly, in the UK, there is a now a very significant over-supply of completing philosophy PhDs. I'm afraid that "average decent" doesn't cut it on the job market. Good perhaps for the future of philosophy, but tough on a large number of people who entered into grad school with hopes of an academic career.

I am going to study philosophy this September at university. I am very much

I am going to study philosophy this September at university. I am very much confused between an 'actual philosopher' and a 'philosophy professor'. I believe my confusion lies at my ignorance and lack of knowledge but please help me to see correctly. Would you agree that one can become a philosophy professor without becoming an actual philosopher? Do you think if Plato or Aristotle were born today, would they have enrolled in philosophy programs, get a master's degree, worry about publishing and afraid of not getting a tenure? The more I read about the profession of philosophy today, the less I am inclined to pursue it. But I don't want to abandon philosophy out of my life. I want to do philosophy for the rest of my life, but not as a professor. To be honest, when you step inside a philosophy department how many real philosophers do you see? I have been to my university's department, talked with philosophy grad students and felt that they do not care geniuinly about philosophy really. Please help me...

"I have been to my university's department, talked with philosophy grad students and felt that they do not care genuinely about philosophy really." Then your feeling is almost certainly wrong. The great majority of graduate students care passionately about philosophy. After all, they are usually particularly smart people who have chosen not to go on to law school or do MBAs or whatever (leading to some very lucrative career), but decided to try to stay on in academia, trying to work on some tough philosophical problems that have gripped them. Why else do that other than because they care about the subject?!

What may be true is that the grad students you talked to don't seem to care much about what you think of as "philosophy". And there is indeed something of a disconnect between some of the connotations of "philosophy" in the everyday use of the word, and the academic discipline that most of those grad students are engaged in. (There are connections too, of course: the varied use of the word isn't just an accident!) So it could well be that what is going on in your university's philosophy department -- or in most departments with a serious emphasis on modern analytical philosophy in the Anglophone tradition -- won't give you what you are looking for when you talk of "doing philosophy". That doesn't mean that either you or they are at fault! In particular, they aren't flying under false colours in calling themselves "philosophy" departments, for a long tradition of usage is on their side.

Anyone should look carefully at some of the preliminary reading that suggested for philosophy courses they are wondering about signing up for (or look here): what they are offering -- "philosophy" in that sense -- may well not be what you really want.

I am a psychology undergraduate considering doing my M.A. in Philosophy. How

I am a psychology undergraduate considering doing my M.A. in Philosophy. How competitive do you think the job market is for getting a job as a community college philosophy professor right now? Would I better off (as far as a getting a professorship) by going into a Ph.D. program? Thanks!

The academic job market in philosophy has been challenging for a long time. With the recent downturn in the economy, some people are describing it as the worst market in decades. Even before the downturn, you would have been very unlikely to land any long term job in philosophy with an M.A. In the current market, virtually no one will be getting a CC philosophy professorship without a Ph.D.

In theory, the market should almost certainly improve by the time you would finish your Ph.D. But, even the 'normal' market is quite challenging. It is not unusual for even 'less desirable' jobs to receive 100-200 applications. And many gifted graduate students with impressive credentials have a difficult time getting jobs. There is a blog entitled the 'Philosophy Smoker' run by some anonymous graduate students who are on the philosophy job market. If you read it, you will get a glimpse at the incredibly difficult time many students have on the job market. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

Where would be good school to study mereology at the graduate level? I'm not

Where would be good school to study mereology at the graduate level? I'm not looking for any school with specifics in mind, given that I already understand the options available by wanting to find a good program in just general mereology. Thank you for your time.

It depends on what you want to do with your knowledge of mereology. The Department of Philosophy at the University at Buffalo (State University of New York) is a world center for research on applications of ontology to artificial intelligence and informatics, and much of their work is based on various theories of mereology. For further information, link to "Areas of Study: Ph.D. with a focus in Ontology" (where you'll also see an old photo of me if you scroll down the page :-) That page also has links to the National Center for Ontological Research.

I wonder why there are so few philosophers 0 - 1000 AD?

I wonder why there are so few philosophers 0 - 1000 AD?

There were actually quite a lot. For instance, there were the Neoplatonists, around the third century, such as Plotinus, Proclus and Porphyry. Then there were the Fathers of the Christian Church, from the third to the fifth centuries. Some of the latter, it is true, do qualify more as theologians than philosophers: but there were also several genuine philosophers among them, such as Origen, Tertullian or Saint Augustine. After that, though, the state of philosophy in this region (and we're talking about the Mediterranean here, from Greece and Rome, through Asia Minor, down to Egypt) did begin to decline. Boethius (d. 524 or 525) is sometimes cited as the last significant philosopher of the classical period, before the Dark Ages properly set in. And I do know what you mean, because then there was quite a striking gap in philosophical activity. The gap might not have been a thousand years, but it probably was two or three hundred. Still, though, things did eventually start to get back on track; and the location of the important work shifted too. The ninth century, for instance, brought us John Scotus Eriugena, who originated in Ireland and worked in France. And the ninth and tenth centuries also brought us the early developments in Arabic philosophy, with people like Al-Kindi and Al-Farabi in Baghdad.

Now, as to why philosophy should have ebbed and flowed in this way, declining in one place and arising in another, that's an interesting enough question: but it's not a philosophical question. Why did the Roman Empire decline and fall in the fifth century? Why were the marauding Goths and Vandals so successful in their destructive rampage? Why did grand new civilisations subsequently begin to emerge in the Middle East and in North-Western Europe? Much ink has been spilt, attempting to answer these questions from the perspective of political history. And I would suggest that, whatever answer that research might yield, regarding the rise and fall of empires in general, exactly the same answer is also going to explain the rise and fall of philosophy. Although there have always been clever people around, it's only been when such people have been sustained by a stable and prosperous society that they've had the leisure to indulge themselves in cloistered abstractions. If you want to find philosophers, look for flourishing civilisations. If there are none of those around, there won't be any philosophers either.

How do philosophers (or academics in general) justify their choice of profession

How do philosophers (or academics in general) justify their choice of profession? How is it defensible to be studying esoteric ideas with relatively few (if any) implications for the greater good, rather than devoting one's life to solving the much more practical problems that burden so much of the world's population? I realize that some philosophical ideas have had important worldwide impacts and have directly improved people's lives, but I doubt that almost any philosophers working today would say that that's what they expect to come out of their analyzing a particular view of Wittgenstein's or whatever. (I think this question ought to be asked of most professions, but it seems that philosophers would be thinking about this sort of thing much more so than would, say, investment bankers.)

How does anyone (not just philosophers or other academics) justify a choice of profession? One does what one is good at and what one likes to do.

Academics in particular (philosophers included) need not apologize for their choice; we are, after all, teachers (in addition to being [perhaps] ivory-towerish scholars or researchers), and teachers surely serve the greater good. We philosophers, in particular, encourage critical (and skeptical) thinking, which--I suggest--is a Good Thing even if what we critique might be whether or not material objects are mereological sums of simples (or something equally esoteric).

Some of us do try to help solve practical problems (and Karl Marx once observed that philosophers have only tried to understand the world but that the point is to change it--I would imagine those are fighting words to some, inspiring to others!). Yes, my analysis of Wittgenstein or, more obscurely, Meinong might not directly improve people's lives, but then again how would we prove that? Maybe my analysis of Meinong in a course might inspire some student to further study of philosophy and that might lead in turn to her studying artificial intelligence (yes, there is a link!--see some of my own publications :-), which might lead to some breakthrough in applications of AI to medicine.

I am a philosophy student that doubts philosophers; I can't write papers, or at

I am a philosophy student that doubts philosophers; I can't write papers, or at least trying to make the connections emerge from details is damn near the hardest thing I've ever done. I have the right ideas (that I am sure of) and I can talk philosophy (intersbujective exp. confirms this) but my papers fall into detail etc. (No one has ever said, WOAH this paper should be published). But even when, one night, I curse the very subject matter and damn it all to hell, I wake up the next morning prepared to try again. But still, at night I try to cast the dead weight from my shoulders in despair. Question: if one's temperament is philosophic should they steer away from academic philosophy? Question 2: Should the person who falls in love with wisdom only to damn her at night continue to make the effort, indeed, should one rule out a life-long marriage with the enticing specimen?

Answer to Q1: Why should a person who loves philosophy not steer towards academic philosophy? The better one knows her the more she has to offer, such as fascinating arguments. Answer to Question 2: If you are in love with someone, you really should marry that person, other things equal, no? Philosophy can be difficult sometimes, even temperamental, but she is not mad.