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“The Lessons of History” by Will and Ariel Durant

I just finished this book, and I thought I would recommend it here. Will Durant is a famous historian who wrote an eleven volume series on the history of the world, together with Ariel Durant, who I assume is his daughter. The Durants are known for having a beautiful writing style.

The Lessons of History is a summary of what Durant learned about human nature over the fifty years he spent assembling his massive series on the history of civilization, distilled down to about 100 pages. As you would expect, it is a fascinating book. I think a historian could choose almost any individual sentence in this book and write a whole book explaining the evidence for that sentence, and that book would still be quite interesting in its own right.

If you’re interested in potentially buying the book or borrowing it from a library, there is a free preview on Amazon.


Free Will is Scientific

Determinists often attempt to associate determinism with science. The idea is that determinism is scientific and free will is not, because the laws of physics as we currently understand them are deterministic.

I think one fact this overlooks is that science requires the concept of intellectual responsibility. A scientist is expected to look at the evidence and draw only the conclusions that it warrants. Scientists who draw unjustified or irresponsible conclusions are criticized for doing so, and scientists who draw the correct conclusions from the evidence are praised and sometimes idolized.

A determinist might respond that it would be useful to praise and criticize scientists on the basis of whether they drew the correct conclusions from the evidence even if we didn’t have free will. The problem with this response is that it assumes that the speaker has free will and can choose whether or not to praise and blame the scientists. You can’t say that no one has free will and then tacitly assume that you have free will.

So, I think belief in free will should be seen as the scientific position, not determinism.

Majoring in Philosophy: Career Prospects

There is a widespread belief that majoring in philosophy is harmful to your career. I have been researching this claim, and the evidence I have supports the conclusion that it is partly true, but very misleading.

First of all, it is true that philosophy majors have a higher unemployment rate than most other majors. The numbers I have seen all put the unemployment rate for philosophy majors at about 9-10%, which is higher than most other majors. For example, it is about twice the unemployment rate for computer science. Philosophy majors also have a higher rate of working in retail than most other majors.

However, once hired, the salaries of philosophy majors rise faster than any other major (tied with mathematics). Philosophy majors’ salaries start at $39,900 and reach $81,200 at mid career, on average, which is higher than any other humanities degree. Philosophy majors who pick up some technical skills make $6,000 more than philosophy majors without those skills when they start, on average, and are eligible for hundreds of thousands of additional job openings.

Philosophy majors also do very well on standardized tests. Philosophy majors do better than any other major on the LSAT, and prospective philosophy graduate students, most of whom would have studied philosophy as undergraduates, do better than prospective graduate students in any other field on the analytical writing and verbal sections of the GRE.

I would say majoring in philosophy does provide you with useful skills, but it will probably be difficult to persuade employers that you have those skills due to the cultural bias against philosophy.


It is frequently said that people rarely change their minds about politics because they insulate themselves from information that contradicts their point of view. According to the Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, however, recent research shows that this is not true. People don’t insulate themselves from contrary points of view, they just subject arguments against their worldview to much harsher criticism than arguments favorable to their worldview.

This is why presidential campaigns result in very little overall persuasion. That doesn’t mean that there is no point in having the campaigns, though, because they serve a useful reinforcing effect for people who agree with the candidates. People need to know that there are other people who agree with them.


Advice for Studying Philosophy

The main four things you need to do to study philosophy effectively are take notes, write essays, discuss the material with other people, and perhaps take a class.

First, take notes on what you are reading if you want to remember it for any period of time. If you don’t take notes then you simply won’t understand or retain much of the material. That’s fine if your goal is just to read casually or have fun, but if you want to be able to debate philosophy intelligently then you need to be taking notes on anything important that you read.

Second, write essays on the stuff you are reading. If you like, you can start a blog on WordPress like this and post about what you are reading there. Writing a coherent essay will help you organize and remember the material you are reading.

Third, discuss the material with other people, e.g., online or in a philosophy club. This is not a substitute for reading the material yourself. As a general rule, you will learn very little about philosophy by discussing it with other people, because they won’t be able to go through it with you in as much detail as a book or paper. Discussing philosophy with other people is useful for chewing the material, but if you want to learn new things then generally speaking you have to put the work in on your own time.

Fourth, if you are willing to spend the time and money, take a class. A philosophy class is useful because it imposes discipline on your study – it forces you to go through the material systematically, at a consistent rate, under the supervision of an expert. A lot of philosophy professors will let you sit in on their classes for free, so you could look into that if there is a university near you.

Categorizing my Posts

It should be a lot easier to find my posts on a given topic now. I’ve gone through all of the posts I’ve made and sorted them into eight categories, which you can find in the sidebar. I’ve also added a search bar and a tag cloud to the sidebar so that you can find all of my posts on a given specific topic, e.g., my posts on Hume.

Why You Should Read Philosophers You Disagree With

I think that if you are going to be arguing against a philosophical position online, then typically it is in your self interest to read something by a philosopher who has defended that position.

The main reason is that it gives you a more detailed understanding of the position in question. In an online debate, your opponent might not have the patience to type out an entire philosophical theory in detail, or, more sinisterly, he might deliberately leave certain components of his argument implicit so that you have to work harder to figure out why his argument fails. It helps to be able to say “philosophers who defend your position almost always argue ABC, which is wrong because XYZ.” This creates a presumption that you have refuted your opponent’s position which your opponent will have to try to overcome, either by clarifying how he disagrees with the way philosophers usually defend his position or by refuting the response you have made.

Another reason is that it helps you know what to take seriously. If your opponent makes an argument that looks vulnerable to an easy rebuttal, is it really a weak argument or does he have something forceful to back it up with? If you have read the philosophers who defend your opponent’s position, then it’s easier to tell which of his arguments are strong and which are weak.