Academic journal article American Economist

Philosophy and My Work Life

Academic journal article American Economist

Philosophy and My Work Life

Article excerpt

It is a privilege and a pleasure to write an essay in Michael Szenberg's fascinating series on philosophies of life of economists.


As a 17-year old starting college, I was anxious to study what the great philosophers taught about how to conduct our lives well. My second (and last) course was a selective gallop through Western thought. I enjoyed it and did much of the extensive reading. But though some of the philosophy of science made sense, much of the rest seemed meaningless to me. Most especially, the pompously unreadable school of Hegelian German philosophy seemed a fraud on the public; pure obscurantist nonsense, I concluded. When much later I read John Locke's and David Hume's similar judgments about the bulk of academic philosophers, they fortified my doubts.

The exam for the philosophy course was the last of five, so I let it slide. Then the night before the exam I could not find my class notes, which were unusually important in that course. Naturally, I panicked.

A philosophy major upstairs lent me his notebook for a few hours, but it didn't help much. I then had the inspiration to ask him to teach me some impressive-sounding German words that I could insert into my exam essays. He did so. And the next day, for the first and last time in my life, I faked the answers on an exam.

The result? During my first three semesters I had not received even an A-minus. This time I got a straight A, and my phil major friend upstairs - who had been doing very well in all his classes and understood the material thoroughly - got a C. Lest one put the incident down to the inadequacies of a third-rate institution, this happened at Harvard College. If I had drawn the obvious lesson from that experience, and applied it by fancying up my work instead of trying to keep it simple, perhaps my entire work life would have had a different course.

The Navy ROTC (which sent me to college) had a system whereby at the end of each semester we returned our used text books; they constituted a pool from which students would draw books the next semester. The book room was administered loosely, and we were not discouraged from taking books that might only be "relevant" to a course. Nor was there strict monitoring about book return. So it was not unusual for one of us to take a book on "extended loan".

Triggered by a stray remark in the philosophy course, the title Positivism by Richard von Mises piqued my interest, so I liberated the book and neglected to return it. When I got around to reading it after college, it greatly influenced my thinking, perhaps because von Mises was not doctrinaire to the point of considering poetry and religion simply metaphysical nonsense, as did some Positivists.

Questions about how a person may best live one's years - such as what to choose as goals in life for one's own sake as well as for others', and how much of one's efforts should be allocated between self and others - these questions are still as puzzling and almost as little-understood as when people first thought and wrote about them "philosophically". And the questions about how research work may best be done still belong mostly to the philosophy of science because they have yet been little studied by the sciences. Philosophy has entered my work life in both those ways: in deciding what I shall try to accomplish, and in the methods I employ to achieve those goals.

The best idea I got from the philosophy of scientific methods is the concept of the operational definition. It focuses on what can be observed and measured, and it battles against vague concepts that cannot be pinned down. I luckily learned about the operational definition in my undergraduate major of experimental psychology, a field in which the concept has greatly helped clarify such concepts as morale and intelligence. More about that later.


Underlying my choice of work goals is the belief - based on observation, data, and "philosophic" speculation - that there can be progress in human affairs; if I did not believe in progress, I would be condemned to think of my work and the rest of science as the game that many others consider it to be. …

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