Verbal vs. mathematical aptitude in academics

By Razib Khan | December 10, 2010 2:12 pm

It isn’t too difficult to find GRE scores by intended major online. In reviewing articles/posts for my post below on anthropology I noted the distinction made between quant & qual methods, and aversions to regressions and scatter plots (or the supposed love of biological anthropologists for these tools). That got me wondering about the average mathematical and verbal aptitudes of those who intend to pursue graduate work in anthropology. I removed some extraneous disciplines which I don’t think add anything, and naturally I created three scatter plots, quantitative score vs. verbal score, writing score vs. verbal score, and writing score vs. quantitative score.

I was more interested in the spatial relationships between disciplines. But, I was a but surprised by the low correlations between quant and verbal scores at the level of disciplines. On the individual level there’s naturally some correlation. People who score very high in one are unlikely to score very low in another. That’s why the variance in scores of a simple 10 word vocabulary test can predict 50% of the variance in general intelligence. In any case, here are the r-squareds:

quant-verbal = 0
writing-verbal = 0.81
writing-quant = 0.08

So 81% of the variance in writing scores on the scale of disciplines can be explained by verbal scores. Below are the three scatter plots:


Some observations:

– Social work people have more EQ than IQ (this is not a major achievement because of the scale obviously).

– Accountants never made it into the “blue bird” reading group.

– Philosophers are the smartest humanists, physicists the smartest scientists, economists the smartest social scientists.

– Yes, anthropologists can read and write far better than they can do math.

The raw data below.

Art History5385544.7
Foreign Language5295734.6
Political Science5225894.8
Earth Science4956374.4
Engineering, Materials4947294.3
Art & Performance4895714.3
Education, Secondary4865774.5
Engineering, Chemical4857274.3
Banking & Finance4767094.3
Computer Science4697044.2
Engineering, Mechanical4677234.2
Education, Higher4655484.6
Engineering, Electrical4617284.1
Engineering, Civil4577024.2
Public Administration4525134.3
Education, Elementary4435274.3
Engineering, Industrial4407104.1
Business Administration4395624.2
Social Work4284684.1

Comments (55)

  1. sg

    Even more interesting is the plot of the 99th %ile. That is how the top 1% is distributed. Many intended majors have no individuals scoring in high 700’s on either portion of the GRE.

  2. These GRE means are pretty low compared to those who are admitted to PhD programs. I think the general point is correct — anthropology admits have lower quant scores than economics or biology admits. But I think the noise on verbal scores from non-admits might outweigh the signal of differences among fields.

  3. Jerry

    You’re kind of all over the place here regarding, GRE scores, IQ, and “smartness”. These aren’t equivalent things.

  4. You’re kind of all over the place here regarding, GRE scores, IQ, and “smartness”. These aren’t equivalent things.

    why are you putting words in my mouth? they’re not identical, but they’re correlated. that should have been clear when i note the r-squared of wordsum to general intelligence.

  5. luz

    Jerry nailed it. Razib, my friend, your arguments are sloppy at best.

  6. Clark

    Philosophers of physics must be the greatest EVER! LOL

  7. Other than the quant/verbal non-correlation, the most surprising thing to me is how much lower biology students score quantitatively than the other physical sciences (except “Earth Science” – and it’s even below that!).

  8. Black swan here.

    Retired (very) successful accountant/CFO who has always been a (very) heavy duty reader.

  9. Antonio

    In my (limited) experience, biology PhD are very weak in math (and programming), unless they have a very specific interest. And I am talking about elite schools, such as Harvard, UCLA and Caltec, where I know people. Besides economists at elite schools tend to be very very good at math ( but not programming). Also quantitative types in other social sciences like demographers and some sociology and political sciences types are reasonable good at math and programming, much more than biology people. For instance, the coordinators of the Bayesian Task Force in R language are political scientists (but surely not the average type).

    By the way there are both within and between variance in these groups, for each type of score. Thus I would love to see some scatterplots displaying this information simultaneously with the averages, like, for instance, using error bars for both dimensions.

    AlsoI kind of agree that would nice to look at the admitted applicants. I would assume that many people take GRE but just a few are strongly considering grad schools.

    Finally, I dunno how much of it is correlate with true academic success. For instance, I have some friends from eastern Asia that perform very well in these tests but they are clearly not that smart besides finishing up very fast the exercises lists. I am kind of suspicious of these allegedly contend free tests as oppose to those which explicitly measure knowledge. But I am digressing…

  10. I’m not all that surprised by the finding w/r philosophy. Taking a philosophy degree prepares you well for a test like the GRE. Philosophy-majors are probably more reading intensive than even English majors; I remember some quarters having thousands of pages of reading a week, which wasn’t true for comparable humanities degrees. (Obviously, this has ramifications for things like vocabulary size, reading comprehension, etc)

    In terms of the verbal section, it’s hard to see either a) how you could complete a philosophy degree if you weren’t good at that sort of thing already, or b) how you could manage to come out of such a degree program and still not be. I’d say the same for the writing section; doing well in philosophy classes requires that you be decent at structuring a cogent argument. It would be ludicrous to apply for a philosophy phD (particularly in this academic job market) if you weren’t already ace at doing so.

    On a not unrelated note : psychology is pathetic! I looked at GRE averages (using writing scores *100) and psychology is the lowest “science” (or social science) in the ranking (29/35). *English* majors scored higher on average on the quantitative section than Psychology majors. No wonder my field is so averse to learning & information theory… “math, you say? now who tried to sneak that in the backdoor?”

    —By the way, I’ve assumed here that someone majoring in philosophy will go on to a philosophy degree and someone taking a psychology degree will go on to psychology; obviously, that’s not always true and I’m a case in point. Still — the difference between the averages isn’t too thrilling (200+ points!). Maybe @John Hawks is on to something though; it could be the case, for example, that more people apply to psychology than philosophy phDs, but it might be just as selective at the top. (I would hope…)

  11. Other than the quant/verbal non-correlation, the most surprising thing to me is how much lower biology students score quantitatively than the other physical sciences (except “Earth Science” – and it’s even below that!).

    you don’t know many biologists then 😉 it’s an unfortunate problem that many people who go into biology do so to to avoid math….

  12. Jerry nailed it. Razib, my friend, your arguments are sloppy at best.

    oh wow, i’ve had judgement rendered on me by a random person on the internet! awesome. now stfu from this point on.

  13. åse

    >unfortunate problem that many people who go into biology do so to to avoid math….

    Oh man… I thought that was why people went into psychology. Mildly comforting that we are not the only discipline.

  14. Took the GRE back in the 80s when the scoring was different. It was Quant, Verbal and Analytical. Did good on verbal, 98th percentile or some such, much lower on math.

    Sadly, my kids show exactly the same pattern. But, they are forced to do math homework, as I never was, so they are still close to the top of their classes.

    The GRE may not be exactly an IQ test, you say. So Jerry, define IQ for me and devise a better test!

  15. dan

    anyone have a link to a (free) wordsum test? i’d like to try it

  16. Sandgroper

    Shows why engineers don’t blog – we can’t write for shit.

  17. Accounting. LOL.

    The biology thing is deeply disturbing. Biologists are bad at math–most have never had any beyond some rudimentary multivariate calculus. But I don’t remember the GRE quant section being difficult. That average is not “bad at differential equations”–it’s “not really conversant with geometry and algebra.” Worse, it suggests poor quantitative reasoning skills (for someone who has presumably taken a lot of natural science courses). But yeah, it is easy to see this all the time among biologists. No one can do a t-test in excel faster, though.

  18. It’s odd that agriculture scores relatively low on the quant scale – doesn’t that field involve a significant amount of science?

    Another noteworthy thing is the big gap on the quant scale between Philosophy/Earth Sciences and Chemistry.

  19. Sandgroper

    Earth scientists are notoriously non-numerical – notorious to engineers, that is.

    An engineer and a geologist were out doing field work one day, and the engineer was getting pretty fed up with the geologist being unwilling to commit himself to an opinion. Finally they passed a cow in a field and the engineer thought “Ah, I’ll get him now” so he said to the geologist “Hey, what colour do you reckon that cow is?” The geologist observed carefully for a while, then said “It’s black and white…on this side.”

  20. Best ‘math’ class I ever had was a stats class taught by an Ag prof. Lots of basic statistics in Ag Sci. My undergrad major, by the way. Math in Ag Sci is tends towards rote plugging of numbers into stat equations. Learn which formula to plug the numbers into and good to go. I did quite well in my Bio classes compared to the Bio majors. Now I know why…

    My recollection of the GRE was that the math was mostly pretty basic algebra and geometry, about what a sharp high school freshman could answer. I Imagine my 8th grade daughter would do better now on it than I did in my early 20s. Sigh. That’s why I’m not in the sciences now.

    Anyone here taken the GRE in the last couple of years?

  21. dearieme

    A zoologist once told me “When I take on a new postdoc, the first thing I do is teach him pH.”

  22. Sandgroper

    Tom, my daughter has outstripped me in first year calculus and stats, despite me being a civil engineer and her a biomed student taking a major in pathology. In human biology, she’s a rising star, but it doesn’t mean she can’t do her sums.

    These are means. Past means. I was no slouch in math at university, but she’s better. If your daugher is a bright kid, I imagine you are right.

    I was discussing career choices for my daughter with my old primary care doctor/ENT specialist, a very switched on old guy who has kept himself in touch and takes a keen interest in developments in genetics, and he said math is now very important in medicine. Then he corrected himself and said that, now, math is important in everything.

  23. Jeff

    I took the GRE about 4 years ago. The math was extremely basic and scoring a perfect score only puts you at the 94th percentile. Does anyone know the reasoning behind this? Is it not worth it to discern to higher levels even if quant. intelligence doesn’t correlate with graduate school success etc?

    How well do the verbal scores of the GRE correlate with verbal intelligence? I am asking this because I scored higher than expected on the verbal section as compared to other tests. I chalked it up to the GRE having a greater emphasis on vocabulary, which can be inflated by memorization or just being well read.

  24. There is nothing inherently magical about mathematics. Plenty of chemists and biologists do good science without needing maths. There are areas of biology that benefit from maths: genetics, population biology, evolutionary theory, and so on. And there are real opportunities for mathematically competent biologists. But most biology requires little maths. I work as a professional regulatory toxicologist, and I rarely use maths, or even stats.

    Richard Dawkins and EO Wilson both admit to being mediocre mathematicians.

    I think being a good biologist requires a kind of intuition that is independent of mathematical aptitude. If physical scientists and mathematicians think they could turn their minds to biology and excel, they might be unpleasantly surprised.

  25. Zach K

    To what extent does GRE scores correlate to performance in grad school, though? For example, I performed decently on my math section (for a biologist) and now I’m going to grad school in medical biology with an aim to learn a lot more computation/mathematics.

    Hopefully, I’ll come out being a lot stronger in math than my GRE score would indicate.

  26. Karoly

    Does this contain non-native speakers of English? If so, the distribution of verbal scores may be biased if they’re not represented equally in the different disciplines. Their disadvantage is much bigger in the verbal test so they most likely score significantly lower than native speakers do. As a result, a higher proportion of foreign students in, say, physics lowers the average verbal score more in physics.

  27. sg

    John Hawks brings up a great point. Anyone can sign up and take the GRE, and they can waste their money and earn a poor score as well. If 15,000 people take the GRE and say they want to major in sociology and have unimpressive scores on average, so what? It is not like they got accepted into a program. All that matters is who is actually being accepted. It would be interesting to look at the scores of those who were accepted.

  28. If philosophy bound PhD’s are so bloody brilliant, why do they contribute so little to the academic literature or society?

    Philosophy is not the field whose work is really driving trends in academia generally, is not being incorporated in a very large share of interdisciplinary work, and is finding few welcoming applications in public policy or business. For the most part, living philosophers are not even making their way into the undergraduate canon.

  29. wyophil

    @ohwilleke: There are tons of reasons that philosophers are marginalized in many areas of academics that have nothing whatever to do w/the quality of work of contemporary philosophers–which tends to be quite high overall. For instance, most philosophers today work in (so-called) analytic philosophy while much of the humanities is more heavily influenced by (so-called) continental work. Since analytic philosophy tends to be relatively technical–heavily influenced by considerations in math, science, logic and formal linguistics (e.g.,)–it is not particularly appealing toor accessible to others in the humanities and fine arts.

    The relationship of science and philosophy is a lot trickier. My own view is that it is (at least) partially determined by the way in which scientists view rational belief formation. Specifically, scientists tend to be heavily immersed in an experiment-hypothesis testing paradigm which downplays the significance of the sort of broader a priori approaches often invoked (though, of course, not universally endorsed) in philosophical discussions. Philosophers, by contrast, aim for very high levels of generality which tend to make the *details* of observation less central. The result is that philosophers end up focusing on “thought experiments” which strike scientist as mere mind-games (puzzle mongering, or something like that).

  30. wyophil

    Finally, the claim that philosophers are not influencing discussion is just bloody wrong. Think about how heavily cog sci, for instance, is influenced by Jerry Fodor’s work on modularity. Or again, much of the most important work in formal linguistics, particularly semantics, has been written by living (or recently deceased) philosophers. Or again, Rawls’s work in political theory. More generally (and broadly speaking), when sciences focus on foundational/conceptual issues, philosophy tends to become more relevant to them.

  31. Karl Pfeifer

    @ohwilleke & @wyophil

    Also, let’s not overlook the influence of philosophy on computer science, e.g. AI, logic, ontological engineering, and expert systems. A few years ago I was the external examiner on a computer science thesis on causal reasoning and I was quite surprised at the amount of philosophical work that was referenced.

  32. Julia

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is how shockingly terrible the scores of people are whose field is elementary education. It makes me very uncomfortable that people who can apparently barely read or do middle school math get to teach children at a very critical stage of their education.

  33. Curtis Forbes


    There are some specific reasons why philosophers of science themselves off from the sciences, and failed to engage with them for much of the early 20th century. These reasons have to do with the rise of modern philosophy of science in Germany; many logical positivists, who began their careers in Germany but were then effectively imported into North America during WWII, assumed that there was a separation of science and philosophy. The sciences were thought to study the world, while philosophy was (for Carnap for instance) in the business of rationally reconstructing scientific inquiry itself in order to explain, while taking account of historical episodes of radical scientific change, how scientific knowledge was even possible. On is view, philosophers were mainly concerned with understanding science post hoc, not engaging with it.

    The previous commenters are right, though, in pointing out that this is no longer the case in many areas. Philosophers of biology, psychology, physics, the social sciences, and chemistry, among others, are substantially engaging with the disciplines they study; Stephen Hawking’s (frankly naive) comments about the ‘death of philosophy’ due to the rise of physics notwithstanding, theoretical physicists and philosophers of physics are sometimes indistinguishable these days they work so closely together. Likewise, political philosophers are not only engaging with political science (e.g. Charles Taylor, Thomas Pogge, etc.), they are also increasingly being consulted in matters of statecraft (e.g. Will Kymlicka). Bioethicists (e.g. Eike Kluge) are regularly involved in medical ethics review boards, and in crafting animal experimentation standards. Historians, furthermore, especially historians of science, draw regularly on philosophical considerations when working through historiographical problems (e.g. Theodore Arabatzis, Peter Galison, Hasok Chang, etc.).

    In sum, I think the assertion that philosophers are disengaged from the rest of academia would probably have been true in the 60’s and 70’s. Today it is clearly false.

  34. joe

    a perfect score on the quantitative section of the gre only puts you in the 94th percentile because 6% of test takers get perfect scores. the percentile associated with any given score gives the percentage of test-takers scoring below that level

  35. EP

    @Joe that’s true. But the more interesting answer is: the GRE quant tests relatively basic mathematical skills that require less difficult calculations and less time-consuming and error-prone manipulations of variables. Especially for students used to performing more complicated mathematical calculations (e.g. physics, engineering folk), it’s at least plausible that these students as a group perform better on the basic math tested in the GRE quant simply because they have acquired more practice with correcting errors, checking formulae, and doing arithmetic. That’s coming from a phil person who scored very high on the GRE quant, recognizing nevertheless that there’s bound to be a significant skew for people used to these kinds of mental activities. Physics and engineering folk may also just have higher quant IQs, whatever that means, on average.

  36. Bahram

    About the philosophy stuff, Curtis, I noticed a Canadian slant to your examples. Anyways… Kluge isn’t relevant as a philosopher. His extra-curricular work is however very relevant to law, and politics. And he should be commended for it. But I mean, saying he’s an engaged academic is a true statement, but not as a philosopher. He happens to have a philosophy degree, but it was in historical philosophy. He started his work in applied philosophy only after he received tenure (I’m ‘pretty’ sure).

    Also, he’s a fortunate aberration, but an aberration nonetheless. To get tenure your work has to be very technical, unreadable, irrelevant to real life and generally in metaphysics, epistemology, logic or ethics. The applied ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of law people you cite are few and far between and certainly no one is encouraged to get a PhD in applied philosophy.

    Also the Fodor and Rawls examples stuff from others… Two guys. Two very famous guys, one of whom is dead. I don’t know about Fodor, although I doubt he’s as big in non-philosophical circles as people claim (because I’ve read some of his stuff and it’s really boring) but as far as Rawls is concerned, it’s because his was a very practical political philosophy. I don’t know about the relevance of logic to comp. science either. Although it should be noted that neither do most logicians (and the fact that it is relevant if it is relevant to others fields is the result of, mostly, dumb luck). Anyways, people who do engage in other sorts of not strictly philosophical inquiry are shunned in academic philosophy.

    Unfortunately, people like Brian Leiter – who linked this article – and other professional philosophers do not encourage the work of these sorts of people. The interdisciplinary work all sensible people like so much more than the technical and theoretical squabbles is down-played when it comes time to give out the jobs, money, tenure, etc. I think this sort of isolationism is deeply troubling. Leiter specializes in meta-ethics, historical philosophy and philosophy of law, all of which, in his case, leave much to be desired in terms of relevance to the rest of academic and the real world.

    Also, there’s a reason most philosophers have disdain for interdisciplinary philosophers and don’t regard them as ‘real’ philosophers. They (the interdisciplinary philosophers) are basically admitting (through their work) that philosophy alone is not important and that it can only be important if we apply our philosophical minds to other fields or inquiry from which philosophy seems to gain credibility. But it doesn’t. Philosophers happen to be smart – as this research shows. One day they will all figure out that they’d be better off focusing their intellect on real world problems. Kymlicka and Kluge are examples of those who already do this. The rest are just self-indulgent. And unfortunately, self-indulgence is not considered a bad thing in philosophy.

    Pragmatist and others who want philosophy to be relevant and marginalized. This trend has turned a bit recently, but quite generally, the assertion that philosophers are disengaged is true… unfortunately.

  37. John

    @Zach K

    It’s been a few years since I looked into this, but the only thing the GRE is even remotely well correlated with is first year graduate GPA (oh boy!).

    No matter how you draw it up, making generalizations about intelligence based on GRE scores is horribly irresponsible. Here’s a correlation for you though: I bet that high GRE scores are strongly correlated with people’s perceptions of the GRE being an intelligence test (shocking, I know).

    The use of the GRE is more of a racket than a legitimate predictor of graduate school success (though it gets a little better when taken in consideration with GPA). The GRE is a logistic tool that gives those in the position to make admissions decisions the opportunity to make cuts without having to do a more thorough evaluation of an applicants qualifications.

    What the GRE shows is that you are good at taking standardized tests, and little else. Just because a person knows what ‘grandiloquent’ means and the numerous other obscure words like it, does not mean that person has any better chance of *completing* graduate school than anyone else.

    [For the record, I scored in the 80th percentile on the GRE, so I didn’t quite make it into that category of thinking it was a measure of my intelligence (oh, to join the 90’s club), but I did not do that poorly either]

    [of course I’m generalizing about the 90’s club, and I don’t think all people in that category believe the GRE is a measure of intelligence; certainly the wise ones don’t]

  38. Andrew

    You have to keep in mind that people taking the GRE with the intended graduate school major of philosophy are a self-selecting group of future professors and/or academics, whereas someone going to graduate school for engineering, business, social work, public administration or accounting is almost certainly going to look for a job outside of academia. Non-philosophy majors therefore probably need a more well-rounded skill set including specialized technical skills, presentation/business skills, or emotional/social intelligence, while philosophy majors can focus their time and attention on reading and writing or doing mathematical logic, which correlates well with the GRE.
    As a “right-brained” computer science major who has always performed in the 90 percentile ranges on verbal sections, but only slightly above average on quantitative, I’m a good example of the limitations of the correlative power of verbal/quant and major.

  39. Valerie Young

    Instead of the Writing section, the GRE used to have an Analytical section, consisting mostly of word-problem logic puzzles. As an engineering faculty member on the graduate committee, IMO, that section was the most valuable in admission decisions. ETS, though, said that “everyone else” agreed that they really needed to know how well people write instead, and assured us that Writing was testing logical argument construction and not vocabulary, so it was independent of the Verbal score. So, here we learn that the Writing section provides “everyone else” with no useful new information, because the Verbal score explains 81% of the variability in the writing score. The GRE Quantitative section is valuable to us only as a way to jettison the hopeless candidates, because anyone not proficient in algebra and geometry has no business in a graduate-level engineering program. Further, I submit that most of those “hopeless” applicants also have very low Verbal scores, and their problem is not actually their quantitative skills, but rather that their English is *so* abysmal that they are unable to successfully decipher some of the math problems. So, the GRE is not telling us anything we don’t learn from the TOEFL. I’d like to see us stop wasting engineering students’ money by requiring them to take the GRE.

  40. a philosopher

    It is pretty clear that Bahram has virtually no knowledge of philosophy. It is the most richly interdisciplinary field in the humanities with many areas of overlap and cooperation with the sciences, mathematics, and computer sciences. Sure, there is some scorn among scientists for philosophers. Often, it is deserved. But there is a great deal of interdisciplinary work being done by philosophers with scientists. Philosophy does, however, get little interaction with the rest of humanities, but this is chiefly do to the low quality of thought and work to be found there due to the influence of literary scholars and the volumes of obfuscation they produce.

  41. “Philosophers are the smartest humanists, physicists the smartest scientists, economists the smartest social scientists.”

    Philosophers are comparing themselves to Economists… in 2010?

    But then then they share the same foundation: blurring the boundary between speculative metaphysics and natural science.


  42. pconroy

    I read somewhere recently that Computer Science should really be considered a branch of Philosophy and not a Science?!

    What do you philosophers think about this??

    As a Computer Science major, I sort of agree with this categorization, as it is a sort of applied philosophy, or especially applied logic etc.

  43. Nick

    As some people here hinted, there is are inherent confounds in comparing these different fields.

    First, some fields listed are primarily PhD level fields. Thus, people taking the GRE are most likely looking to apply to PhD programs. Other fields have lots of master’s-level programs, meaning that a substantial portion (if not the majority) of people in those fields are headed to a less-rigorous MA/MS program.

    The second confound involves field popularity and selection. If getting a grad degree in psychology, for example, sounds “cool,” then lots of people will apply and take the GRE. Many of those people will be unprepared and will not end up being admitted to a program.

    To me, these data speak more about the types of people who want to get into a certain field, not the people who actually are in the field. I’d like to see a comparison of the GRE scores of students who are admitted into Ph.D. programs within each field. (Even better, choose the 25-50 most reputable schools in each field, and use only those schools to measure GRE scores in that field.)

  44. vergilius

    I love how first we have the gall to excoriate university philosophy professors for not being on the same level as Plato and Kant, and then when counterexamples of important modern philosophers who have been taken notice of are given, the reply is “well what about everyone else?”

    I don’t think Jesus Christ riding a perpetual motion machine could have the kind of widespread impact you folks seem to expect from the philosophical academic community.

    I agree that academia is a more than a bit bloated, but the implication here seems instead to be that every single researcher in say, chemistry, is producing extremely high-quality work of practical value easily as important as the great historical chemists, and that we ought to give them the philosophy department’s funding.

    As for the article itself, I liked it because I studied philosophy, economics, physics, and computer science as an undergrad and am extremely prone to flattery.

  45. @bahram

    I agree with what Vergilius said, basically; you cannot expect that everyone in a discipline is doing interdisciplinary work, because you need to have a discipline before you get INTERdisciplinary. There are characteristically “philosophical” problems that many philosophers focus exclusively on despite their having no apparent interdisciplinary or social relevance, in much the same was that there are theoretical problems in chemistry that garner the attention of chemists despite having little relevance to anything outside of chemical theory. And while getting tenure in a philosophy department requires a specific competance in philosophy, this does not imply that one’s work need be “very technical, unreadable, irrelevant to real life and generally in metaphysics, epistemology, logic or ethics.” Philosophy of science, philosophy of law, social philosophy, and political philosophy are all central fields in philosophy, for one, and much of the work coming out of these fields, by tenured and non-tenured people, is eminently readable and very relevant to real life, for another. I’m not sure how one could object to a professional academic discipline getting technical, though, so I’ll agree with you that philosophical work is often quite technical (which is why philosophers also produce many ‘introductory’ texts for people who want to develop their ability to engage with philosophical literature, just as chemists produce chemistry textbooks for the beginner).

    I could never produce an exhaustive list of living philosophers with significant impact on society and other disciplines, but here is an extremely partial listing, with a potentially Canadian bent (I am, after all, a Canadian): Kristen Shrader-Frechette, Evelyn Fox Kellar, Jurgen Habermas, James Tully, Ian Hacking, Nancy Cartwright, Alan Musgrave, John Worrall, Michael Ruse, Brian Skyrms, Catherine MacKinnon, Bruno Latour, Thomas Kuhn, Peter Singer, Daniel Dennett, Martha Nussbaum, Alistair MacIntyre, Judea Pearl, Joseph Heath, Paul and Pat Churchland, Heather Douglas, Janet Kourany, Ron Giere, Helen Longino, Naomi Oreskes, Stephen Epstein, Lorraine Code, David Castle, Paul Thompson, Yves Gingras, Zizek, etc. That’s really restricted to more famous philosophers, and only off the top of my head. I could keep going ad nauseum … especially if I went beyond the living ones.

    That said, I do think there’s a tendency to see ‘real’ philosophers as the ones working on problems that don’t directly impact other disciplines, making philosophy BY DEFINITION isolated and irrelevant. I think that tendency is unfortunate, for it means that as soon as someone starts doing something other than pure philosophy, they’re not doing philosophy at all any more. But if we start by using the term ‘philosophy’ in the way that practicing, professional, academic philosophers do, it’s clear that philosophers engage with society and other parts of academia all the time. Furthermore, those philosophers who appear more disengaged because they’re working on specific philosophical problems are doing work that the ‘more engaged’ philosophers need to do their engaging (e.g. philosophical work on the logic of induction and the phenomenology of perception is used to help explicate and inform scientific theories of evidence), so I don’t think their work could be considered strictly isolated and disengaged either.

    At the very least, I don’t think there are very many professional philosophers who don’t do interdisciplinary work, and I don’t think that those who are relatively disengaged are antagonistic towards those who are relatively engaged. I think the idea that some philosophers are antagonistic in this way is based on little more than a false stereotype; I know a lot of philosophers, and I can’t think of a single example of someone who is antagonistic in this way, nor have I seen one provided here. Philosophy is a big tent, and everyone is invited and welcome … especially those with high GRE scores!

  46. A Name to Come

    Here, here to Vergilius. The research of physicists, chemists, and biologists is just as ‘esoteric’ and ‘impractical’ as the work of philosophers. Add to this that philosophy is (a) CHEAPER and (b) efficiently and effectively develops verbal -and- quant skills… How to reinvigorate US education on a shoestring? Philosophy early and often.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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