Rubio: What in the weld are you talking about?

Dear Marco Rubio,

The philosophy department at Rock Valley College would like to know what in the weld world you meant by the following:

“Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”

If this were a one-off comment, one suspects we would not feel the need to give it much thought. But it isn’t, see here, and it came out in a very public arena, so this can be viewed as an opportunity for philosophers to explain just what it is we do. It is odd that this needs to be done, as even the briefest look into the history of civilization reveals the foundational role of philosophical thinking for EVERY discipline that we deem valuable today.

But, we will give him the benefit of the doubt and try to determine exactly what it is he means. Happily, it turns out that this is one of the many focuses of philosophical thinking: critical analysis of language.

Maybe his point is that we no longer need philosophy today? The ancient Greeks (I guess those are the only philosophers he thinks merit a mention, and he has mentioned them unfavorably more than once) no longer have anything relevant for us today. Studying them certainly is not going to get you a job! After all, he might be saying, look at the paltry sum the profession promises to would-be professional philosophers.

Well, actually, those who make it into academic philosophy do quite well in comparison to many other professions, including welders.

Rubio’s comment above is ambiguous. It is a grouping fallacy where the truth-value of the claim depends upon whether he means welders as an entire group (there are more of them than philosophers) or individually. But even those who receive a BA in philosophy fare better than many of their peers in other disciplines.

We don’t think Rubio is implying that one should seek a program of study solely because it is potentially lucrative–again, the data reveals that would be taking philosophy, at least for undergrad. Should that be one’s goal in life? What reasons could we marshal to support such a position? Of course once we have sought such reasons, we have delved into philosophy. Is this impractical? We want to remain in the realm of the real-world and the pragmatic, as during such a time of economic and geopolitical uncertainty, surely pragmatism is the way to go. But there are Pragmatist philosophers, Pierce, James, Dewey and others who developed a philosophical grounding to the sorts of concerns Rubio has vocalized.

Let’s imagine Rubio was actually questioned about his comment; let’s say by one of his political opponents on that very debate stage, and a philosophy grad, Carly Fiorina. This imaginary exchange, that didn’t happen but it should have, is called a thought experiment. It allows us to think about things in possible worlds in a way that we cannot in the real one, for various reasons. So, imagine Fiorina presses him for a reason as to why we need “fewer” (not “less”) philosophers. How might that go? We guess he would give her supporting claims, maybe premises that lead to his conclusion that we don’t need no stinking philosophy. We bet he could do that, and even succeed in the endeavor, as he has clearly demonstrated an ability to construct arguments.

However, even if he succeeds in this, he will have failed. Logic, the science of argumentation, began with philosophy, and continues to be developed and honed in philosophy, and is elemental to all of the branches of philosophy still today. So, if he advances a cogent and convincing argument against philosophy, he must engage in the most fundamental tool of philosophers that was in fact invented by them—logic. To paraphrase Pascal, to ridicule philosophy is to be a philosopher. So, what could Rubio mean?

Maybe Rubio means philosophers don’t make anything. They don’t build anything that is lasting or utilitarian. But that can’t be it. There are too many other professions that are surely valuable but do not themselves actually construct anything. What do financiers build? Or politicians for that matter? Scientists sure make stuff that we need. If only philosophers were more like them, like Stephen Hawking, perhaps we would want more of them.

But theories of the origins of the universe, for example, are found in philosophy too. Indeed, much of what grounds scientific hypothesizing comes from philosophical theories of knowledge–epistemology. It might even be the most important part, as it seems to be needed for all other branches. It doesn’t hurt to have it in legal disputes either—how do we know what we claim to know?

Heavens, what could he mean? God? Yes, even God(s) is covered in philosophy. It is not from any one particular theological viewpoint, but philosophers study the nature of religion and belief itself. This includes ethical reasoning. Does he think these are unimportant today? That would be weird.

Perhaps he means that philosophy is no longer needed for his profession: politics. What has Athens to do with Washington? he might muse. What else could it be, as it’s not the money, meaning, logic, truth, morals, existence. That doesn’t leave much else but the very profession Rubio has chosen for himself. The “we” refers to politicians who have no need for more philosophers.

Maybe, but this would be inconsistent with the fact that the founding fathers and their philosophical theories of governance expressed in the Declaration of Independence were hugely indebted to people like philosopher John Locke.

After all of that, perhaps the only charitable interpretation of Rubio’s comment is the following: “We need more welders AND more philosophers.” That makes sense. We are going to go with that.  Thank you Marco Rubio for letting the world know the importance of philosophy (and welding).

Sincerely,

The Philosophy Department of Rock Valley College

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