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Why Did a Billionaire Give $75 Million to a Philosophy Department?

Philosophy matters. The new challenges of the genomics revolution, the rise of AI, the growth in inequality, societal fragmentation, and our capacity for devastating war all invite philosophical perspective.Painting by Otto Scholderer / Wikicommons

Last week, for the first time in recent memory, a news story in this troubling period had me, a bachelor of arts in philosophy, sitting up straight in stunned delight. Johns Hopkins University was gifted $75 million to expand its philosophy department to near-twice its size—more professors (13 to 22 over a decade) and postdoctoral fellows and graduate students, as well more undergraduate courses. It’s apparently the largest donation any philosophy department has ever received, and for Johns Hopkins, it’s the largest gift the university has ever received for one of its humanities departments.

The giftee isn’t remaining anonymous; the philosophy department, which gave birth to American pragmatism in the late 19th century, will be named after the star investor, and former Johns Hopkins philosophy graduate student, William H. “Bill” Miller III, who you may remember making a bullish-on-banks blunder as “Bruce” Miller in The Big Short. Miller attributes “much” of his success—beating the Standard & Poor’s 500 for 15 consecutive years, from 1991 to 2005—to the “analytical training and habits of mind” his philosophical study at Johns Hopkins inculcated. The way he sees it, more students should have the chance for that intellectual stimulation. Miller agrees with the president of Johns Hopkins University, Ronald J. Daniels, when he says, “Philosophy matters…The contemporary challenges of the genomics revolution, the rise of artificial intelligence, the growth in income inequality, social and political fragmentation, and our capacity for devastating war all invite philosophical perspective.”

Challenges in the sciences also invite philosophical perspective. Though for Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical cosmologist, philosophizing in science is most usefully done by scientists themselves. “Of course physics needs philosophy,” he says. “But does it need philosophers? That’s the question. And the answer is not so much anymore. The earlier physicists were philosophers. When the questions weren’t well defined, that’s when philosophy becomes critically important.”

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Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @brianga11agher.

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