Sep 21 • 9M

Why is philosophy difficult?

How many people can comprehend the last sentence of Mill's On Liberty?

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Ideas Sleep Furiously
We mainly publish data driven articles from a team of highly skilled writers, with occasionally forays into philosophy and culture. We seek to write about important and (sometimes) "controversial" ideas relevant for a future civilisation.
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Here is the last sentence of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. As you read it, I want you to think about how many people in a developed nation like the US or Britain could understand what’s being said here:

The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it; and a State which postpones the interests of their mental expansion and elevation to a little more of administrative skill, or of that semblance of it which practice gives, in the details of business; a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes—will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish.

That sentence is 126 words long. Mill is one of the most accessible philosophers a college student will pick up and On Liberty is one of his most accessible works. Here is the social scientist Charles Murray drawing out the obvious implications:

It would be nice if everyone could acquire a fully formed liberal education, but they cannot. We are once again looking at the 20 percent tops, and probably closer to 10 percent, who have the level of academic ability necessary to cope with the stuff of a liberal education at the college level.


Every percentile down the ability ladder — and this applies to all abilities, not just academic— the probability that a person will enjoy the hardest aspects of an activity goes down as well. Students at the 80th percentile of academic ability are still smart kids, but the odds that they will respond to a course that assigns Mill or Milton are considerably lower than the odds that a student in the top few percentiles will respond. Virtue has nothing to do with it. Maturity has nothing to do with it. Appreciation of the value of a liberal education has nothing to do with it. The probability that a student will enjoy Paradise Lost goes down as his linguistic ability goes down, but so does the probability that he works on double acrostic puzzles in his spare time or plays online Scrabble hour after hour, and for the identical reason. The lower down the linguistic ladder he is, the less fun such activities are.

Philosopher Kings?

According to US data, philosophers seem to dominate verbal reasoning ability compared to other majors. At undergraduate level:

An analysis of the average SAT scores (converted into IQ by Education Testing Services) achieved by undergraduates in different majors in the United States attests to clear interdisciplinary differences: physics majors, 133; mathematics majors, 130; physical sciences majors, 125; humanities and arts majors, 120; social science majors, 115. There are considerable variations within the disciplines. For example, the average philosophy major has an IQ of 129, while the average history major has an IQ of 119, yet both are humanities students.

At graduate level, the data are just as stark. The Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) is a standardised test that is an admissions requirement for many graduate schools in the United States and Canada. The GRE is scored on a 130-170 scale in both the verbal and quantitative sections. GRE Verbal and GRE Quant both have 40 questions. Therefore, the highest possible raw score in any section is 40. In the final score report, both of these portions are graded on a 130-170 scale. The raw score will differ from the final GRE official score since the Education Testing Service alters the number of points you receive for specific questions dependent on how difficult they are. Some questions might be worth more points.

Here is a good conversion between the scaled score and where that places someone on the bell curve:

Between July 1, 2018, and June 30, 2021, only four majors achieved a mean verbal reasoning score over 160:

Slavic, Baltic & Albanian Languages & Literatures: 163

Classics & Classical Languages & Literatures: 162

Classics: 161

Philosophy: 160

The GRE also has an Analytical Writing component. The analytical writing score is scored between 0 and 6, in 0.5-point increments. The test consists of two 30-minute essay-writing tasks, a task to "Analyse an Issue" and a task to "Analyse an Argument". Here are the percentiles:

The same 2018-21 data show the mean AW score for philosophy is 4.4. Again, only a few other subjects reach these heights. Interestingly, both Classics and Slavic, Baltic & Albanian Languages & Literatures beat philosophy with 4.5 and 4.7 mean scores, respectively.

Here are the average GRE Verbal scores for entry into elite colleges. The average graduate who intends to pursue philosophy is still worse than these twelve schools, despite being better than 85 per cent of the other GRE Verbal test takers. Note that this is an important limitation to the GRE data: we do not know how many people study their intended major or graduate from it.

Verbal Dexterity: Meno’s Paradox

If we split the difference between Murray’s numbers, it’s highly likely that only 15% of the population have the biological capability of understanding Mill’s text. That’s an IQ of around 115. But of those people, how many should actually study Mill? Well, as Murray says, anybody who wants to of course. It’s just the likelihood of someone, who barely has the ability to do so, actually enjoying reading this material day after day (and remember Mill is relatively easy) is very slim. Moreover, Mill’s text doesn’t really highlight the crucial abstract thinking philosophers also require. Consider, for example, this passage in Plato’s Meno:

Meno: And how will you search for something, Socrates, when you don’t know what it is at all? I mean, which of the things you don’t know will you take in advance and search for, when you don’t know what it is? Or even if you come right up against it, how will you know that it’s the unknown thing you’re looking for?

Socrates: I see what you’re getting at, Meno. Do you realise what a controversy you’re conjuring up? The claim is that it’s impossible for a man to search either for what he knows or for what he doesn’t know: he wouldn’t be searching for what he knows, since he knows it and that makes the search unnecessary, and he can’t search for what he doesn’t know either, since he doesn’t even know what it is he’s going to search for.

I suspect that even if we trained everybody in philosophy from birth, only 10% of the population would truly understand Meno’s Paradox. And the number of people who could identify the fallacy of the paradox would probably be less than half that number. If you’d like to see the solution to this riddle, I made a video on the paradox last year. Be warned, it contains a cat:

As an aside, how was Socrates able to go around annoying so many people with dense philosophical arguments? Well, if Francis Galton’s estimates are correct, the Ancient Greeks in the Classical Period might have had an average IQ of 115-119. That means 15% of their population would have been considered gifted by today’s standards (IQ 130 and above, which is the top 2% in developed countries). Galton came to this conclusion after comparing the proportion of eminent men in Athens of the fifth century BC with the proportion of eminent men in the England of his day.

Anyway, unlike other humanities subjects, philosophy requires many different intellectual skills. Logic and analytic philosophy, for example, will reward the mathematically minded more than reading Hamlet or Trotsky will. And arguably, the precision and clarity of one’s arguments have to be more finely tuned in philosophy than English or even history. However, it would be interesting to see if certain other assumptions were empirically supported. For example, if history is largely about remembering a lot of facts, do historians have better long-term memories? After all, if you’re a good physicist, you can derive a lot just from Newton’s equations.

And for the philosophers reading this, stay humble. Otherwise, the economists and mathematicians will come for you.

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