March 8, 2018
Bill Miller on Philosophy: An Interview
The American Philosophical Association (APA) recently interviewed Bill about how philosophy has influenced his life and how the study of philosophy could influence others. Read the full interview on the APA blog.
APA: What philosophical problems are you most concerned with and why? Has this changed over time?
Bill: Problems in the philosophy of science and mathematics, such as the nature of explanation and evidence, and the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”; consciousness and other minds, especially animal minds and cognition; methodological issues in the philosophy of economics, particularly concerning economic models and assumptions such as the implications of non-ergodicity in financial theory. I was more interested in ethics and moral reasoning years ago than I am now, but that is mostly a matter of degree.
APA: Do you think philosophy is intrinsically valuable?
Bill: Absolutely! I agree with literary critic and former Johns Hopkins professor Stanley Fish, who when asked what the liberal arts were good for, answered that they were good for nothing: they were good in and of themselves and required no further justification. Turns out, though, that they have both instrumental and intrinsic value.
APA: Why did you decide to give such an endowment to the Johns Hopkins philosophy department? Were there any stipulations involved in the gift?
Bill: Prior to applying to the PhD program at Johns Hopkins, I had taken only one philosophy course, and that was a six week course at the end of my senior year. This was during the Vietnam War and I had a draft number low enough that I would have to spend several years in the military before grad school became a possibility. During that time I read extensively in philosophy and decided to apply to a PhD program. Johns Hopkins was one of the very few quality programs that would consider someone who was not a philosophy major. They asked for some examples of my philosophical work; I took some time off from the Army, wrote some papers, and was admitted. The philosophical training I received not only greatly enriched my life but the critical reasoning and analytical skills that are essential in philosophy proved to be enormously useful to me in my investment career. I was fortunate enough to do well economically and I wanted to show my appreciation and gratitude by giving enough to change the trajectory of philosophy at Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins has a rich philosophical tradition, with Royce and Dewey getting their PhD’s there, and Peirce having taught there. The objective of the gift is to honor that tradition and to enable Hopkins philosophy to become one of the premier departments in the country. There are no stipulations on the gift.
APA: Do you have any thoughts about the increasing disparity in private and state funding between STEM programs and the humanities? Do you believe other private donors to universities and colleges should consider funding the humanities? In your opinion, should the federal government or states increase funding for philosophy?
Bill: Part of why I gave this gift and especially the amount was to highlight the value of the humanities, particularly philosophy, when the focus more recently has been on STEM. I think STEM is unquestionably important, but not at the expense of the humanities. I would hope that donors would think carefully about targeting the humanities with their giving and in proportion to how much it has enriched their lives. Governments are already overburdened with spending priorities and at the state and federal level have made too many promises for middle class entitlements that it is unlikely that additional funds for humanities are likely to be forthcoming, however desirable that may be.
APA: Do you have any opinions about providing access to less-privileged individuals that currently lack the opportunity to fully engage in philosophy?
Bill: Was it Brecht who said, “first grub, then ethics”? I am in favor of anything that provides greater access to philosophy, especially for less privileged individuals. I think Quine said he supported state sponsored lotteries because they were the only subsidy for intelligence that the government offered. How about a weekly liberal arts lottery?
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