February 13, 2020

Professor Massimo Pigliucci became a philosopher after a career in biology, getting three doctoral degrees along the way. He counters criticism of the humanities.

Professor Massimo Pigliucci (Photo courtesy of Massimo Pigliucci)
Professor Massimo Pigliucci (Photo courtesy of Massimo Pigliucci)

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM

The word “stoic” is usually taken to mean enduring suffering without complaint. But for Professor Massimo Pigliucci (GC/City College of New York, Philosophy), the ancient philosophy of Stoicism is a way of life that allows us to solve problems through reason. Pigliucci contributed a chapter on Stoicism to a new book he co-edited called How to Live a Good Life. He also writes an engaging column on ethics and philosophy for Medium. Pigliucci spoke to The Graduate Center about the true meaning of stoicism, philosophy in higher ed, and how he ended up with three doctoral degrees.

GC: Before you became a philosopher, you had a tremendous career as a scientist — winning the Dobzhansky Prize and getting quoted in The New York Times among other things. You’ve said that a midlife crisis precipitated a career change. What happened? And what was it like getting a philosophy Ph.D. on top of degrees in genetics and evolutionary biology? 

Pigliucci: My midlife crisis was triggered by a number of events, which happened in the span of a few months: My wife divorced me, my father died, and I moved to another city because of a new job. Regular stuff, but when it hits in rapid succession it makes you think.

I decided to get my Ph.D. in philosophy in my late 30s, once I had reached the rank of full professor in biology and had started to realize that it would not be exciting to spend several more decades doing the same kind of things I had done for the previous two decades. I was teaching and doing research in biology (gene-environment interactions, or nature-nurture problems) at the University of Tennessee while I was getting my Ph.D. in philosophy by going to evening classes. And working on my thesis during weekends. Then I was hired at Lehman College in the philosophy department, as chair, of all things! It’s a job people typically don’t want, but it was my chance to jump fields, and I took it. 

GC: You’re now at CCNY and The Graduate Center, a champion of your field in an era when philosophy in higher ed is sometimes mocked as irrelevant. What do you say to the critics? 

Pigliucci: Once I became department chair in philosophy, I started looking at actual data about our majors and what they do after graduation. Turns out, philosophy majors are better employed than average, and make more money, than most other majors 10 years after graduation. They also report working in jobs they find fulfilling. Moreover, philosophy majors score very high on most standardized tests that people take to get into law school, medical school, or graduate school. So there is a lot of misconception and prejudice out there.

I think universities should stop functioning like for-profit corporations and deluding students that it’s all about STEM. STEM fields are important, and if you wish to pursue a career in engineering or biology you should have the chance. But it is a myth that those majors automatically bring jobs, financial rewards, and so forth. The Department of Education a few years ago released data that showed most students’ majors were statistically unrelated to their careers — except in technical fields like nursing or engineering. In other words: When in college, study what you want, what you like, what fulfills you. Later on, you’ll find a job.

Also, universities should stop pretending that college education is mostly about jobs and “being productive.” We are supposed to educate citizens in a democracy. That requires the humanities, not just philosophy, since a lot of what we teach that allows one to be a rounded human being and a more cognizant citizen of our society is simply not taught in STEM.

GC: How did philosophy impact your life and what is Stoicism really about? 

Pigliucci: Philosophy prompted me to think critically and in-depth about what I was doing and why. Specifically, it was reading Plato’s account of Socrates’ life that for the first time opened the possibility to me that philosophy could be more than a theoretical discipline. It could be a way of life.

There are a number of misconceptions about Stoicism: that Stoics seek to suppress emotions (which is not really possible, for a human being!); that they go through life with a stiff upper lip; and, yes, that they are more than a bit masochistic. The reality is that we attempt to shift our emotional spectrum away from what we see as disruptive emotions (like anger, fear, hatred) and toward constructive ones (love, joy, a sense of justice). We certainly do think that if nothing can be done about a situation then our best bet is to endure it, not to despair, since the latter simply makes things worse. 

We do engage in mild exercises of self-deprivation, like short-term fasting, or abstaining from buying stuff for a week. The reason for that is twofold: On the one hand, we want to remind ourselves of the fact that we can live with far less than society tells us we ought to have. Believe it or not, one can do just fine without a new smartphone, relying instead on an older model. On the other hand, these are exercises in gratitude: After you’ve fasted for a day or two, I guarantee you that your next supper feels very good no matter what you eat!

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.