Issues in Philosophy Interview with Former Philosophy Graduate Student and Investor Bill Miller

Interview with Former Philosophy Graduate Student and Investor Bill Miller

William H “Bill” Miller III is a former philosophy graduate student at Johns Hopkins University; he is also a well-regarded investor, fund manager, and philanthropist. If you have been paying attention to news within the philosophy sphere, you may know Bill recently donated a record-breaking 75 million dollars to the Department of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. Bill graciously took time to answer a number of philosophy-related questions by email. The interview is reproduced below.

Why did you decide to give such an endowment to the Johns Hopkins philosophy department? Were there any stipulations involved in the gift?

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.

You could likely have pursued any degree you wanted. Why did you choose to pursue a PhD in philosophy at Johns Hopkins?

I think the answer is partly implicit in the previous answer. I had no exposure to philosophy prior to the end of my senior year in college. The class I took was in the philosophy of language, taught by Ramsey Martin, a  former fighter pilot. I still remember the texts: The Linguistic Turn, edited by Richard Rorty (who subsequently became one of my favorite contemporary philosophers) and New Essays in Philosophical  Theology, compiled by Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre. I was fascinated by the readings and by the technical and analytical rigor exhibited in the works. I had considered going to either law school or business school after the army, but I thought the subject in neither was anywhere close to as compelling as philosophy and so went in that direction.

Which philosophers influenced your development the most?

Hume had the same influence on me that he did on Kant. After reading extensively in Kant it became evident that I was not going to be able to improve on his efforts and so turned to Hegel. It took me a while to get the hang of him. Schopenhauer is a source of continuing fascination. The greatest impact on me came from the American Pragmatists:  Peirce, James, and Dewey. Also, Russell and Moore, and of course Wittgenstein.

What philosophical problems are you most concerned with and why? Has this changed over time?

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.

Do you ever wish you had stayed in academia?

No.  I did not have the creativity to make any meaningful contribution to philosophy and my leaving academia spared the world from having one more mediocre philosopher.  And for sure had I stayed in the academic world Johns Hopkins would not have gotten that gift!  My younger son, though, got his PhD in Victorian literature, has a tenure track position, and hopes to stay in academia.

Do you think philosophy is intrinsically valuable?

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.

Have you remained engaged in philosophy after leaving academia?

Only by reading, although I expect to be a lot more engaged as Johns Hopkins moves forward putting the gift to work.

Do you think having an education in philosophy made your life better?

Unquestionably. I am forever grateful I spent the time on philosophy as my life would have been poorer without it. Reading and understanding what the best minds in history thought about timeless questions is endlessly fascinating and enriching.

Do you believe high schools should include philosophy classes in the common core curriculum?

Yes, too many students are completely unacquainted with philosophy prior to college, as I was, and it can change your life.

Have you made any significant decisions after considering philosophical arguments, e.g. arguments for vegetarianism or reducing the consumption of factory-farmed meat, anti-natalism, effective altruism, donation of organs, and so on?

I read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation when it came out and I generally am more sympathetic to the animal rights movement than most. While I do not find the more extreme versions of arguments about altruism compelling, I think they are directionally correct and they have informed my philanthropic efforts.

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?

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.

Do you have any opinions about providing access to less-privileged individuals that currently lack the opportunity to fully engage in philosophy?

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?

Are there plans to work with the philosophy department to earmark funds for means-based scholarships for Baltimore City students? How will other funds be organized?

The plans for the distribution of funds have not reached that level of granularity. There have been preliminary discussions about ways to provide funds to engage Baltimore city students with philosophy. Broadly, the funds are to go almost doubling the size of the faculty, increasing salaries, providing funding for postdocs and additional funding for grad students, money for research, colloquia, workshops, travel, and funding for broadening and deepening the undergraduate philosophy offerings.

Given the benefits philosophy offers to people, it seems like it would be extremely valuable not just at institutions like Johns Hopkins, but also at institutions like the Community College of Baltimore County, Montgomery College and Morgan State University. Do you see any role for yourself or other like-minded philanthropists in improving access to philosophy for people at these institutions?

I am all in favor of anything that makes philosophy more available to more people and more institutions. One of the things I would like to see is if there are productive ways to perhaps share resources among those institutions or ways in which they could work cooperatively to expose more people from all backgrounds to philosophy.

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