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The Twentieth Century Philosophers

Bertrand Russell

While he was not alone in rebelling against the idealism of Kant and Hegel, Bertrand Russell was foremost in trying to formulate more logical ways of describing objects, their properties and categories of objects, thus avoiding much of the loosely interpretable writings of his predecessors. He is thus considered to be one of the founders of analytical philosophy.

Russell revised his opinions on various subjects, preferring this to mental stagnation. Some of his readers may find his views of 'sense-data', as opposed to different viewpoints on actual objects, a little hard to stomach.

What is the relevance of Bertrand Russell to career choice and to a careers test?

Trying to achieve intellibility as well as logic is important in any tool used by the public, let alone a careers test. Clarity assists people in making informed career choices, as questions which are not subject to overmuch variability over what they mean lead to more reliability variability in the answers of different individuals.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

A very important philosopher, Wittgenstein considered language to circumscribe possible thoughts. Echoes of this idea may be found in George Orwell's 1984, where Newspeak not only set out Big Brothers world view but made other thoughts impossible because of the limitations of the discourse; see Orwell's essay 'Politics and the English Language' for a short exposition of this concept.

Wittgenstein developed his consideration of language later in his life. The meaning of language is shaped by the context of its use, by the intentions of the users.

Cole Davis on Wittgenstein

The differences between Wittgenstein's earlier and later writings on language are sometimes interpreted as contradictory. While the latter certainly improves the teaching of English grammar, especially to foreign learners, as a meaningful system, the former is still of relevance. We have only to study the usage of language by politicians and the media and then to listen to demotic opinions to see the point.

What is the relevance of Wittgenstein to career choice?

Clarity of language is important for the development of open-minded ideas, of great importance in making informed career choices.

George Orwell

Real name Eric Blair, Orwell is famous for his novels attacking totalitarianism, Animal Farm and 1984. Less well-known, however, are his essays, which cover a range of topics within politics, literature and linguistics. He extends Wittgenstein's concerns with language as a limit for consciousness, exploring the use of language to corrupt and obscure. He also examines concepts such as nationalism, seeing them as an extension of particular ways of thinking, and other social phenomena. As a writer rather than a philosopher, he has no apparent organised system of thought, but his transparent honesty in the face of inconvenient truths means that he is still considered an intellectual and moral guide by many ('what would George Orwell have thought?').

What is the relevance of George Orwell to a careers adviser?

He inspires me to be as objective and decent as I can in life, in my own career and in my works. Where I fail, it is not Orwell's fault!

Martin Heidegger

Heidegger had a notion of reaching back to pre-Socratic philosophers to find a true conception of the meaning of being, creating a range of terms to describe the qualities of being. He also, as did Descartes, distinguished between the mental and physical sides of a person. He describes the self, graphically, as waking up in the present and aware of past events which affect one but which are no longer changeable, but with some freedom in what can be done in the future. Which parts of ourselves we dwell on most and which we neglect is important. Merely being concerned with the present is to limit one's understanding.

Heidegger influenced both the existentialists, who he distanced himself from, and the work of the later postmodernists, with their emphasis on deconstruction. He was also a prominent Nazi.

Cole Davis on Heidegger

Reaching back to an unreachable humanity seems to me to be akin to Rousseau's noble savage and as unrealistic.

What is the relevance of Heidegger to career choice?

Leaving aside any ad hominem feelings (directed at the person rather than their reasoning), I'm not sure I see much relevant other than the point that a person making a career choice needs to consider their past to some extent, their present and what they want to do with their future. Yes, there is an existential choice, which is likely to affect career choice.

Karl Popper

Popper's most influential concept is that of the falsifiable hypothesis. We are unable to prove that a theory is true, but we can by testing prove that it is false. In the past, philosophers have used induction, where several observations lead to a generalisation or conclusion about a phenomenon. Science often advances on an inductive basis; after all, how do you decide what to experiment on without having made observations? But Popper believes that falsification of theories is the best way for science to progress. Just one negative observation can falsify a theory.

Also, such a methodology has epistemological value. We can decide if something is scientific or not. If Freudian theory allows one outcome, for example, to be called a dynamic and the opposite outcome is what Freud would call a reaction, then falsifiability is impossible and such a theory can not be considered scientific.

What is the relevance of Karl Popper to a careers test?

As CareerSteer does, a good careers test should be founded on research, where testing has shown that some ideas work and others do not. Would it not be irresponsible for vulnerable people seeking career choice to be guided according to pet theories that may well be so much pie in the sky. And yet, many do this.

Jean-Paul Sartre

The quintessential existentialist, Sartre considers freedom. He says that a nothingness lies in the heart of being, empty consciousness, allowing us freedom of action. We can imagine what we believe to be possible. People choose roles and, if they bind themselves by moral reasoning, they are merely rationalising; people must make moral choices alone as responsible individuals. Choices are of course made against a background of factors such as genetics, age and circumstances.

The self is a construct, however. We can reconstruct ourselves.

What is the relevance of Jean-Paul Sartre to career choice and to a careers test?

A person making a career choice has the freedom, indeed is obliged, to remake themselves to some extent. A good careers test will introduce relevant factors, but if interactive like CareerSteer, will allow a wide panoply of possibilities to be made manifest to allow the chance of reconstruction.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner

More commonly known as B F Skinner, the most well-known of behaviourists. Behaviourists are psychologists who focus on behaviour, and environmental influences on how animals including humans behave. Behaviour may be created by association (cf the work of Pavlov on classical conditioning) and by the consequences of behaviour, rewards or otherwise. The latter, whether reinforcement of any given type or punishment, is the focus of much of Skinner's work on behaviour modification.

A radical behaviourist, Skinner viewed thought as a form of behaviour and, in considering the interaction between the biological organism and the environment - its history of reinforcement - went so far as to deny the possibility of freedom, as in the title of his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity.

Cole Davis on B F Skinner

Skinner has been much vilified, but it should be noted that many of the most demonstrably effective therapies have been based upon his work. The so-called cognitive therapies work because thoughts are considered as behaviours, useful or maladaptive, to be stopped, revised or encouraged. His schedules of reinforcement can be seen at their most effective, in the in the design of fruit machines (detrimental, to be sure). Even the much vaunted claim that Noam Chomsky had discredited behaviourism in the theory of the acquisition of language is now looking shaky; recent evidence shows young people developing grammar in a logical cumulative way - making the types of mistakes that would be predicted by such a method - rather than by the innate acquisition format predicted by Skinner's critics.

Skinner if anything is of a Lockean disposition in terms of the tabula rasa. While Skinner entertains reinforcements as things that will affect human behaviour, he diverges radically from those philosophers who consider the pursuit of individual happiness as sacrosanct. He sees the potential of an environmentally controlled society. Given recent research that young children are inclined to behave badly rather than well if uncontrolled, maybe a Hobbesian vision is well-founded and a Skinnerian future is the best we can ask for. But how do we ensure a fair or logical application of controls?

What is the relevance of B F Skinner to a career test?

The CareerSteer careers test uses calibrated measured questions rather than emotive personality categorisations to draw an occupational personal profile. It assumes that the human personality is based upon biological differences but also the history of reinforcement.

Michel Foucault

Like Derrida, Foucault can be considered a postmodernist. Human beings, according to Foucault are constructed by power and knowledge. We are objectified in three ways: 'dividing practices' which categorise us as sane and insane, for example; 'scientific classification' which gives us names according to the discourse of scientific and other academic disciplines; and 'subjectification', the way we wish to understand ourselves, often created by power relations but also offering the opportunity to deconstruct ourselves.

Although Foucault is very much concerned with the exercise of power (see however, other works, such as Erving Goffman's Asylums) and state control, a certain relativism is an outcome of his views. Morality and the function of institutions are based upon power. Do they not have the power to inform, educate and protect?

What is the relevance of Foucault to career direction?

The ability to give oneself a new future is of course the purpose of any career choice test. Care should be taken, however, not to become so relativistic as to view with cynicism any set of choices pertaining to institutions.

Sigmund Freud

The famous psychoanalyst saw human behaviour as being driven unconsciously. Such irrationally was perceived as being derived from three psychologically conflicting aspects of the personality: the id, instinctually hedonistic; the superego, a censorious creation of upbringing; and the ego, attempting to realistically balance the demands of the other two. Freud saw psychological distress arising from such conflicts and saw the raising of these conflicts into consciousness as a way of resolving them. There is no evidence, however, that psychoanalysis works. Unfortunately, Freud's views have been very influential.

What is the relevance of Sigmund Freud to career choice?

Very little, except the general point that upbringing clearly does have an affect upon people's views and behaviour, and that not everybody is aware of the influences upon them and, to that extent, may not always be considered 'rational'.

Simone de Beauvoir

Existentialist and feminist, de Beauvoir developed Hegel's master and slave dynamic, by claiming that women have developed as adjuncts of men. Men undertake projects in the world, with women consigned to the roles of mother, housekeeper and lover. Although the role is apparently natural, women can be complicit in their subjugation. Freedom can be denied as well as seized. By the same logic, women can deny passive roles.

What is the relevance of de Beauvoir to a career test?

The world of work has moved on considerably, although neither wholly nor irrevocably. Career choice needs to be made with the above concepts in mind. The CareerSteer careers test has been devised to ignore perceived gender differences.

A. J. Ayer

Ayer's contribution to philosophy has been one of synthesis. He is interested in what can be verified and tests the veriafiability of other philosophers. The arguments of metaphysicians and theists are unverifiable and therefore lack meaning.

What is the relevance of Ayer to career choice and to a careers test?

On the whole, career choice should err on the side of that which is verifiable. A responsible career test must endeavour to do this, although it may concede that the user holds unverifiable views such as religious faith, which will influence career choice.

Peter Singer

Singer is a consequentialist: outcomes determine if an action is moral or not. More particularly, will individuals make the most of personal satisfaction. Singer considers different species to have the same rights to satisfaction, which of course leads to a variety of ethical dilemmas. Similarly, the obvious benefits of euthanisia, ending undesirable consequences, are debatable ones.

Cole Davis on Singer

The concern over whether or not the pursuit of happiness is the only desirable aim is not a criticism of Singer alone. What if, as currently seems likely, the achievement of many personal goals are likely to bring about much misery and many deaths? Are duties not to be considered as important, with the pursuit of happiness allowable within rather more limited parameters than hitherto? It could be that this is not new, however, but merely extends the constraints to liberty beyond the clearly tangible. Instead of merely preventing obvious murder by knife and bomb, perhaps we need to include economic oppression and environmental spoliation as crimes rather than matters of individual choice.

What is the relevance of Singer to career choice?

Career choice is usually considered in relation to individual satisfaction, in terms of material gain, intellectual enrichment or moral contentment. Whether or not future societal needs will constrain such considerations has yet to be seen.

Richard Dawkins

A biologist who suggests that Darwinian natural selection works best at the level of genetic reproduction. Then becoming a populariser of science, Dawkins has gone further by espousing the cause of atheism, and criticising religion on grounds of its having no scientific basis. Whether or not the conflation of his anti-religious views with scientific endeavour may do damage to the standing of science per se is a moot point.

What is the relevance of Richard Dawkins to a career test?

While as a careers test, CareerSteer endeavours to be scientifically rigorous, it does not deny the fact that some individuals may choose a religious occupation.

A. C. Grayling

A popular philosopher but not a populist one, Grayling tackles old themes without referring overmuch to philosophical theory and also meets the evidence from modern research head-on and in a critical way. He is instructive in looking at how we live.

Of particular value is his advice on happiness. Happiness is something which emerges from other activities and we may not even be conscious of it at the time; think of the times when happiness is only recognised when looking back. Grayling says that the best way to become unhappy is to seek directly for happiness. Also damaging is to concern oneself too much with what others have; by all means strive for the best you can get on your own terms, but 'keeping up with the Joneses' is not recommended.

A sense of control over your life and feeling that what you do is valued are both important factors.

What is the relevance of Grayling to career direction?

Aim to be the best that you can, without worrying too much about comparing yourself to other people. Do creative or useful things, aim to be the best that you can; this way happiness lies. Note that control over what you do and doing a job which you feel is valued may be more important in generating a sense of well-being than having more money than your friends.


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