Serial Entrepreneur Damon Horowitz Says “Quit Your Tech Job and Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities”

Damon Horowitz, a phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor and “ser­i­al entre­pre­neur,” recent­ly joined Google as an In-House Philosopher/Director of Engi­neer­ing. Pri­or to his work at Google, Horowitz co-found­ed Aard­vark, Per­spec­ta, and a num­ber of oth­er tech com­pa­nies. In this talk at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty’s 2011 Bib­lioTech con­fer­ence on “Human Expe­ri­ence,”  Horowitz explains why he left a high­ly-paid tech career, in which he sought the keys to arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, to pur­sue a Ph.D. in Phi­los­o­phy at Stan­ford (the text of the talk is avail­able here).

Horowitz offers fel­low techies a for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge, but a worth­while one. In say­ing so, I must con­fess a bias: As a stu­dent and teacher of the human­i­ties, I have watched with some dis­may as the cul­ture becomes increas­ing­ly dom­i­nat­ed by tech­ni­cians who often ignore or dis­miss press­ing philo­soph­i­cal and eth­i­cal prob­lems in their quest to build a bet­ter world. It is grat­i­fy­ing to hear from some­one who rec­og­nized this issue by (tem­porar­i­ly) giv­ing up what he admits was a great deal of pow­er and soci­etal priv­i­lege and head­ed back to the class­room.

Horowitz describes his intel­lec­tu­al jour­ney from “tech­nol­o­gist” to philoso­pher with pas­sion and can­dor, and con­cludes that as a result of his aca­d­e­m­ic inquiry, he “no longer looks for machines to solve all of our prob­lems for us,” and no longer assumes that he knows what’s best for his users. This kind of humil­i­ty and intel­lec­tu­al flex­i­bil­i­ty is, ide­al­ly, the out­come of a high­er degree in the human­i­ties, and Horowitz uses his own tri­als to make a case for bet­ter crit­i­cal think­ing, for a “human­is­tic per­spec­tive,” in the tech sec­tor and else­where. For exam­ples, see Horow­itz’s TED talks on a “moral oper­at­ing sys­tem” and “phi­los­o­phy in prison.” Com­pli­cat­ing Google’s well-known, unof­fi­cial slo­gan “don’t be evil,” Horowitz, draw­ing on Han­nah Arendt, believes that most of the evil in the world comes not from bad inten­tions but from “not think­ing.”

In a relat­ed Stan­ford talk (above) from the same sem­i­nar, Maris­sa May­er, for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent of Con­sumer Prod­ucts at Google, dis­cuss­es how she incor­po­rat­ed the human­i­ties into prod­uct inno­va­tion at Google. The first female engi­neer at Google (and its youngest exec­u­tive at the time of this talk), she has made head­lines recent­ly, becom­ing the new CEO of Yahoo.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Illus­trat­ed Guide to a Ph.D.

The Ph.D. Grind: Philip J. Guo’s Free Mem­oir Offers An Insider’s Look at Doc­tor­al Study

Free Online Busi­ness Cours­es

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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Comments (19)
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  • Funny,Google just killed Aard­vark.

  • Realist says:

    Um, I could and would love it to no end…but then how would I pay my mort­gage, food, and health insur­ance?

  • Derp says:

    Um, by work­ing like vir­tu­al­ly every­one else?

  • Torn Halves says:

    “As a stu­dent and teacher of the human­i­ties, I have watched with some dis­may as the cul­ture becomes increas­ing­ly dom­i­nat­ed by tech­ni­cians who often ignore or dis­miss press­ing philo­soph­i­cal and eth­i­cal prob­lems in their quest to build a bet­ter world.”

    Yes. How­ev­er, there is a dan­ger here that we see the sit­u­a­tion sole­ly in terms of per­son­al­i­ties, when, in truth, the per­son­al­i­ties are large­ly irrel­e­vant now. The root prob­lem, let me sug­gest, is not so much with tech­nol­o­gy as with busi­ness. Tech is promi­nent only inso­far as it makes mon­ey. Our top­sy-turvy world is one in which every­thing is becom­ing busi­ness. If 10% of the ref­er­ences to the GDP in pub­lic dis­cus­sions were replaced by ref­er­ences to “civil­i­sa­tion”, things would look less dystopi­an. The books need to be bal­anced, but it would be great if we could bal­ance them while pick­ing up, trans­form­ing and car­ry­ing for­ward some of the old ideals.

  • Ed says:

    Is there a tran­script of the first talk? The top­ic seems inter­est­ing, but after a cou­ple min­utes the repeat­ed “um… um.…” was too much.

  • Kyle says:

    OK, I just quit! Oh no, my mort­gage is due, and the enroll­ment process involves pay­ing a bunch of mon­ey. I don’t have much! Dang, this is going to be expen­sive. And where will I live? Oh crap, my car just ran out of gas.

  • David says:

    No, you got it wrong. First you make your million(s) in tech, THEN you quit and get your human­i­ties togeth­er.

  • Derp says:

    Peo­ple here are tak­ing this far too seri­ous­ly. Look at it for what it is, and leave your own anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism at the door.

    That said, I think the many peo­ple with ter­tiary qual­i­fi­ca­tions in human­i­ties already could fill the roles Mr. Horowitz describes here. For a pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy to sug­gest peo­ple in oth­er fields should study human­i­ties and then fill these roles is a das­tard­ly move.

  • AD says:

    Sure, if you’re rich, you should study all kinds of things. Oth­er­wise, if you have to pay bills it is hor­ri­ble advice. Maybe “read some books and take some cours­es” would make more sense.

  • I had a real sense of déja vu as I read this arti­cle, Vivek Wad­hwa hav­ing said some­thing very sim­i­lar ear­li­er this year. Details on my blog

  • Bill says:

    Man, give me a break. Does his talk have any point oth­er than to rub in our faces the fact that he was able to get into the grad­u­ate pro­gram in phi­los­o­phy at Stan­ford, fol­lowed by becom­ing the only philoso­pher employed at Google? Either way, I am insane­ly jeal­ous of him.

  • ayo says:

    Yeah, I agree with every­one here. This video is shit, and he is a shit speak­er. Both in con­tent and deliv­ery (…um) I feel like I just wast­ed time hear­ing about a guy brag about how he got lucky. I got a bach­e­lor’s in phi­los­o­phy, and in biol­o­gy. I am going to med­ical school, phi­los­o­phy was for fun; it pays no bills, and I don’t want to be stuck doing dirty work for some guy with tenure. Because that is what get­ting a PhD in the human­i­ties real­ly entails.

  • Sarah says:


    You total­ly nailed it. This list sums it up:

    And you real­ly need to go no fur­ther than rea­son #1: “The smart peo­ple are some­where else”

  • The point of this is that he left the tech field to become study phi­los­o­phy. First, I am sure he had some mon­ey in the back to pay for this, so that’s nice for him. Sec­ond, he went from tech into the human­i­ties, and that’s going to give a phi­los­o­phy an ego boost (“You real­ly like us?!”), but real­ly? To encour­age peo­ple to do a PhD in the human­i­ties in the hope that maybe some open-mind­ed types in HR and man­age­ment (oxy­moron much?) will see their val­ue? That’s con­de­scend­ing, irre­spon­si­ble non­sense.

  • jon says:

    Wow, that’s pret­ty much the oppo­site of what every­one told me in the mid 90s when I emerged fresh from col­lege with my Bach­e­lor of Arts. Think I might just take up paint­ing instead.

  • Daniel says:

    Okay, he’s not the best pre­sen­ter, and every­one should know the finan­cial bur­dens of earn­ing a PhD in medieval lit­er­a­ture at Ida­ho Tech Uni­ver­si­ty, but he’s spot on after 12:50:

    “Would you real­ly val­ue your morta­gage more than the life of the mind?

    What’s the point of your com­fort­able liv­ing if you don’t know what the human­i­ties have taught us about liv­ing well?

    If you already have a job in the tech­nol­o­gy indus­try, you are already sig­nif­i­cant­ly more wealthy than the vast major­i­ty of our plan­et’s pop­u­la­tion. You already have enough.

    No mat­ter how bad the econ­o­my is, you’re the lucky ones. With your back­ground and edu­ca­tion and expe­ri­ence, you will nev­er fall into pover­ty or sub­sis­tence liv­ing…”

    And if you are a tech­nol­o­gist (or even just a reg­u­lar cit­i­zen of the web) and you _are_ inter­est­ed in the “big ques­tions,” what’s the extent of your self-direct­ed learn­ing? Brows­ing idly from time to time? If we all do this, who is going to pass on cul­ture to the next gen­er­a­tion, keep­ing the flame of civ­i­liza­tion alive through the gen­er­a­tions? See Lanier in the NYT:‑t.html

    All of that said, remem­ber you don’t _have_ to spend $250,000 to study the West­ern canon at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. Find some­one you know who has a zest­ful and cre­ative mind, pick a clas­sic, start a blog, and explore the book togeth­er.

    Daniel Scott Poyn­ter

  • debel says:

    Horowitz has lost it. Roman­tic and very light-head­ed… There is absolute­ly no rea­son to quit your job so you can become a “philoso­pher”. There is absolute­ly no scale of mea­sure to com­pare real sci­en­tif­ic work with pon­der­ing ques­tions about “life and mean­ing”. If you don’t like ship­ping end-user soft­ware. Work on some NP-hard prob­lems. That would be cool­er…

  • JM says:

    I speak as a Math under­grad and 3rd-year Eng­lish Lit grad-school quit­ter who returned to soft­ware engi­neer­ing — and I say this is ridicu­lous and patron­iz­ing on so many lev­els. The gist: “I am a priv­i­leged white male who made boat­loads of mon­ey in tech, which enabled me to spend five years study­ing phi­los­o­phy, and now I look down my nose at tech. Every­one should do this!”

    First, if he could get out of his Sil­i­con Val­ley bub­ble, he’d see that for the vast major­i­ty of human­i­ties grad stu­dents life is a thank­less, low-paid grind with dim employ­ment prospects and crush­ing debt. It is sim­ply untrue that employ­ers are slaver­ing to hire human­i­ties PhDs. You’d think a philoso­pher might be both­ered to col­lect a few facts to back up his asser­tions, but per­haps that is beneath him. Do some research and see for your­self how many MAs and PhDs are unem­ployed, under­em­ployed, on wel­fare, and/or strug­gling with stu­dent debt. Then flip­pant­ly dis­miss their con­cerns about pay­ing the bills by wav­ing your hand with plat­i­tudes about “the life of the mind.”

    Sec­ond, the human­i­ties acad­e­my today — in my expe­ri­ence at least — is full of mud­dle-head­ed peo­ple who employ increas­ing­ly opaque jar­gon to hide the fact that they could­n’t rea­son their way out of paper bag, nor would they have any­thing use­ful to say once out of it. Lit­er­ary the­o­ry, for exam­ple, has become lit­tle more than a fad-dri­ven cir­cle-jerk.

    Third, the real wis­dom of the human­i­ties (which *is* impor­tant), can and should be learned by high school stu­dents, under­grads (via core class­es), and adults (via enrich­ment class­es or book groups or self-study). But you don’t need to pay the edu­ca­tion­al-indus­tri­al com­plex a sec­ond mort­gage, plus lost wages, plus the mon­u­men­tal PITA of a dis­ser­ta­tion, in order to _learn some­thing from an effin’ book_, for God’s sake.

    Fourth, “tech­ni­cians” and engi­neers and sci­en­tists have done more to give peo­ple a bet­ter life, heal their dis­eases, raise them out of pover­ty, relieve their back-break­ing labor, and enable them to even have a decent shot at “the life of the mind” than the whole army of self-stroking philoso­phers and ink-cough­ing pen-scratch­ers from Pla­to on down to Der­ri­da.

    So, Mr. Horowitz, while I applaud your suc­cess, I must with all due respect ask you to drop the pompous wind-bag­gery and give us a real vision for edu­cat­ing the tech­no-myopic Philistines among us.

  • Daniel Poynter says:

    I stum­bled upon this two years lat­er… I’ll add a few quotes that address the ideas dis­cussed above:

    “Do not say ‘I will study when I have the time’, for per­haps you will nev­er have time.” ‑Hil­lel

    “Time in life is short. You can only read so many books, so choose wise­ly.” ‑Mar­tin Buc­co

    So what to study? How about the so called “Book of books?”

    “Good is Torah study togeth­er with a world­ly occu­pa­tion, for the exer­tion in both makes one for­get sin. All Torah study with­out work will result in waste and will cause sin­ful­ness.” ‑Rab­ban Gam­liel

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