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.

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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:

    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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