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Carrying A (Welding) Torch For Philosophy

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during Republican presidential debate at the Milwaukee Theatre in Milwaukee on Nov. 10.
Morry Gash
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during Republican presidential debate at the Milwaukee Theatre in Milwaukee on Nov. 10.

At last Tuesday's Republican presidential debate, Sen. Marco Rubio advocated for vocational training, stating: "Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers."

Sources across the web were quick to correct his factual error: Welders do not, in fact, make more money on average than philosophers or philosophy majors do. But philosophers (and welders) also responded to other facets of Rubio's remarks — to the implicit characterization of philosophy, to the opposition of manual labor and abstract thought, and to the idea that the value of one's work can be reduced to the size of one's paycheck.

To get a perspective on these issues, I spoke with a philosopher who has not only made important contributions to philosophy of language and philosophy of mind, but also knows what it's like to work as a spot welder on an assembly line.

Kenneth A. Taylor is the Henry Waldgrave Stuart Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University, as well as the co-host (with John Perry) of Philosophy Talk, the radio program that "Questions Everything — Except your Intelligence." But as an undergraduate, Taylor spent a summer working as a spot welder in a Ford factory.

"I had to stand in this deep pit, wielding this huge spot-welding gun, as cars went by me overhead at what seemed like a breakneck pace," he recalls. "[I] can't remember the exact number of spots I had to weld on each car. But it seemed like an awful lot."

One day, his foreman pulled him aside and suggested he might not be cut out for manual labor. Fortunately, Taylor was better at joining arguments than car parts and he went on to a successful career in philosophy. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about Rubio's remarks — and about his experience as a welder — in an exchange by e-mail.

Rubio's comment about welders and philosophers was embedded in a defense of vocational training. What do you make of the contrast between vocational training, on the one hand, and philosophy, on the other?

It's a false dichotomy. Very few people will ever become professional philosophers. There's no doubt about it. But the study of philosophy, especially at the undergraduate level (and I wish at the high school level) isn't primarily about job training. It's about acquiring certain habits of mind — habits of mind that can serve you well whatever your chosen profession or vocation.

What are the habits of mind that characterize those educated in philosophy? The ability to follow ideas and arguments wherever they lead, the ability to ferret out hidden assumptions and expose them to the light of critical reflection, the ability to imagine other ways the world might be, stuff like that. I'm not sure having those skills would necessarily make one a better welder. But they certainly can help make you a better citizen and they can add value to your life as a free, autonomous, thinking person, no matter what you choose to do to earn money.

Rubio was factually incorrect in stating that welders make more money than philosophers, but I'm curious about an idea implicit in his remarks — that if people in one line of work make more money than those in another line of work, the more lucrative option is more valuable for those individuals or for society. Do you agree?

Well, think of the office that Rubio himself is seeking. He wants to be the president of the United States. Last I looked, U.S. presidents are paid way, way less than even a mid-level executive in many large corporations. Does that mean the president has less value than some regional vice president at a Fortune 500 corporation?

On a related note, think of something else Rubio said. He said that he's opposed to the minimum wage because he doesn't want humans to be more expensive than machines. Think about what that implies. If a machine can do it more cheaply, it's not worth it to the employer and maybe to society at large to have the person do it rather than the machine. What does that imply about what it is that makes a person "valuable?" It sounds like he thinks it's pretty easy to price people out of the labor market, so we gotta keep the cost of human labor down.

It also entails that if there's a job that a machine can do more cheaply than a human, the human is and probably should be out of a job. Back to welders and philosophers for a second. I know there is currently a shortage of skilled welders, but which is more likely: that the machines will someday replace all the welders or that the machines will someday replace all the philosophers?

You're in the rare position of having been both a welder and a philosopher. Did your experience as a welder in any way shape your career path or your approach to philosophy?

Well, I wasn't exactly a skilled welder of the sort Rubio is talking about. I was a spot welder on an assembly line and only very briefly, while I was in college. It made me realize that I wasn't cut out for manual labor. I rather doubt that the kind of repetitive, unskilled spot welding I was doing way back then is still being done by human beings rather than machines, by the way.

Do you have any advice for young people thinking about pursuing philosophy today?

Philosophy has the potential to do amazing things to your mind. It can help make it an even more powerful instrument than it naturally is — and human minds are enormously powerful instruments to begin with. A mind on philosophy can have highly enhanced argumentative, analytical, expressive, evaluative and imaginative powers. Having those enhanced powers of mind may not necessarily make you richer. It may not necessarily make you a better welder. But if your mind is endowed with such powers, I am confident that they will impact your life for the better in many and diverse ways. Sure, some people (like me when I was young) become so enchanted with philosophy that they decide to make it their life's work. That scares parents sometimes. But as a career it can be a deeply rewarding and exhilarating one.

But the more important point is that there are many version of the well-lived life. And contrary to what Rubio seemed to imply, the measure of them is not at all taken by the size of your paycheck. And no matter what version of the well-lived life you pursue, philosophy can be a highly impactful aid in that pursuit.

Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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Tania Lombrozo is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as an affiliate of the Department of Philosophy and a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Lombrozo directs the Concepts and Cognition Lab, where she and her students study aspects of human cognition at the intersection of philosophy and psychology, including the drive to explain and its relationship to understanding, various aspects of causal and moral reasoning and all kinds of learning.

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