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14 Famous People Who Were Philosophy Majors

Posted on Tuesday March 27, 2012 by Staff Writers

Visual and liberal arts majors always encounter some kind of “joke” about flipping burgers or dying penniless in a gutter, surrounded by cats. Thanks to STEM subjects receiving all the funding and attention, anyone entering into a more “right-brained” degree plan does unfortunately face a more difficult time scoring a relevant job after graduation. Fortunately, though, they have creativity on their side. Philosophy majors, for example, enjoy career paths across a wide range of industries. All it takes is a little pluck and a lot of luck to score some rare opportunities, and these famous philosophy majors have certainly proved that it’s possible.

  1. Umberto Eco

    It makes perfect sense that one of the most prestigious living philosophers received a degree in the subject — in 1954 from the University of Turin, actually. Humberto Eco’s focus lay largely with medieval philosophy, and he penned his bachelor’s thesis on Thomas Aquinas before eventually sloughing off religious doctrine entirely. The avant-garde scene, with which he grew intimately acquainted while working at Radiotelevisione Italiana, holds considerable influence over his provocative, mind-melting fiction and nonfiction works alike.

  2. Aung San Suu Kyi

    Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi hold a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and economics from Oxford, alongside a University of Delhi B.A. in politics and Ph.D. from University of London. Currently, she serves as the General Secretary of the National League for Democracy, a political party in Burma dedicated to overthrowing the military junta and installing policies for the peoples. Geopolitics followers know her as a human rights activist who finally saw freedom in 2010 after multiple house arrest sentences for promoting subversive principles and philosophies.

  3. Peter Thiel

    If Peter Thiel’s name doesn’t conjure up recognition, perhaps some of his technological creations and investments do. The co-founder and former CEO of Paypal also assisted in the development of Facebook, Yelp, Spotify, Yammer, LinkedIn, and plenty of other familiar and not-so-familiar online ventures.The hedge fund leader, venture capitalist, philanthropist, and all-around money-haver launched his billion-dollar career after a stint at Stanford, where he completed work on a B.A. in philosophy as well as a J.D. at the law school.

  4. Ethan Coen

    Along with brother Joel, Ethan Coen has produced some of modern cinema’s most beloved masterpieces, such as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, and plenty more. In 1979, he earned himself a philosophy degree from Princeton University, where his senior thesis dealt with language theorist (among other things) Ludwig Wittgenstein. Fans of the pair’s trademark quirky, occasionally staccato dialogue probably won’t find this at all surprising.

  5. Angela Davis

    As a proud feminist, Black Panther, and communist, this prominent social activist and retired University of California philosophy professor garners a veritable monsoon of controversy. Angela Davis’ higher education career started at Brandeis University, where she switched her major from French to philosophy and worked under Marxist Herbert Marcuse. These studies left a gargantuan influence on her later campaigns against racism, capitalist inequalities (obviously), sexism, and anti-LGBTQ sentiment.

  6. Steve Martin

    California State University, Long Beach holds popular comedian, musician, writer, and general entertainer Steve Martin amongst its alumni. By then, he already managed to channel his own emotions and experiences into performing, leading one to understandably assume he probably pursued a degree path involving drama or theatre. Philosophy piqued his fascination most of all, however, particularly when it came to ideologies regarding logic and language.

  7. Alex Trebek

    For $400. This Jeopardy host majored in philosophy at University of Ottawa. *Ding* Who is Alex Trebek? That is correct! He completed his diploma in 1961, then launched a television career two years later as the face of Canadian game show High Rollers. Other stints on different programs followed before he finally landed his most famous and long-standing gig in 1984.

  8. George Soros

    “The Man Who Broke the Bank of England” started off at London School of Economics and completed his Bachelor of Science degree in philosophy in 1952. Just about the only job he could score after graduation was an entry-level slot at Singer & Friedlander, a bank. Turns out ol’ George Soros possessed a knack for all things fiscal, seeing as how he kind of sort of ended up a billionaire. Launching his own hedge fund and investment firm proved quite profitable indeed, and the business mogul receives almost as much attention as his charitable efforts.

  9. Bruce Lee

    Bruce Lee’s real emphasis at University of Washington dredges up quite the dispute! His official records state “drama,” but the martial arts superstar always claims philosophy — as do many of his followers and fellow(?) majors. Regardless of how things actually went down, he did in fact study the subject quite extensively, and frequently touted its role in shaping both his acting and his athletics.

  10. Phil Jackson

    Legendary Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson accomplished much more than just sharpening his basketball (and track and field!) acumen while attending University of North Dakota. Players, contemporaries, administrators, and fans don’t call him “The Zen Master” because he just loves getting his Bobby Knight on. Inquiries into “Eastern” thought and Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance won him 11 championships as a coach, added to the two earned as a player. He even published a book, Sacred Hoops, about how sport and philosophy interplay in his mind.

  11. Gene Siskel

    Philosophy lends itself quite well to film criticism for obvious reasons, and this famed commentator actually started off as doing just that with The Chicago Tribune. John Hersey, the Pulitzer recipient for A Bell for Adano served as Gene Siskel’s mentor during his studies while at Yale, even hooking him up with the aforementioned maiden voyage into the aforementioned career path. From there, he grew into a household name after hooking up with The Chicago Sun-Times‘ Roger Ebert and earning a lauded television program.

  12. Susan Sontag

    Filmmaker, author, activist, photographer and all around Renaissance woman Susan Sontag is frequently said to have received her B.A. from University of Chicago in philosophy, which she then followed up with graduate studies in the subject — along with religious studies and literature — at Harvard and Oxford. Considering her creative and intellectual oeuvre intended to shed light on social and political ills, this rigorous educational regimen served her well indeed. And by “indeed,” we mean she earned a MacArthur Fellowship, National Book Critics Circle Award, and litany of other national and international honors.

  13. David Foster Wallace

    While attending Amherst as an undergraduate, renowned American postmodernist novelist and essayist double majored in philosophy and English. After graduating, he pursued a master’s in creative writing from University of Arizona, eventually earning a MacArthur Fellowship and adjunct professorship at Emerson College. Prolific in his lifetime, with an enviable bibliography of long and short works, he is most known for the metafictional masterpiece Infinite Jest.

  14. Ricky Gervais

    This controversy-courting comedian behind beloved TV shows Extras and The Office (the original British series) majored in philosophy at the undergraduate level while attending University College London. When asked about how it helped bolster his television career, he whipped out the old saw about monkeys and typewriters. Fans, however, can certainly see the humorous benefits of devoting time, energy, and money towards the philosophical arts if pursuing an entertainment career.