Why PhDs Are Overrated
& Everyone is a Philosopher

As to what we call the masses, and common men -- there are no common men

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Uses of Great Men

I am a lucky man. For ten years, I had the good fortune of studying at some of our nation’s top universities. I discovered my passion for philosophy as an undergraduate at Stanford. Then I spent five years at Princeton working under some of the leading thinkers in the world of political philosophy.

In the realm of knowing, the people I met were brilliant. If you ever had a question about Hobbes’ theory of sovereignty by acquisition or Marx’s historical materialism, they had all the answers.

Read the original post

But I also learned that wisdom doesn’t require a PhD – that all this formal training can, at times, even be a positive hindrance to it.

I learned to take seriously Emerson’s idea that “there are no common men.”  Emerson’s challenge is to see everyone as having some gift that they are here to express. We don’t live in an oligarchy of genius.  We live in a democracy.  Everyone is a philosopher.

This is not the way we ordinary think of greatness.   We live in a social world that has reduced greatness to a handful of qualities.  To be great is to have amassed massive amounts of money, become famous, gone to fancy schools, or aced your SATs.

We don’t see greatness in other areas because we’re looking at the world through the lens of achievement – a lens that filters out many unconventional shades of creativity and beauty.

But Emerson’s radical idea is that greatness takes infinite forms and emerges in all spheres of life.   After one great individual emerges, says Emerson, “in some other and quite different field the next man will appear; not Jefferson, not Franklin, but now a great salesman, then a road-contractor, then a student of fishes, then a buffalo-hunting explorer, or a semi-savage Western general.”

Greatness can arise in even the most unexpected places.  It might come from how you smile, how you garden, how you hit a golf ball, how you teach, or how you raise your child.   Your philosophical gift might not be an encyclopedic knowledge of Hegel but the gift of listening with deep presence to a friend in need.

So for this week’s experiment, let’s explore viewing the world through Emerson’s eyes.  What would it be like to treat every being as though they were the next Socrates, Mozart, or Einstein?  What would it be like to live in constant appreciation of each person’s genius?

This is a radical challenge.  To see the world through Emerson’s eyes is to explode our normal categories of greatness.    It is to find greatness in the ordinary and the everyday.  Even more challenging, it is to find greatness in those we normally see as having nothing to offer – even in the mean, dirty, dark, and intolerable.

What’s the genius of the homeless man you drive by each day who sits with his sign on the traffic median?   What can he teach you about the limits of your capacity to see human greatness?

I’m going to be living this for the week and filming many of my experiences.  But I also want to know – what’s your experience viewing life through Emerson’s lens of equal greatness?

Update: Life Beyond Logic Interviews Grandma Hilda
posted June 1, 2011 by Nate

I have had the good fortune of meeting many of the world’s leading philosophers.   But none of them can match the wisdom of my grandma Hilda.  Here is my interview with one of the great philosophical and spiritual teachers in my life.


  1. Jo Lightfoot says:


    I know what time it is.

    I put on my watch
    before going into town
    so people will not
    think of me as a
    person of no consequence.
    I put on undergarments
    and public attire,
    so they will not suspect
    how freely and comfortably
    I live without them.

    Persons of consequence
    have prerogatives.
    But so do persons
    of no consequence,
    and these are the ones
    I prefer.
    However, I suspect
    that privately, publicly,
    and in disguise,
    all of us are persons
    of equal consequence.

    • Nate says:


      What a perfect complement to this week’s experiment. Thanks so much for sharing your poetry!

  2. Brice Howe, CLC says:

    Love this, Nate. Such an important and significant message. I’m waiting for tipping point; I’m on the edge of my seat! :)

    All the best,

  3. Ronnie says:

    If only more people saw this genius. We would have less hatred, less war and more appreciation for each other. Thanks for keeping my smile at the world going today! (it was being challenged :-) )

    And – We would spend less time on the triangle!


    • Nate says:


      Love your thoughts. Yes, bring on the appreciation. I’m bored with all the critique and cynicism. It can be helpful but it’s also safe. It lacks the courage required to see beauty even in the darkest places.

  4. Brenda says:

    What a wonderful blog and website! We connected on twitter and I was immediately intrigued and excited by the synchronicity. I just started a blog in which I try a new challenge each week and report via video the results. I hope to be able to use some of the wisdom learned here to challenge my life and continue to grow. Thank you.

    • Nate says:

      Very cool stuff Brenda…I just checked out your site. I look forward to hearing more about your adventures.


  5. Storugglan says:

    Thank you for your post! It made me think about the italian philosopher and marxist Antonio Gramsci. In my early twenties I read parts of his Prison Notebooks. One of Gramscis thoughts I have realized made a huge impact on me as I often now and then have come to think of it. Gramsci wrote that every man is a philosopher as every man is a thinking person. But I must admit that although I have carried this thought with me during the years I have often not acted as it was true. Thank You, Nate, for making me think of it as a way of acting in my daily life.

    • Nate says:

      Thanks so much for the note. I read a bit of Gramsci a while back and really liked what he had to say. It’s always interesting to me how these ideas emerge in many different and unexpected places. Thanks for your kind words!

  6. al says:

    Enjoyed the interview with Aunt Hilda. What a great outlook towards life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>