11 famous executives who majored in philosophy

Reid HoffmanKevin Moloney/Fortune Brainstorm TechLinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman was almost a philosophy professor.

Through one lens, the study of philosophy is the purest intellectual quest there is. Through another, it’s a punch line.

(Q: How many philosophers does it take to change a light-bulb?

A: Three: one to change the lightbulb, and to to debate whether they ought to, and if so, whether it follows that they can. This one is from The Philosopher’s Cocoon, but are more where that came from.)

But while it’s easy to dismiss philosophy as one of the “soft” humanities that is, as star venture capitalist Marc Andreessen once said, a sure path to “working in a shoe store,” it’s also short-sighted.

It’s true that most high-powered jobs won’t have you curled up in a cubical debating the finer points of Heidegger, but it’s also true that the skills you learn studying those ideas — how to think critically, write well, analyse complicated concepts, and sell ideas — can pay off in the business world. And as these 12 industry leaders prove, they can pay off big.

This is an update of an article originally written by Max Nisen.

Activist investor Carl Icahn was a philosophy major at Princeton University.

Carl Icahn.

Icahn is the chairman of Icahn Enterprises and is one of the most well-known and aggressive activist investors of our time, buying and eventually folding Trans World Airlines, and more recently cashing in big on Netflix.

His philosophy thesis for his 1957 degree was titled 'The Problem of Formulating an Adequate Explication of the Empiricist Criterion of Meaning,' reported the New York Times. He also went to New York University's Medical School, but dropped out without graduating.

Former FDIC Chair Sheila Bair was a philosophy major at the University of Kansas.

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Sheila Bair.

Until the summer of 2011, Bair served as the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, having been appointed by George W. Bush in 2005. Since then, she's written the non-fictional 'Bull by the Horns: Fighting to Save Main Street from Wall Street and Wall Street from Itself,' and a fictional YA novel on the same topic, 'The Bullies of Wall Street.' This spring, she was appointed president of Washington College.

Bair received her B.A. in philosophy from the University of Kansas and later got a J.D. from the same school.

Hedge fund manager George Soros was a philosophy major at the London School of Economics.

George Soros.

Soros, the chairman of Soros Fund Management, is one of the most successful hedge fund managers of all time. He's particularly well known for a 1992 bet against the pound, the Atlantic explains, which earned him the nickname 'the man who broke the Bank Of England.'

In college while studying under renowned philosopher Karl Popper -- his work 'made a profound impression on me,' he told the Financial Times -- Soros worked as a house painter and an apple picker to pay his tuition, Salon reports.

Former Fannie Mae CEO Herbert Allison Jr. was a philosophy major at Yale University.

Herbert Allison.

Allison Jr. rose through the ranks at Merrill Lynch, eventually becoming its chief operating officer. He left the company in mid-1999 and went on to serve as CEO of Fannie Mae and to oversee the Troubled Asset Relief program.

He earned a B.A. in philosophy from Yale, served four years in the Navy, and then got his MBA from Stanford.

LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman got his Master's in Philosophy as a Marshall Scholar at Oxford University.

Kevin Moloney/Fortune Brainstorm Tech
Reid Hoffman.

'My original plan was to become an academic,' the entrepreneur and venture capitalist told Wired, and Hoffman was on track to make it happen: after graduating from Stanford with a degree in Symbolic Systems, he won a Marshall Scholarship to study philosophy at Oxford. 'What I most wanted to do was strengthen public intellectual culture -- I'd write books and essays to help us figure out who we wanted to be.'

Frustrated by the pace and impact of academic work -- 'it didn't have enough scale,' he told Wired -- he changed directions and became a software entrepreneur. After working with his Stanford friends (including Peter Theil) at PayPal, he launched LinkedIn in 2003.

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