Why Is Philosophy Important?


Often times when I tell people that my major is philosophy I am met with a confused stare followed by a series of questions asking why and of what use philosophy will be. Many have made jokes about my choice of major and not taken it or myself seriously. This response and the lack of outreach within the field has prompted me to want to show people why philosophy is important.

Those are the words of third-year college student Zoe Wolfe, who is majoring in philosophy at the University of Florida. She continues:

I am very passionate about philosophy. When I took my first philosophy class I found what I would later refer to as “my thing”… Philosophy has been something that I have grown a large appreciation for over time because I have immersed myself in the curriculum and the ideas. I find it most valuable because it has taught me how to think… However, I know few people with this experience because philosophy majors are so few. Instead, I know many people who have only taken a single philosophy class and who found the class challenging and of little use to their every day lives. Discouraging as this may be I have remained absolute in my resolve to study philosophy.

Ms. Wolfe is planning on starting a podcast about the value of philosophy and to explore different answers to the question, “Why is philosophy important?” She wrote to me to ask if I could pose that question to all of you.

That’s a big question to which it is tempting to reply at length, but I think what would be most helpful at this stage is a large number of relatively brief answers to it; you could put an answer in a sentence or two if you’d like—perhaps it’s just part of your answer, or one of your answers. Don’t worry, we won’t assume your blog comment represents the entirety of your view. (I’ll put an answer in the comments.)

If you use your real name, Ms. Wolfe might follow up with you for more detail for her podcast. Thanks.

(Also, see the in-need-of-some-updates Value of Philosophy Pages.)

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Patrick S. O'Donnell
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
2 years ago

Of course this assumes we know what we don’t know, in other words, that we have fairly firm grip on that about which we are ignorant (or, put differently, the identification of ignorance requires knowledge). As both Jonathan Lear and Daniel DeNicola would remind us, “prisoners in Plato’s Cave do not know what they do know; they do not even know that they do not know.”

That said, the cartography metaphor is compelling, one that Philip Kitcher used (for science, not philosophy) to wise effect in Science, Truth, and Democracy (2001).

Two things come quickly (i.e., not in a philosophical manner) to mind. First, from a quote attributed, perhaps erroneously, to Einstein (I first learned of it from Jon Elster): “As the circle of light [i.e., our knowledge] increases, so does the circumference of darkness [i.e., our ignorance] around it.” This suggests, I think, that while progress of a kind is possible in philosophy, the ever-present shadow of ignorance may make it seem as if any sense of progress is more or less illusory.

I also thought of the following from a recent book by DeNicola, Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Don’t Know (MIT Press, 2017), because it reminds us of at least one reason why philosophy is so difficult to teach under the terms and conditions of a hyper-technological (neoliberal) capitalist democracy (one increasingly more capitalist than democratic, as John Dewey well appreciated), in other words, a society that exemplifies the ideological formula of “bread and circuses” with a vengeance:

“In the familiar metaphor, our ignorance (whether individual or collective) is a vast, fathomless sea; our knowledge but a small, insecure island. Even the shoreline is uncertain: both the history of the human race and psychological research suggests that we know even less than we think we do. Indeed, our ignorance is extensive beyond our reckoning. [….]

[Moreover,] [d]espite the spread of universal, compulsory education; despite new tools for learning and great advances of knowledge; despite the breathtaking increases in our ability to store, access, and share a super-abundance of information—ignorance flourishes. [….]

[The sort of ubiquitous ignorance found] “in [our] ‘knowledge society’ during the ‘Information Age,’ … is what might be termed public ignorance, by which [is meant] widespread, reprehensible ignorance of matters that are significant for our lives together. Functional illiteracy and innumeracy are examples. Such ignorance might once be explained, if not excused by lack of educational opportunity; but that seems obtuse when applied to countries with rich educational resources. [And yet these ‘educational resources’ may be subject to grossly inegalitarian distribution for proximate reasons, say, of class and race, so ‘lack of educational opportunity’ need not be an ‘obtuse explanation.’1] Besides, the rate of functional illiteracy may be higher in today’s America than it was in colonial New England.2 Stubbornly high rates of illiteracy and innumeracy are a public shame, no doubt. This is remedial ignorance. The need is for learning—except that many such forms of ignorance thrive despite years of schooling.”
Notes
1. And of course even an abundant supply of “educational resources” may not suffice to remedy obdurate problems and obstacles that may be rooted in the regnant philosophies of education and/or pedagogical strategies and methods, as is perhaps suggested by reference to the apparently high rate of “functional illiteracy.”
2. An endnote somewhat qualifies this claim and speaks to the meaning of “functional literacy.”

Perhaps the foremost reason this is concerning, in the words of DeNicola, is that “[b]elow some threshold ignorance does not recognize itself.” He elaborates:

“What is going on in today’s culture of ignorance is complicated. It is more than widespread, reprehensible ignorance: it involves the distrust of mainstream sources of information and the rejection of rationally relevant factor in forming beliefs. It seems to abandon institutions and hard-won standards of knowledge that have served us since the [European] Enlightenment, that have brought us the living conditions we [that is, at least many of us in affluent societies or at the pinnacle of the political and economic pyramid of other less and considerably less affluent societies] enjoy today.”

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A grad student
A grad student
2 years ago

Philosophy is important because clarifying our concepts helps to clarify our place in the world and how we occupy that place.Report

dionissis mitropoulos
dionissis mitropoulos
Reply to  A grad student
2 years ago

I agree with grad student, but i take the clarification of our concepts to be a good in itself, no matter whatever else this clarification might contribute to: analytic philosophy is important because it helps us clarify our own thoughts. Pressed a bit further, i would say that the thought processes that constitute the clarification process feel terrific.

P.S. I’m not a philosopher Report

Houston C.
Houston C.
2 years ago

Philosophy is important because everybody has a world-view that they either know explicitly or just use implicitly. To the degree that it’s implicit, the view controls them. Philosophy enables one to look critically at one’s world-view and become aware of others. This is part of being an authentic person.Report

Quasi philosopher
2 years ago

I think what philosophy does best is also what makes it difficult to talk about why philosophy is important – it looks closely at existing beliefs/practices/institutions, notices tensions, critically considers justifications offered, points out problems, and even proposes solutions. As Philip Kitcher put it nicely in a recent paper, “Philosophy at its greatest is synthetic. It doesn’t work beside the various areas of inquiry and culture and practice. Instead, it works between and among them.”

But because it involves not accepting a certain edifice at face value, It is difficult to defend its value to those who do take those edifices at face value, who will inevitably find what you attempting baffling and think you’re just wasting time. And the tricky part is they might even be right, but the only way to really know one way or the other is to actually try out philosophizing. And in the unusual event you actually succeed at changing something, your achievement will eventually be considered non-philosophy and we’ll be asking ourselves how to defend the value of philosophy all over again.Report

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
2 years ago

Philosophy is to thinking what thinking is to doing—it slows you down, but sometimes that is exactly what you need.Report

Matt LaVine
Matt LaVine
2 years ago

I take philosophy to be the rigorous and systematic investigation into those questions that people across disciplines and walks of life normally take for granted. Things we take for granted include our biases, prejudices, stereotypes, etc. Since bias & prejudice cause a great deal of harm in the world, philosophy provides an opportunity to do a great deal of good.Report

Jonathan Weisberg
Jonathan Weisberg
2 years ago

Philosophy is important because people want to know the answers to its questions.

They may not like what they find of course. The answer may not be what they hoped, or it may not be available yet. It may never be. Sometimes there isn’t even an answer. And even when there is, it may take a lot of work to understand.

But none of that changes the fact people want to know these things. I can’t get myself to power through Gravity’s Rainbow and reap the rewards. But I still wish I could.Report

Patrick S. O'Donnell
2 years ago

I like what Professor Seana Shiffrin (philosophy department chair at UCLA) said in conjunction with the recent $25 million gift UCLA received to support its humanities division and philosophy department:
“Philosophical issues touch on every aspect of life — including issues about what sort of creatures we are and could become, what we can know of ourselves and others, how we should treat one another, whether we are capable of forming a better society and what that would look like, and the significance of our mortality,” she said. “A philosophy education introduces students to captivating ideas and perennial questions while imparting crucial skills of analysis, argumentation, clarity, and precision.
In its capacity both to stimulate and to discipline the imagination, training in philosophy empowers students to enter any career, while enriching their entire lives by opening up new avenues of thought and fresh possibilities for living.”
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Julian Baggini
2 years ago

Philosophy doesn’t have to have any instrumental benefits to be important (although it does have such benefits). Philosophy needs no other justification other than the fact that we are creatures who desire to understand ourselves, the world, our values, our language and so on. In that sense in satisfies a human need which while not universal is for a great many basic.Report

Ted Parent
2 years ago

Phiilosophy is important because it is the study of reality, and reality is important. (Merely echoing what Julian Baggini and others have said.)Report

Ghoncheh Azadeh
Ghoncheh Azadeh
2 years ago

Philosophy is not valuable in terms of vocational, career purposes. A job in philosophy is an awesome side effect of participating in a critical, conscientious, and purposeful manner of conducting one’s life through pragmatic action based on meaning, theory, and inquiry.

I find philosophy as a tool to shape my thinking process and conclusion drawing. It’s a framework or foundation that is constantly fed through curiousity and leads to meaningful resolves or meaningful inquiries and impossibilities. Report

Christine Sisitare
Christine Sisitare
Reply to  Ghoncheh Azadeh
2 years ago

In fact, training in Phil is very useful for career prospects. Note that I did not say ‘jobs.’ Phil students do better and better as they move form ‘jobs’ into career streams. Oddly enough, to be able to ‘speak to’ and ‘hear’ multiple voices, to ‘translate’ between voices/roles that are not the same, to be able to think and argue intelligently, are all highly valued ‘skills.’ No, they are not great for entry positions in almost any field. But, they are hugely useful for advancement. Report

The Examined Life
The Examined Life
2 years ago

I have often been asked something along the lines of “what are you going to do with philosophy?”. I think the very phrasing of the question betrays a bad kind of a utilitarian approach to life. Notice how this is usually only asked if you study philosophy in college/university and not on the side as a hobby. People usually don’t question hobbies. If you enjoy poetry, and spend a significant amount of time reading poetry in your free time, no one is going to wonder “what are you going to do with that”. But if you major in English, that’s a different story. This is probably a result of an outlook that sees college/university solely as a means to a financial end, which I find depressing.Report

adamb
adamb
2 years ago

As I’ve explored a career in something outside of the field, I have found the value of philosophy, and particularly the value of my philosophical education, to be in its providing some of the tools by which I can ground myself in any discourse, parse out the relevant considerations for a given task, and chase solutions by way of a rigorous process. However, as I’ve also grown as a person, I also attribute my approaching life with a helpful levity and patience to my having a sort of philosophical mind. I can thank my study at the University of Virginia for the cultivation of a lot of these tools, but I think the sort of development I’m talking about is typical across any number of institutions.Report

Nancy J. Matchett
2 years ago

I borrow from Mary Midgley: Philosophy is like plumbing! We don’t usually notice the system of concepts beneath the surface of our thinking until something goes very wrong, but if that system is poorly constructed important content leaks out or gets channeled to places we don’t want it to go. And we are dependent on that system daily.Report

Kostas
Kostas
2 years ago

Philosophy is important, for the same reason mathematics,physics, chemistry ,etc, are. It says something meaningful about this world and helps people live their lives with a deeper understanding.Report

James Olsen
James Olsen
2 years ago

I agree with what’s been said above, and I think that the Introduction to Simon Blackburn’s Think offers a fantastic response—a high brow approach like many of those above, as well as a mid- and low brow approach.

In a different and light hearted (though also quite serious) vein, most of my intro classes and some of the others force students to turn their newly obtained philosophical lenses on pop-culture/media. There’s the benefit of coming to see and evaluate the assumptions and implicit arguments behind the movies, songs, books, even commercials that pervade their lives. Additionally, it literally and irrevocably changes the way they consume these materials. If we want the world to be a more moral place, then this ability to analyze and evaluate the everyday is important. But I love how fun it is for students to see what they’re studying in class all around them in the world. In addition to being entertained by the movie they just watched, there’s the good of seeing it as part of the philosophical and moral dialogue we’re carrying on as a society. It’s an often new and exciting good for students.Report

Andrew Sepielli
2 years ago

A nice answer and a harsh answer:
Nice: Philosophy is better than any other discipline at giving you the tools to “steel man” others’ views (and at inculcating the practice of doing so), and steel-manning is a way of treating others with understanding and respect.
Harsh: Moral philosophy is the only way of coming to know the right answers to many very important moral and political questions. This sort of claim will arouse skepticism from many quarters. Meta-ethics is the only way to show that such skepticism is mistaken. Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Andrew Sepielli
2 years ago

Your harsh response may backfire if metaethics ends up telling us that there aren’t objective answers in any worthwhile sense (which I think is highly likely). Most realist metaethical arguments are generally defensive maneuvers which are aimed at defending realist intuitions, and have little chance of convincing those who don’t have those intuitions or think the idea of objective value is silly. This is especially true now given that anti-realists have generally realized that non-cognitivist semantics are unnecessary for conveying the basic point. Creeping minimalism has basically revealed that the entire dispute is rather empty. Imo, the moment moral realists abandoned claims about supernatural interference in the causal order they gave up the only thing that could have made moral realism important in the first place. Report

mrmister
mrmister
2 years ago

Philosophy is valuable because it equips people with some useful, broadly applicable argumentative skills. It helps people hone their first-order techniques; it helps them be comfortable drawing further conclusions from material already stated, finding edge cases, detecting special pleading and question-begging, and all that. It also tends to make people both aware of and comfortable with switching to the meta-perspective, asking whether a particular issue is factual at all, what the criteria for any successful argument on the topic might be, and so on. It also seems to be good at inculcating an ability to read charitably and anticipate counter-moves. These are worthwhile skills, and they can, when used well, help in examining a wide range of topics including the traditional “big” ones.

Nonetheless, I also suspect that they do not, deployed in isolation, do much to help us understand ourselves and our place in the world (or even our concepts!). I have become despairing that over-reliance on ~just~ these tools leads too much mainstream work in analytic philosophy to pursue big topics by feeding meager initial data–shabby and unsystematic linguistic and moral intuitions taken from an n of 1–into a subsequent process of endless conclusion-drawing, edge-case-stating, and thereby it comes up with fussy, baroque theories with very little predictive or explanatory power.

There’s a pretty deflationary view of the skills acquired in a philosophy education on which they’re still useful, but far from a window into the nature of value and reality, especially in isolation from the discipline imposed by answering to empirical and formal constraints. I’d also note, independently, that they certainly won’t force you to abandon any central commitments in the process of life re-invention (I am sometimes shocked by how thoroughly conventional analytic ethics can be). If I had advice for someone getting in about the value of philosophy, I would say to anyway watch out for drinking the kool-aid, and the most fun parts aren’t necessarily the most valuable.Report

Elliott Thornley
Elliott Thornley
2 years ago

Two answers:

1. Philosophy is important because it’s the leading edge of human inquiry. Maths, physics, biology, chemistry, psychology, economics, linguistics, computer science and many other disciplines all began as branches of philosophy. We have good reason to believe that the work philosophers are doing today will form the basis of entirely new disciplines in the future.

2. Certain branches of philosophy are important because they are unavoidable. Your ethic and your axiology are not just things you write about in a book or speak about at a lecture, they are things you live every minute of every day, through every dream you have and every decision you make. Every time you say thank you, make someone a cup of tea, or pee in the pool, you’re deciding how to behave. You’re living an ethic. Every time you meet up with friends, go for a run, or decide to have one more drink, you’re deciding what’s valuable. You’re living an axiology.

Given this, it’s no exaggeration to say that ethics and axiology are the most practical subjects you can study. Whether you realise it or not, you’ve been doing them your entire life, and whether you like it or not, you’re going to continue doing them until the day you die. You’ve got to value something, and it’s all to easy to get hooked on the wrong things. I think it’s important then – urgent even – to give some thought to what it means to live well. There are, quite literally, lives at stake.Report

Assistant Prof
Assistant Prof
2 years ago

As an academic philosopher, I don’t think it’s particularly important. It’s not a field that searches for truth, at least if we interpret what philosophers are up to charitably. Some will say it does search for truth, but given the utter failure of philosophy to find important truths, it seems to me that this provides justification for firing all philosophers and moving on. Instead, it’s more or less just sophisticated banter that serves as an enjoyable leisure activity. I can’t imagine finding another job that only takes around 2 hours a day or so and is mostly harmless fun. Report

Kenneth
Kenneth
Reply to  Assistant Prof
2 years ago

Philosophers have not utterly failed to find important truths. Philosophers have found many truths (e.g., truths about logic, which Aristotle and Frege, among others, have developed). The discovery of truths in other fields made use of logic, and thereby made use of the truths philosophers found. For this reason, these truths are important. So, philosophers have found important truths.

Of course, not all truths philosophers find are as important as those of Aristotle and Frege. Still, many of them are important. Truths about which methodologies are adequate for certain purposes, truths about the limits of human inquiry, etc. can be attributed to various philosophers. These truths are obviously important. But even other truths philosophers find (e.g., truths about what follows from what) are important insofar as they contribute to finding truths like those already mentioned. Philosophy is (at least at some institutions) an activity in pursuit of truths like these. For this reason, it is important.

If all philosophical activity were as you described it–“a sophisticated banter that serves as an enjoyable leisure activity”–that would perhaps justify the firing of all philosophers. Fortunately, that is not an accurate description.Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Assistant Prof
2 years ago

”but given the utter failure of philosophy to find important truths”

well, this is quite controversial, and I’d say falseReport

Patrick S. O'Donnell
Reply to  Assistant Prof
2 years ago

…channeling Richard Rorty? Report

Todd
Todd
Reply to  Assistant Prof
2 years ago

I assume your justification for the claim that philosophers haven’t found important truths is that there is very little philosophical consensus. That doesn’t imply that philosophers have found and settled upon important truths.

It is an important truth that human beings might very well not have free will, even if we haven’t (yet) discovered whether they actually do or don’t. It is an important truth that It is an important truth that there are good arguments that consciousness is non-physical. It is an important truth there may very well not be objective moral truths. It is an important truth that whether we continue to exist might not matter and that there are highly plausible arguments for that possibility. It is an important truth that distributive equality might not be morally significant in itself. It is an important truth that happiness very well might not be the only thing worth wanting for its own sake. The list goes on.Report

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
Reply to  Assistant Prof
2 years ago

Obviously you missed the history of philosophy. Take modern psychology and trace the origin of many fields back in time: Gestalt Psych – Kant; Behaviorism: Hume and others; and there are others. Physics? Hmmm…pick from Locke, Aristotle, and many others. Modern biological classifications and cladistics: Aristotle, etc… Remember the Kant-LaPlace theory of astronomy and the universe? And if we want to get very esoteric – atomism began in Greek philosophy. The interesting thing about philosophical success has been that it nullified itself as a field and became science. Those who forget the past are destined to repeat it. Or else think that jobs and making money are the only important thing. Recall Aristotle who said human flourishing is what philosophy aims at — and flourishing is not just earning a living.Report

Ken Taylor
Reply to  Assistant Prof
2 years ago

2 hours a day? I guess I’ve been doing it all wrong for all these years. My days are usually 12 – 14 hours these days. But then again I’m getting old and in a hurry to find those important truths that I’ve been searching for all these years, but have never found. Report

Christine Sisitare
Christine Sisitare
Reply to  Ken Taylor
2 years ago

That was seriously disturbing. of course a fake sees no value in what s/he is faking.Report

Jake Wright
2 years ago

Here’s what I tell my students in my Intro Syllabus in a section titled, “What’s the big deal, anyway?”

If you’re at [SCHOOL], you want to get a health-related degree. So, you might ask yourself why you should care about philosophy (aside from the whole graduation requirement thing). Here are two good reasons to care.

First, philosophy teaches you a way of thinking that’s very useful, especially when making important decisions. (I’m told health professionals sometimes make such decisions.) You’ll learn how to evaluate and weigh evidence, especially when the evidence is unclear or contradictory. You’ll learn how to make decisions even when the answer is isn’t obvious or the options seem hard to choose from.

Second, we get to spend a semester thinking about really interesting questions that we usually don’t get a chance to think about. Many of these questions can have serious impacts on your beliefs. Do I have free will? Does God exist? Am I more than just my physical body? If I’m free of disease, does that automatically mean I’m healthy? Thinking about these questions is fun, and you might learn something about how to live your life.Report

Thinker
Thinker
2 years ago

I would actually say that most philosophy *isn’t* important. Most philosophy that is done today has zero relevance (or such little relevance that it is effectively zero, and the defense of such negligible relevance just seems like grasping at straws) to the lives of individuals.

The only areas of philosophy that really matter, in my opinion, are the ones that help us to live in our day-to-day lives more thoughtfully. Does the work in question actually help one LIVE a better life — or is it just some narrowly interesting little thought rubix cube that one can play with? I think that’s a meaningful distinction that many in the academy do not at all wish to acknowledge. Report

RJB
RJB
2 years ago

I’m a philosophy undergrad who went into accounting, and then on to become an accounting professor. Philosophy has been indispensable for me as both a professor of accounting and in leadership roles in academia (e.g., recruiting, promotion and tenure reviews, program oversight). Philosophy has helped me question how I an others are thinking, uncover hidden assumptions about values, reasoning and application, and draw distinctions and parallels that take some philosophical training to recognize.

As Proust said, The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. Philosophy has given me new eyes for a lot of old problems in accounting and academia.Report

Bharath Vallabha
2 years ago

Why is religion important? Or science? Or art? There is no answer to “Why is philosophy important?” that is any different than answers to those questions.

Getting people interested in philosophy by telling them why it matters is, in my experience, unproductive. Show, not tell. Be inspiring in your being, thought and speech, and that will be the greatest argument and ad for philosophy. Don’t try to teach or guilt people into philosophy. Let the light of philosophy shine through you, and those who see it in you will come to you and will then spread the word much more.Report

James Arnold
James Arnold
2 years ago

Because it is the science of human nature, and “’tis evident, that all the sciences have a relation, greater or less, to human nature; and that however wide any of them may seem to run from it, they still return back by one passage or another.”Report

Vincenzo Fano
Vincenzo Fano
2 years ago

Philosophy is not important…. it is crucial, essential and vital. Philosophy is the meaning of life. Our whole life is beautiful only if it is philosophical. Unfortunately many have the misfortune not to be educated to the importance and joy of Philosophy. Philosophy is a fundamental right. Every one must have the possibility to love knowledge. Report

Kate Abramson
Kate Abramson
2 years ago

A glib, but also true answer: philosophy is important if you care about justification, esp. about being justified. And if you don’t, asking “why is philosophy important?” is a pretty odd question to ask.Report

John McCumber
John McCumber
2 years ago

It’s not so much that philosophy is important as that it’s unavoidable. As Aristotle said, the view that philosophy is unimportant is itself a philosophical position.Report

Vipul Vivek
Vipul Vivek
2 years ago

Judgements of utility should never overwhelm any reflective enterprise even though it is necessary as those in the business of thinking depend on the society for nourishment. But, first, philosophy is uniquely important among such enterprise because it is not only reflective but reflective about reflection as well. Paradoxically, that also makes philosophy not unique: it’s not only philosophers who reflect about reflection; good thinkers in all disciplines reflect about how they reflect. Thus, secondly, since in a way all systematic thinkers engage in philosophy, it is important for all.Report

Vipul Vivek
Vipul Vivek
Reply to  Vipul Vivek
2 years ago

*…they are necessary…Report

Eddy Nahmias
Eddy Nahmias
2 years ago

As Louis Armstrong said, “Man, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.”
Or perhaps better for our question, “If you don’t ever ask, you’ll never know.”Report

Doc F emeritus
Doc F emeritus
2 years ago

As a retired philosophy professor, my advice is to ask yourself why you care about what others think. You know, I know and many others know why philosophy is important. Leave it there. Otherwise it would be like trying to get gamers to explain to the general public why video games are important; getting anyone whose passions are important to those who do not share those passions.

With philosophy, of course, it isn’t as trivial as gaming or other such things. We would hope our educational system would have provided the perspective to understand philosophy’s importance, but unfortunately, our system has made earning a lot of money the focus (jobs, jobs, jobs, while extremely important training for a job is not the same as encouraging and fostering human flourishing — but that is where we are at).

Be true to what you know, what your passion is, and forget naysayers.Report

Doc F emeritus
Doc F emeritus
2 years ago

An addendum to my prior post. Also get engaged in public fora, such as letters to the editor, discussion sites in your area, public meetings such as candidate debates or town meetings, editorials if your paper allows them, on-line discussion sites, etc… In other words speak out, let the public know you are there as a philosopher, and show them why philosophical training is important.

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Alan White
Alan White
2 years ago

In part philosophy (and liberal education in general) is important because it allows you to make, and “get”, better jokes. A robust sense of humor is indispensable not just for coping with the perennial irrationality of this world, but is an essential part of much creative work. Report

Brian P Ballsun-Stanton
2 years ago

To speak to the philosophy of a topic, as other responses have ably covered the discipline of philosophy itself, the practice of philosophy of a topic allows us to explore the means, motivations, and methods of a discipline through a structured and commensurate vocabulary and established patterns of thought, description, and deconstruction. Thus, the philosophy of science allows us to explore and discuss the nature of science, the virtues and flaws of different methodological approaches to science, and the demarcation between when a thing/topic/idea is “scientific” and when it is not.Report

Mark Sanders
Mark Sanders
2 years ago

Philosophy is important because it is what enables human beings to evolve and progress. Philosophy is thinking about how we act in and engage with the world in a way that influences how we act in and engage in the world. That is fundamentally what it means to be human in my estimation.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
2 years ago

Philosophy is less a subject matter, more a way of approaching questions – especially those questions which are sufficiently difficult that there isn’t even consensus on how to ask the question, let alone how to answer it. So the methods of philosophy are useful and relevant whenever you have a question to answer and you’re not sure where to start.Report

Henry Lara
Henry Lara
2 years ago

Philosophy is important because everything is or comes down to philosophy. If you question anything long enough, after all, you will arrive at philosophy. For instance, the very question of why philosophy is important comes down to philosophy (hence the multitude of answers and view points in this post!) and can’t only be answered by doing philosophy. Many will disagree with me on this, of course. Still many more will no doubt provide good, sometimes very good, philosophical arguments to prove their point. In the end though, I don’t see how you can answer or settle this question without doing a bit of philosophy. Philosophy, therefore, is important, if for no other reason than to answer whether philosophy is important!Report

Philosophy?
Philosophy?
2 years ago

For all of the comments whose theme is something to do with the the importance of philosophy as alive and that speaks to how we actually conduct ourselves on a daily basis—a position with which I agree—isn’t Jordan Peterson’s immense popularity a testament to that truth, and isn’t he, truly, *doing* philosophy on his recent speaking tour, when he speaks to thousands of people about how to live ethically?

If one actually knows his views and listens to his lectures and reads his book, I find it more than plausible to conclude that he is a philosopher who is philosophizing. Thoughts?

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Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Philosophy?
2 years ago

Agree about Jordan Peterson. Other philosophers in similar way: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Arundhati Roy, Eckhart Tolle, Sam Harris…

In academia, “importance of philosophy” is heard through the prism of departmental divisions (as opposed to literature, physics, etc.). Outside academia, it is heard as a holistic vision of the world and mode of living. Many people stare blankly at philosophy majors because they have no idea what philosophy as a departmental discipline is (meta-science, conceptual analysis, etc.), and because they have others in their lives (the Pope, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Oprah…) who give them inspiration for living reflective lives and don’t see how Quine or Rorty or puzzles about free will or trolley problems fit into that.

Why have academic philosophers in the 20th century in America failed to inspire the public the way that William Buckley, John Lennon or Rosa Parks have?Report

The Examined Life
The Examined Life
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
2 years ago

Why should academic philosophers inspire the public that way?Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  The Examined Life
2 years ago

No shoulds about it, in a moral sense. But it is striking that post 1950 in America (decline of pragmatism), just when civil rights etc were shaping public consciousness, academic philosophers in America dropped off steeply in their public platform. The more diverse the public platform became, the less it seemed philosophy professors were able to inspire the masses – and had far less impact than in raising awareness or critical thought than politicians, musicians, activists, new age thinkers, etc.

Before people chime in with the usual list of Nussbaum, Singer, etc. (all wonderful), the point is their influence in raising critical thought has been far less than Lennon, Malcolm X, Buckley, etc. Wilfred Sellars is a much better philosopher in one sense than Malcolm X. But if the aim is fostering deep reflection in society, it is obvious who has been more productive.

If there is a should, it is practical: if academic philosophers function on the Sellars model instead of the Malcolm X or Buckley model, in the current climate, it’s days are numbered.Report

Chris
Chris
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
2 years ago

But what’s the explanation of Philosophers’ failure to have influence here, since in fact during the 60s and 70s there was a huge growth of academic philosophers doing more “applied work” – this was the time of the main rise of medical ethics and other “applied” areas of philosophy. Many were no longer doing the Rorty/Quine thing (both of whom were “pragmatists” so that doesn’t seem relevant), or metaethics, etc.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Chris
2 years ago

I would say: the causal explanation re the 60s and 70s is that academic philosophy being so eurocentric then meant it could not speak to the public, which was becoming more diverse. Ironically, academic philosophy thereby came to seem pointless to conservatives in one way, and minorities in another way.Report

Philosophy?
Philosophy?
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
2 years ago

What an interestingly diverse group you list, and I’m glad to see Tolle get a mention! I tend to make the distinction between “philosophy” and “academic philosophy,” largely on the lines your comment suggests. Indeed, there is very little work produced in the tedium of getting-published-to-get-a-job that resonates with non-academics, who are looking for meaning, inspiration, purpose, and answers to grand moral and metaphysical questions (albeit at a lower resolution than academic specialization can manage, but maybe that’s a good thing).

I often think about Socrates in this respect, who clearly eschewed the “technical” and “sophisticated” theories of his day in favor of good old-fashioned conversation that any “idiot” (think the Greek meaning of the term, which Socrates most certainly was) can engage in. It is not clear to me that we professional philosophers are, when engaging in “academic philosophy,” in fact students of Socrates at all, as many would like to claim. Rather, all-too-many of us are Meno, Meletus, or Anytus (to name only a few), and it is, rather, the Petersons (an others) who are genuinely taking up philosophy in the Socratic spirit.Report

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
2 years ago

I definitely do not think of Peterson as embodying the Socratic spirit. Instead, I’d say he bears a resemblance to one of Socrates’ interlocutors, the sophist Protagoras. Like Protagoras, Peterson has collected a following of young men who believe by following his prescriptions that they can establish themselves at the top of the social hierarchy where they belong. Moreover, Peterson does not have a rigorous system of thought that grounds his prescriptions, like Protagoras; and, unlike Socrates, he is rather lacking in epistemic humility and charity. Report

Philosophy?
Philosophy?
Reply to  beauvoir's baby
2 years ago

Your claims about Peterson seem likely to have been generated more from what you’ve read about him (in what are mostly ideology-driven hit pieces) than with serious engagement with his writings and lectures. He does, indeed, have a metaphysical, even theological, grounding for his moral prescriptions, and it is nothing if it is not rigorous.

And your by now hackneyed and oft-repeated point about men and social hierarchies–that’s simply not Peterson’s concern. It is rather, as he states over and over and over again, with the care and maintenance of the soul–just like it was for Socrates, who nonetheless got pulled into playing politics, even though his primary concern is the individual care of individual souls (much like Peterson, on both counts).Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  beauvoir's baby
2 years ago

I second Philosophy?’s point. Peterson’s main concern through his career is about the human psyche and myth and how that leads to violence and division, and how a psychological science of spirituality can shed light on all that. His criticism of identity politics is coming not from a desire to affirm males at top of hierarchy, but from wanting a universal science of the mind which can speak to our shared cross-cultural experiences.

It is worth saying this on this thread just because, for example, his lectures on the psychology of spirituality on youtube bring out the importance of philosophy very clearly, though he is not engaging with the usual philosophy pantheon. Some of his defenders no doubt only care about “owning the libs”. But Peterson’s own broader project seems much more akin to Joseph Campbell’s.Report

Charles H Nadler
Charles H Nadler
2 years ago

After decades away from studying philosophy formally and teaching it in a philosophy department I have concluded that it is useful for all problem solving that is rule based. I have used it to teach law, including legal writing. I have used it as a lawyer solving legal problems in mediation, arbitration, litigation, etc. I have used it in union organizing and in political activity and in presiding over non-profit organizations, or their committees.

Report

Patrick Lin
2 years ago

Philosophy is important for the same reason that science is important. Philosophy is just pre-science: we’re still working on questions that cannot (yet) be answered by observation or empirical methods.

And when philosophical questions can be answered empirically, they simply get moved to the bucket we call “science.” For instance, Democritus and others had long asked, “What is the world made of?”, and this remained a philosophy question for thousands of years until atomic theory could be tested and validated. If we can ever empirically test questions like “Does God exist?” and “Do we have free will?”, then those will become science questions, too.

Philosophy and science share same kind of process, e.g., logic and reflective equilibrium (cf. scientific method), thought experiments (cf. empirical experiments), counterexamples (cf. ruling out competing hypotheses), etc. They’re genetically related and part of the same value proposition.Report

Patrick S. O'Donnell
Reply to  Patrick Lin
2 years ago

“Philosophy is just pre-science.” Really? There are quite a few philosophers, living and dead, who have (explicitly or implicitly) argued to the contrary. I think Hilary Putnam, for example and most recently, has proffered some of the better arguments as to why this is not the case. I could cite many others, but consider, for example, the works John Dewey, Ludwig Wittgenstein Mary Midgley, B.K. Matilal, Ninian Smart, Martha Nussbaum, J.David Velleman, John Cottingham, Ilham Dilman, Herbert Fingarette, Seana Shiffrin, Nicholas Rescher, Jonardon Ganeri, Jay Garfield, Thomas E. Hill, Jr., Akeel Bilgrami, David Wiggins. Michael P. Lynch, Elizabeth Anderson, Jonathan Lear, Amélie Oksenberg, P.M.S. Hacker …. Report

Patrick S. O'Donnell
Reply to  Patrick S. O'Donnell
2 years ago

erratum: A.O. RortyReport

Alfred MacDonald
2 years ago

studying philosophy is important because you’ve done it a lot already and you’re going to continue to do it anyway so you might as well not be a dumbass about itReport

Pendaran
Pendaran
2 years ago

Philosophy is two things: 1. the specific questions philosophy today seeks to answer, and 2. the methods we use to do so. Philosophy qua 2 is broadly ‘thinking.’ The methods used are foundational to any enquiry. Other disciplines use thinking too, but none are as rigorous at it as philosophers. So, philosophers are the expert thinkers, so to speak. This is in part because our questions are mostly a priori but also because of what we value most: critical argumentation. Clearly thinking is valuable and important. So, philosophy qua 2 is clearly important. Is philosophy qua 1 important? Many think that the questions we ask are unanswerable or meaningless, because there isn’t philosophical progress. But this isn’t an issue with philosophy qua 1 but with philosophical culture. There is almost nothing in philosophy that is sacrosanct. If an argument can be made, a referee will allow it to be published. Philosophy today, as it’s practiced, doesn’t have a ‘building’ culture. We don’t view what we do as building human knowledge based on arguments made in the past. If we did, we’d have a canon that we claimed to be true and unassailable, regardless of whether it was true, and we’d invariably be worse critical thinkers. In fact, it’s because we value critical argumentation so much that we can’t agree, and we don’t build on the ‘discoveries’ of the past in the same way that other fields do. Ironically it is because philosophy qua 2 is so important, because we’re such expert thinkers, that many question whether philosophy qua 1 is important. You just cannot have a discipline that values critical argumentation so highly that also manages to agree on certain truths and build up a canon. So, philosophy qua 1, as it’s practiced today, has to be seen as valuable not in that it comes to agreements about answers but in that it provides many potential answers. Philosophy qua 1 is valuable in that it provides the logically possible answers and the reasons in favor and against, but you have to decide what’s right on your own. And honestly, this is no different from any other field. Even if a field has a canon and most in the field claim the canon to be true, ultimately you have to decide this yourself: Do you trust them?Report

Caleb
Caleb
2 years ago

I think a lot of academia has very limited real world importance, but it seems only philosophers have to defend the usefulness of their field. When I was in undergrad, I really liked algebra, and algebraic topology, in particular. One time, I remember, my grandmother asked me, “How do people use algebraic topology in the real world?” I shrugged, “I have no clue, but the problems are fun.” Report

Michael Cholbi
Michael Cholbi
2 years ago

An admittedly pragmatic answer in a Monty Python-ish spirit: “What has philosophy ever done for us? Logic, ethics, democracy, science, and computing, to start!”Report

Philosopher
Philosopher
2 years ago

Philosophy is important to answer questions about the importance of things.Report

Simon Blackburn
Simon Blackburn
2 years ago

I tried to answer this question in the introduction to my book Think. I suppose that as well as the wonderful answers above, I would also add that in these days of post-truth ideologies, fake news, silos of lunacy on the web, a grounding in the right and true methods of inquiry is more important than ever. Report

John Fischer
John Fischer
Reply to  Simon Blackburn
2 years ago

YES! When I began my teaching career at Yale, Derrida was holding forth, and when I came to UCR, postmodernism was the “in” view in the humanities (I spent some time at UCR’s humanities Center). I don’t think postmodernism (with its attacks on objectivity, Truth “with a captital C”, and so forth) is so much in vogue–at least explicitly–in academics (although there is much that current “theorists” borrow from it), but i am horrified to see central elements adopted by our own government (and others)! A nightmare! I used to rail against the pernicious role of postmodernism in academics, but I always thought that it would die out when the academic pendulum would (surely) swing back. But our President an acolyte of Derrida? J. Hillis Miller? It is too much to bear.Report

Ram Neta
Ram Neta
2 years ago

I’ve always liked C.I. Lewis’s answer to this question, from the beginning of “Mind and the World Order”:

“It is… a distinguishing character of philosophy that it is everybody’s business. The man who is his own lawyer or physician will be poorly served; but everyone both can and must be his own philosopher. He must be, because philosophy deals with ends, not means. It includes the questions, What is good? What is right? What is valid? Since finally the responsibility for his own life must rest squarely upon the shoulders of each, no one can delegate the business of answering such questions to another. Concerning the means whereby the valid ends of life may be attained, we seek expert advice. …But the question of the ultimately valuable ends which shall be served, remains at once the most personal, and the most general of all questions.

“And everyone can be his own philosopher, because in philosophy we investigate what we already know. It is not the business of philosophy, as it is of the natural sciences, to add to the sum total of phenomena with which men are acquainted. Philosophy is concerned with what is already familiar. To know in the sense of familiarity and to comprehend in clear ideas are, of course, quite different matters. …Just this business of bringing to clear consciousness the principles which are implicitly intended in our dealing with the familiar, is the distinctively philosophic enterprise.”
Report

Nomy Arpaly
Nomy Arpaly
2 years ago

One of the only things that make me feel superior to my cats is that I have the capacity to care about things that don’t put food on the table.Report

John Fischer
John Fischer
Reply to  Nomy Arpaly
2 years ago

Nomy. Ha! But my cats (3 or our own and about a half dozen feral) do have that capacity: they care about “things” that put food in cute little dishes on the floor/ground.Report

Ken Taylor
2 years ago

Existence in its totality is a vast and layered labyrinth. So too are the many sciences and modes of inquiry whose job it is to explore and chart this or that aspect of this vast and layered labyrinth. Of all the modes of inquiry by which we engage and explore the various layers of the labyrinth, it falls to philosophy alone to consider the labyrinth of existence, and our engagement with it, in its totality. Philosophy does this in many different ways. Sometimes it plays Socratic Midwife. In that mode it attempts to make explicit and manifest the ready made concepts by which we purport to navigate this or that layer of the labyrinth. It thereby brings them to the fore as objects of critical self-reflection. Sometimes philosophy seeks to “stress test” our ready made concepts, even unto the breaking point. Because philosophy seeks at times to break our concepts, it may also seek to engineer new concepts, perhaps in cooperation with other inquires. It’s attempt to aid in the engineering of new concepts is often in services of our attempts to learn anew how to navigate our way from one layer of the labyrinth up, down, and across into other layers of the labyrinth. Philosophy is also perhaps the single greatest spur to the human imagination, because it is driven not just to grasp and explain what is, but always to gain greater imaginative acquaintance with what might be.
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Ken Taylor
Reply to  Ken Taylor
2 years ago

But in reality, no sound bite answer can do philosophy justice. Philosophy is a sprawling mansion with many, many rooms, as I say here:

https://politicalphilosopher.net/2016/08/26/featured-philosopher-ken-taylor/
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Peter Singer
2 years ago

Philosophy changes lives. Over the years, hundreds of students have told me that taking one of my courses has changed the direction of their life, leading them to live in accordance with values that they would not have had, or perhaps would not have articulated if they had not taken the course. Some of them have then pursued different careers, or changed what they eat, or what they spend money on (or donate money to). What subjects oher than philosophy can do that?Report

jj
jj
2 years ago

I suspect the question she is often being asked understands the importance of philosophy in terms of its usefulness. I find Aristotle’s insight here “useful.” Philosophy (at least practical philosophy) is, among other things, an inquiry into what are the kinds of thing(s) in relations to which we should measure or judge things as useful or beneficial. The problem is that most people (i.e., vast majority) of people think, as he says, that this is something easy and obvious, like money, power, or pleasure (or at best honor or sense of pride or obedience to gods) and, since they don’t even have any real notion of something finer or more exalted than that (what he calls ‘to kalon’), they find an inquiry into such things a total and incomprehensible waste of time. There is really, from his point of view, no amount of explaining that can remedy this since the battle was lost long before they asked that question. There are, of course, many explanations and good answers (some given above) but they do not have any real traction for most people – they only address those who already kind of know anyway.

As a side note – I find the comparison to Peterson or Oprah or whatever to Socrates and professional philosophers to Menos and Euthyphros really not just historically uninformed but terribly misleading. Philosophy, as practiced by Socrates and by the tradition following him, is not (as a practice) about giving answers to some questions about meaning of life or what have you. Religion,art, etc does that already, in different ways. Sure, philosophers do that, but the practice of philosophy, as a continual social enterprise is really about examining oneself and each other as to the consistency and truth of one’s beliefs and theories. This is the core of Socractic practice and the core of the (perceived) adversarial and never settling on anything practice of philosophy. It’s not about having a metaphysical view of the universe (any religion, mythology, or folk literature has that) – it’s about the continual critical and irreverent examination of not only that view but of the people holding that view and holding them responsible for the view. This is why philosophy is “annoying” and “offensive”. Whether consciously or not, we all practice this still, on ourselves (insofar as we go and lay bare our minds in talks and writings) and others (and they on us). This is not at all what people mentioned above (who have public personas etc) do – sure they have and offer answers and insights and what have you. But that is not being a philosophers. Peterson is a preacher (like Euthyphro) and as such he will always have more “impact” than a philosopher, short-term at least. But philosophy cannot really fight him (and others of similr caliber) on their terms – Socrates too refused to do that…(as he often emphasizes he is not interested in public, long and deep sounding displays of intellect).Report

Kate Norlock
2 years ago

Last year I taught hundreds of students introductory philosophy, and got many variations on this question about canonical philosophers: “How did they know about [current worry on the student’s mind] so long ago?” How did Aristotle know that I’d get addicted to my cell phone? How did Beauvoir know that I worry what people think of me?
Philosophy is important so that you can find out you are not alone. It is important to have company in the struggle to ascertain the right and the good. It is great that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we’re faced with all-too-human problems.
I’m not just saying it’s “love of wisdom.” I’m saying, it’s great to find out that humans have been wise, and that the wisdom is there, waiting for us to take it up.

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Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  Kate Norlock
2 years ago

Well done. This is a great response. There’s a wealth of wisdom in the study of the history of philosophy. If no one ever wrote another paper on what’s hot in the journals right now, philosophical instruction would still have immense value.Report

Alan Yin
Alan Yin
2 years ago

Philosophy constitutes humanity’s best attempt in understanding and answering the question ‘how should we live our lives?’ Report

Harry Brighouse
2 years ago

These aren’t about why philosophy is important, but about why it is valuable that at least some people study it, and why we should teach it well. Basically it teaches you how to think about problems for which the algorithm isn’t known (and maybe unknowable; and it teaches you how to reason together with other people across difference and disagreement. Other majors can teach all this, and some do, but many don’t.

http://crookedtimber.org/2017/05/15/why-majoring-in-philosophy-might-make-you-a-better-citizen-than-you-might-have-thought/

http://crookedtimber.org/2016/06/02/why-majoring-in-philosophy-is-less-risky-than-you-might-have-thought/

http://crookedtimber.org/2010/03/10/whats-the-point-of-having-a-philosophy-department-in-a-university/

Ms. Wolfe might be pleased to know that her US Senator, Mr. Rubio, agrees with her:
http://www.tampabay.com/florida-politics/buzz/2018/04/04/rubios-no-longer-making-fun-of-philosophy-majors/

I’ve heard from more than one elementary ed teachers that they learned more practical skills in their philosophy classes than in their teacher ed classes. Why? Because the teacher ed classes taught them what things ought to be like, and the philosophy classes taught them how to think well about what to do when things weren’t how they ought to be (always) and weren’t going to be made how they ought to be by their actions.
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Siddharth Muthukrishnan
Siddharth Muthukrishnan
2 years ago

I’m a physicist. Casual conversations with friends, relatives, people I meet socially, Uber/Lyft drivers, and even other colleagues usually start with them asking questions about what I work on or about some physics news they saw in the popular media, but they quickly veer towards the philosophical.

For instance, while they are gently curious about quantum computing (the field I work in) for a while, they soon are asking about what it really means to be in a superposition or asking about the influence of the observer on reality or about the relationship between consciousness and quantum physics or their take on Schrodinger’s cat. Other topics that come up in these discussions (it’s surprising how many things people care about and how quickly they come up) are things like how can time be part of a space-time fabric when we experience time as a flowing and passing; how can consciousness ever arise out of something physical; how do we think about personal identity when our atoms are being constantly replaced; is time-travel possible; how are the laws of physics enforced. I could go on. These are all questions that are really only being discussed carefully in philosophy departments. When I tell them this, and provide evidence for the competence of philosophers by discussing answers to these questions that have been proposed by philosophers, they immediately understand the value of doing this work. They don’t really ask for further arguments to justify its value.

So, I think people really do intrinsically care about philosophy. I think they need to be made more aware of the fruits of philosophical labor. Report

Alex Gregory
2 years ago

Philosophy is unified by method, not subject matter. The merits of the method is that it helps us answer a variety of questions. The merits of answering those questions are different in every case.Report

Amie Thomasson
2 years ago

Philosophy matters because it gives us the space and skills to think through what concepts we ought to be using–for a variety of purposes–and what other ways of conceptualizing the world might be possible. And that is important because how we think and talk is crucially important for how we organize our society, engage in scientific research, and live our lives.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
2 years ago

Philosophy explores, at the most abstract level, questions about ourselves, the world, and our place in the world.Report

Patrick S. O'Donnell
Reply to  Tom Hurka
2 years ago

Of course philosophical exploration is not always and predominantly abstract, as the use of living or at least vivid examples and “concrete” case studies exemplifies. Consider, for instance, the tradition of pragmatism from Dewey to Putnam, or existentialism, or some forms of phenomenological description, or when philosophers treat difficult topics or pressing questions in politics or ethics: think here of Nussbaum’s use of literature, or Lina Zagzebski’s moral “exemplarism” or direct reference theory of the good, or Robert Goodin’s discussions of nuclear disarmament, the basic income idea, or environmental ethics. Consider too, explorations of narrative from Danto to Hutto. Of course even in these instances there are moments when philosophizing needs to assume an abstract form. And yet I think it helps to remind ourselves that this abstractness need be ensconced in forbidding prose (i.e., philosophers need not all write like Hegel, Kant, or Heidegger), as Plato’s dialogues demonstrate and philosophers like Mary Midgley, Herbert Fingarette, Ilham Dilman, and Nicholas Rescher attest. Abstract thinking can be conveyed in clear and accessible prose or through literary forms that ease one’s way into abstract thought. This is important if only because those new to philosophy are not always (to put it generously) used to abstract thinking and there are various pedagogic strategies whereby we might cultivate this capability without wearing, as it were, philosophy’s “abstract” quality on our sleeves. Report

Patrick S. O'Donnell
Reply to  Patrick S. O'Donnell
2 years ago

erratum: Linda ZagzebskiReport

Sean McAleer
Sean McAleer
2 years ago

Philosophy is important not just because it engages big questions, but also because it helps us to think clearly about the stuff of everyday life. For example, when the person across the table says, “Can you pass the salt?”, I know that she’s asking actually me to pass the salt and not inquiring about my ability to do so or about the possibilities (metaphysical, psychological, nomological, etc.) of my doing so. I understand *why* this is what she’s doing if I know something about indirect speech acts, which comes from the philosophy of language.
So if during an interrogation a suspect says “Why don’t you get me a lawyer, dawg?”, a philosophically informed person understands that the suspect is in fact asking for a lawyer and is not asking why the police are not getting him one. (Knowing that the suspect is not asking for a dog that is also a lawyer is not so much a product of philosophy as it is a product of not being willfully thickheaded.)
Report

Gina Schouten
Gina Schouten
2 years ago

Philosophy is important because studying philosophy improves our skills for finding shared premises and reasoning well together from those premises. These are crucial skills for democratic social cooperation. Report

Christine M. Korsgaard
Christine M. Korsgaard
2 years ago

Philosophy is the discipline of thinking. Here I mean “discipline” not merely as a synonym of “field” but in its more fundamental sense of something that provides a set of standards that govern an activity in a way that makes it more excellent. As rational beings, human beings do what we do by way of thinking, so it is important that we know how to get this right, how to think as well as possible. But most of the time we don’t have the time or the energy to think things all the way through, since when you think things all the way through, you find that everything is connected to everything else, the implications of any given thought are almost endless, and so the process is endless. Most of the time, we eventually need to stop thinking and get on with the business of doing something about whatever it is we were trying to think about. Still, we should aspire to think well, and you can’t think well unless you know what that looks like. Philosophy is the place where human beings try to keep the ideal of thinking things all the way through alive, so we don’t lose sight of that ideal.

I realize that, offered as an answer to someone skeptical about the value of philosophy, this has the disadvantage of sounding a little arrogant, as if I were saying, “we think better than anyone else.” But I don’t mean that we actually succeed in thinking things all the way through. I mean that we are the ones who try to keep the aspiration to really complete thinking alive.
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Eric Wiland
Eric Wiland
2 years ago

Philosophy is important but not because it’s a recipe for wealth, fame, social power, or even happiness as that is tradtionally understood. If it is indeed important, it’s because thinking philosophically perfects us. If you take seriously the idea that we are essentially rational beings, and that philosophy is a way to become more rational, then the case for the importance of philosophy is straightforward.

(God, I fear that sounds like Kant, but I still think it’s true.)Report

JT
JT
2 years ago

Just a counterpoint: philosophy is neither necessary nor sufficient for a good life.Report

Patrick S. O'Donnell
Reply to  JT
2 years ago

I suspect much depends here on just how one conceives of the “good life,” so, at least upon some conceptions, philosophy may in fact be a necessary or even simply a sufficient condition for the good life. I should note that such “philosophy” or philosophizing or a philosophical temperament need not be the prerogative of professional philosophy. Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Patrick S. O'Donnell
2 years ago

It seems to me that this hangs more on what we mean by ‘philosophy’. If narrowly construed, it wouldn’t be hard to find plenty of happy people who’ve never heard of it or unhappy people who’ve dedicated their lives to it. Go too broad, and you risk trivialising the thing you wanted to defend as important in the first place. If you have something that you think falls in the sweet spot, I’d be happy to hear it.Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Patrick S. O'Donnell
2 years ago

Oops, “or unhappy people who’ve dedicated their lives to it” should come after “trivialising the thing you wanted to defend as important.”Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  JT
2 years ago

This isn’t really a counterpoint – lots of important things are neither necessary nor sufficient for living a good life. For example – becoming a parent, having a good job, having a life long best friend, etc. Given the diversity of value and challenges in life, I suspect most of the important things that bring the most value to people’s lives are neither necessary nor sufficient, with obvious exceptions for such necessities as food, nutrition and very general categories such as caring relationships with others. Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Derek Bowman
2 years ago

“Given the diversity of value and challenges in life, I suspect most of the important things that bring the most value to people’s lives are neither necessary nor sufficient…”

I agree, but you wouldn’t know it going by some of the comments here–the point I mean to counter is the sense that one without philosophy will be at most an imperfect benighted thinking thing that isn’t great at getting along with the other benighted things huddled around the fire in Plato’s cave, and ultimately incapable of attaining the true flourishing enjoyed by those who live an Aristotelian life of contemplation. Report

JT
JT
Reply to  JT
2 years ago

Cards on the table, I think philosophy has a crucial role to play in the academy, but its significance for individual human lives tends to be over blown. If philosophers want to thump the table in favour of our own importance, we should at least be honest about it.Report

Lisa Shapiro
Lisa Shapiro
2 years ago

When I was an undergraduate, one of my fellow students noted that “philosophy is the art of stating the obvious.” This seems to be true of many kinds of philosophy. The subject of philosophy is the obvious in that it aims to articulate what we take for granted. Philosophy is an art in that it requires craftsmanship to bring what we take for granted to light, so that it can be considered, reconsidered and potentially replaced by another (sometimes even contrary) obvious truth. Is that valuable? Well, we couldn’t do anything else of value without it.Report

Jan Arreman
2 years ago

Wilfred Sellars wrote the following in Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man.

“The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term. Under ‘things in the broadest possible sense’ I include such radically different items as not only ‘cabbages and kings’, but numbers and duties, possibilities and finger snaps, aesthetic experience and death. To achieve success in philosophy would be, to use a contemporary turn of phrase, to ‘know one’s way around’ with respect to all these things, not in that unreflective way in which the centipede of the story knew its way around before it faced the question, ‘how do I walk?’, but in that reflective way which means that no intellectual holds are barred”.
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Kristian
Kristian
2 years ago

Part of what motivates the worry that philosophy is important is the claim that only money is important. Or only luxury goods and status.

On the other hand if money, status and luxury goods aren’t really important, then it seems that an attempt to understand the world -through empirical science and rational philosophical investigation of that empirical data- is at least provisionally important until proven otherwise. Report

John Fischer
John Fischer
2 years ago

I think philosophy is important in part because it turns us topsy-turvy. This disorientation is not just intellectual, but existential. It challenges us, but not (just) “locally”. It can have a more “global” effect on one’s intellectual orientation and perspective as a human being. Philosophy is best when it makes you feel miserable and drives you crazy. This can lead to a new awareness, enlightenment, and strength. Or leave one untethered (if not unhinged), and seeking a new equilibrium.Report

Mia Wood
2 years ago

Philosophical study is important because it is a continuous lesson in humility.

(Thanks, Zoe and Justin! Zoe, your experience is like mine. I remember my mother’s response to my decision to major in philosophy. It was both disheartening to me, but also textbook. She looked at me with utter disbelief. “But what are you going to do with THAT?” she asked, with no small amount of horror in her voice.)Report

Mia Wood
Reply to  Mia Wood
2 years ago

“But wait!” one might exclaim. “Lots of things give us continuous lessons in humility.” True, but these things seem to be subject- or topic- or situation-specific. Philosophy lets us explore everything we might want to think about, and given its demands, it never ceases to show us the depths of our ignorance.Report

Matthew Smith
2 years ago

Typically, philosophy is not important. In my limited experience in the discipline (20 years and counting since I started grad school) it’s often just a playground for the concatenation of empty catechisms. Let’s put this theory with this neologism and these citations et voilà a paper to be published in a generalist journal of high repute (and do that for 20 more epicycles, half of which appear in footnotes in response to lame objections, and you’ve got a typical Ethics paper).

Often philosophy is pernicious, as when it is deployed as an intellectual tool for constructing baroque systems to confirm one’s priors about esoteric and empty questions. Thus the amazing wankery of (at least) a decade of debate around the metrics of equality, or the (much more interesting but still prior-confirming) “content wars” in philosophy of mind. As evidence for this, we might reflect on the well known sociology of academic philosophy: the field is notoriously pale and male, and its practitioners frequently display an infantilizing hostility towards texts and forms of discourse that fall outside the norm.

Meanwhile the rest of the humanities were, despite the vicious internecine political struggles, developing new ways of thinking about racial and gender formation, laying the groundwork for new forms of economic history (hello History of Capitalism literature!), and appreciating that many disciplines beyond physics and linguistics (and maybe biology) can inform many other disciplines (hello seeing everything like a text, or appreciating the materiality of everything).

This is an overly rosy characterization of what other humanities departments were up to, and an uncharitable dismissal of work in philosophy. For, it is from within this frame that we find the _best_ work in philosophy – the work in philosophy of X, where the prepositional phrase drives the philosopher to interact with non-philosophers.

Perhaps the above applies only to mediocre philosophy. *Good* philosophy is quite important. In fact, one might say, it is important in ways that most other good intellectual practices aren’t. This seems likely. What drew me to philosophy was, in fact, the content wars (I am a firm externalist about content, thank you very much, and generally think that LTOBC is more right than wrong). Pretty much anything in philosophy of mind and philosophy of biology was totally interesting to me. But, in hindsight I suspect that had more to do with my fascination with the object of the preposition.

Additionally, a lot of political theory, broadly understood (so not just Rawlsinalia) gripped me. But, this took me outside the parochial marketplace of ideas that 20th Century philosophy cultivated. As a result, I found Foucault and Judith Butler, Arendt and Deleuze, Polanyi and Jameson, Harraway and anything and everything from the Frankfurt School to be absolutely gripping (to say nothing of the Brenner Debate, one of my all-time favorite debates).

Meanwhile, one of the biggest questions being debated in traditional political philosophy was: “Is _The Law of Peoples_ any good?”

With this experience, I came to think the best bits of my training as a philosopher – the bits focused on argument reconstruction and critique, on clarity in terminology, definition, and expression, on sensitivity to the order of presentation of ideas – are quite useful when they are wielded with empathy and curiosity. But, these best bits, when used well, seemed to me to be mostly valuable in my role as an editor of other people’s ideas. Good philosophy is, then, important in that way, which is of no small importance.Report

AgainstObscurantists
AgainstObscurantists
Reply to  Matthew Smith
2 years ago

I think everyone is really shocked that the Frankfurt school gripped you, given how you talked about philosophy in first 3 paragraphs.Report

Matthew Smith
Reply to  AgainstObscurantists
2 years ago

I know, right?Report

Dan
Dan
2 years ago

Philosophy is a pursuit that helps one to become more humane — and if there weren’t a lot of professional philosophers reading this blog, I’d be tempted to say that “humane” is related in meaning to the Confucian notion of “ren” and the ancient Greek notion of “phronesis.”

I’m not a professional philosopher, and I’m not an academic. My undergrad degree is in philosophy, and then spent a dozen years working in a lumberyard, as a carpenter, and in a health food store, before going back to grad school for a master’s in religious education (another low-paying, low-status job) — I took Heraclitus seriously when he said, Lovers of wisdom must be inquirers into very many things indeed (DK B35). And yeah, with all my low-paying, low-status jobs, I’m probably a poster-child for Why Not To Major in Philosophy; especially considering that I’m quite satisfied with the course life has taken for me.Report

Carlo Ierna
2 years ago

I find it quite odd to ask about the “importance” of philosophy, as if you could take it in isolation and compare it side-by-side to, say, medicine, physics, or religion. Or to compare being a professional philosopher to being a farmer, programmer, or lawyer. I feel more at home with the view of Friedrich Paulsen in his “Introduction to Philosophy”:
““The sciences are not an aggregate of parts accidentally heaped together, but a uniform whole. Reality itself is not an aggregate, but a uniform whole. […] The idea of a unity of the sciences is therefore not an arbitrary invention, but a necessary thought. The ideal unity of an all-comprehensive system of knowledge corresponds to the unity of the cosmos. […] Philosophy is the historical name for this ideal unity. […] the concept of philosophy … is correct and valid in so far as the problem of a unity of all knowledge is given. […] Hence every scientific investigator is a philosopher, who is possessed of the idea of the unity of all knowledge.”
On this view, philosophy isn’t really a separate field of investigation, unless you reduce it to one of its sub-disciplines (logic, ethics, history of philosophy, etc.), which would however make the pursuit of “philosophy” as a specialism quite un-philosophical … Report

Sloane Tsanos
Sloane Tsanos
2 years ago

What does it matter if it’s “important” or not? Important for what? Isn’t it enough that it’s interesting?Report

Kristijan Krkac
Kristijan Krkac
2 years ago

On the one hand, philosophy is a rather new activity among humans, much younger than say various half-scientific half-engineering discoveries and innovations (fire, wheel, bread, etc.), arts, etc., so it cannot have the same importance as these activities. However, it has similarities with them in terms of innovativeness, creativity, rational thinking, etc., so it can be understood as a continuation of these activities in part. On the other hand, philosophy has features of much younger human activities, like religion, reflective rationality, writing, storytelling, literature etc., so it seems that it has other aspects as well. Describing perspicuously these features and pointing to the pattern of philosophy would probably answer the principal question.Report

Agnes Callard
2 years ago

Philosophy is important because it is a haven for an unruly mind.
Explained here: https://angryrainbowmermaids.blogspot.com/2018/08/unruliness.htmlReport

YAAGS
YAAGS
2 years ago

Philosophy isn’t important. But it’s hard to see why that matters given that society doesn’t really reward the important jobs anyway. You can make a lot more money selling worthless trinkets or programming websites or video games than as a plumber or as a garbage truck driver or farm worker. We pay movie actors and actresses millions of dollars and society would be completely fine if their field didn’t exist at all. People tend to look down on the important jobs.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  YAAGS
2 years ago

Here is a more pithy response for the student:

Society has given about a billion dollars to the Kardashians just for being famous, but I guess we don’t have enough time or energy on a millenia-old intellectual tradition devoted to questioning the nature of reality and the place of human beings within it because it doesn’t immediately lead to new technologies or give people immediate, mindless gratification. While we’re at it, why don’t we just roll the Mona Lisa into a big joint and smoke it?Report

Pamela Hieronymi
2 years ago

… because it corrupts the youth, as the accusers of Socrates knew. That is, when done well, it empowers students to question the ambient assumptions of their culture and to either affirm them, from a point of view of greater knowledge and authenticity, or else to begin to remake them into something better.Report

Baruch Bar-Ilan
Baruch Bar-Ilan
2 years ago

Philosophy is important because it is part of the art of self transformation, which is the most sublime art of living well. While interacting with other people, living and dead, is essential, the most profound need is self development, as any child could tell you. As the many selves develop, so too their relationships and societies.Report

Steven Yates
2 years ago

Very little *academic* philosophy is important, except as paychecks for those fortunate enough to have found permanent jobs, or who didn’t leave the academic discipline out of frustration. The analytic tradition developed powerful methods but never used them to their full potential, for as such they might have served as instruments of criticism of how the wealthy and powerful use language to assert authority, misdirect, or merely confuse (did Wittgenstein not say near the end of the Tractatus that asking “What do we actually use this word or proposition for?” repeatedly leads to valuable insights???). On this score, though, one will glean far more from the writings of Orwell and Huxley than Wittgenstein or Quine or Rawls. The former, of course, were not in a position to have to worry about offending the dominant political economy of academia, or that of the administrators signing those paychecks.

Philosophy, academic or otherwise, has the potential to identify, clarify, and critically evaluate worldviews, meaning by that not personal worldviews but generally comprehensive and usually tacit systems of thought that direct civilizations through their institutions (governing, mediating, etc.) & manifesting themselves in culture. Is there a dominant worldview in the West right now? Is there more than one, perhaps vying with each other for dominance? Is a given worldview helping us or harming us … or, perhaps, helping certain populations (perhaps empowering them) while harming others? Should philosophers study and attempt to engage systems of power, doing what Chomsky once described as the responsibility of intellectuals: “to speak the truth and to expose lies”? Or should philosophers withdraw, as Epicurus counseled back in the days of Rome, and construct spheres of refuge as our postmodern U.S. empire fragments and slowly collapses (“collapse” here meaning a process and not a singular event)?

If professional philosophers courageously rise above their present stations and engage these kinds of questions and follow them where they lead, then Yes, philosophy will again be important. Report

Vlad
Vlad
2 years ago

“The only reason not to study philosophy is to be the pawn of other people’s ideas.”
–Attributed (or something close to it) to Geoff Sayre McCord
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Beta Smiles
Beta Smiles
2 years ago

Doing philosophy is fun and adventure and exploration. It gives rise to a positive subjective experience for the people that do it. Report

Mike Archbold
Mike Archbold
2 years ago

If you get nothing else out of philosophy, you should at least be able to recognize the logical fallacies (straw man, false dichotomy, etc).Report

Eoghan Gray
Eoghan Gray
1 year ago

To attempt to explain the purpose of Philosophy, it would seem sensible to first decide upon what Philosophy is. I would say, we then go about such through a variety of processes, such as:
What is Philosophy, compared to other pursuits? The study of knowledge? This could as well apply to Physics. The study of Logic? May apply to Maths. The study of thought from a human point of view? And could this not also be attributed to Psychology?
So now we try something else, say:
If these are the study of what is, Philosophy must be the study of what is not! (Physics wonders, Philosophy doubts etc..) And yet we are again met with difficulties, since Physics has also gone a long way into proving what we didn’t know before, and disproving what we thought we knew.
Ok, try again:
What is the meaning of the word Philosophy? Love of wisdom. What is wisdom? What is love? And thus we are met with an infinite possibility of threads as to where our answer may lead us.
And so it may be shown, though the chances of our reaching a satisfactory answer to the question of “What is Philosophy?” seem ostensibly impossible, in the attempt to uncover this answer, it seems, we have discovered Philosophy.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Philosophy is important insofar as it does roughly the following things:
1) Acts as a neutral and rational arbiter between important competing ideas,
2) Promotes the critical and self-critical questioning of commonly accepted dogmas, and
3) Promotes an ethos of fair, patient, and rigorous inquiry in those who practice and study it.

However, humans are so constituted that our personal biases make the work of pretty well anyone acting alone, or in an echo chamber, useless as philosophy. Philosophy therefore needs a community of rigorous inquirers in order to succeed at its aims, and that community must work harder than many seem to realize to be effective.

1) If certain philosophical views are forbidden either explicitly or implicitly, or if people with philosophical training can’t be found who are strongly motivated to argue forcefully for all sides of an issue, then the worth of what even the best philosophers come to on that issue is almost zero. The only views that can legitimately be ruled out are those for which the other side has produced a rationally devastating argument. Even then, everyone should be encouraged forever after to develop powerful objections against those arguments.

There is also the constant risk that philosophy can remain rigorous and objective while losing its importance. This can be encouraged by social practices that confer great benefits on, for instance, philosophical work that does not seem to help clearly resolve any issue that anyone outside of the philosophical profession seems to care about.

2) If some relevant positions are generally accepted as taboo within philosophy, _especially_ when those taboo positions happen to also be taboo for non-philosophers at the time, then nothing produced by the philosophers who accept those taboos is trustworthy. The problem is accentuated by the fact that so many within philosophy wrongly believe that their learning and the learning of their peers would allow them to tell quite easily if the position they advocate is wrong or liable to cause harm. In fact, it is the social practice of fairness and exposure to rigorous criticism in a taboo-free environment, not the individual intuition or reasoning power of any philosopher or group of philosophers, that allows philosophy to achieve anything. Without that, all you have is a bunch of people who are very good at rationalizing the views they happen to find appealing for intellectually irrelevant reasons.

Another great threat to the power of philosophy is an environment in which people are motivated to be ‘nice’ to each other, where ‘nice’ entails not providing as rigorous criticism as one could give. This slackness undermines the force of philosophy as a whole, while making the life of every individual philosopher more comfortable (except, of course, the lives of philosophers who are motivated more by the search for accuracy and the search for truth than the pursuit of publications and status).

3) Philosophy has much to teach those who come to study it, if we can get them to take on the rigor, daring and habits of rational criticism and self-criticism. But there are many ways to teach philosophy that will do none of this but merely give students the sense that they know things that they do not know, or the confidence that they have objectively thought things through when they have not. Failure to provide each student with difficult criticism against his or her views, class environments in which clear and important criticism of others’ views is explicitly or implicitly discouraged, and policies of giving high grades to all students are all examples of this. There are compelling selfish motivations for professional philosophers to engage in all of them.

So, is philosophy useful? If done properly, yes! But we do not all have the disposition, patience and daring of Socrates, and we are not always very good at building structures for philosophers in which a modern Socrates would thrive.
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