What You’d Share to Show Non-Philosophers the Value of Philosophy


Happy World Philosophy Day! World Philosophy Day is the creation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It’s aims include recognizing the value of philosophy, encouraging philosophical work, and raising awareness of philosophy among the public.

It’s all well and good to argue explicitly for the conclusion that philosophy is, in some way or another, valuable. Writing to that effect serves important purposes. But the value of philosophy can also be conveyed by good philosophy.

So, suppose you were tasked with showing someone who isn’t already interested in or working in philosophy that philosophy is valuable, not with a direct argument for that conclusion, but by providing them with a reasonably accessibly, relatively brief, piece of philosophy. What would you choose?

Don’t pick a whole book—that’s too long. We’re looking for easily shareable examples that have a good chance of being read in their entirety. Pieces that are the length of an essay or book chapter would work, but so could just a few well-chosen pages, or perhaps even just a paragraph.

Readers, please let us know your pick in the comments. If you’d like, say a little about why you’re choosing it. And then consider sharing your choice with others, perhaps by emailing it to them, or sharing it on social media (#worldphilosophyday on Twitter).

Amanda McCavour, “Compound Tangle”

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JH
JH
2 years ago

How about some of Thomas Nagel’s short papers? Here I’m thinking of papers like “The Absurd” and “Death.” Both are short–about 10 pages. And both deal with deep issues that most people wonder about at one time or another. Report

Attila Csordas
2 years ago

I was just tweeting about 3 such deep philosophy starters and Nagel’s Death was one of them:
Thomas Nagel: Death, this one personally inspired me to write at least 3 posts recently http://openlifespan.org/nagel-life-default-positivity/ & http://openlifespan.org/nagel-open-lifespan-inner-experience/ & http://openlifespan.org/coma/ also sent them to Nagel, who answered actually, even if it was just a ‘Thank you note’ so far 🙂
David Lewis 4.Foundations/4.1 Possible Worlds in Counterfactuals
Robert Nozick: The meaning of life, Chapter 10, Philosophical Explanations
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Mahir razuk
Mahir razuk
Reply to  Attila Csordas
2 years ago

Thank you very muchReport

Martin Lenz
2 years ago

What would I choose? – Why not ask non-philosopers what they expect from philosophers? So instead of just picking a text, why not ask people what concerns they have and then jointly think through what philosophical perspective or work might offer a promising response? Report

Claire Creffield
Claire Creffield
2 years ago

Bernard Williams’ essay, Moral Luck. It is so rich. It indicates the sheer importance of philosophy – what it can bring to our lives. And it is clear about the limits that there are to the possibilities of finding, within philosophy, the solutions that we hope for. It is also highly literary, both in the quality of its writing and in the willingness to look at art and literature as possible sources of philosophical inspiration. It embeds philosophy in life, and life in philosophyReport

TC
TC
2 years ago

Everyone is interested in God. That’s the easiest way to get people interested in philosophy, in my experience. So, let’s point them toward some good religious epistemology.

My suggestion: “Is Belief in God Properly Basic?” – Alvin Plantinga
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Stephen Bloch-Schulman
Stephen Bloch-Schulman
2 years ago

This exceptional short, accessible piece by Alice MacLaughlin: https://www.google.com/amp/s/politicalphilosopher.net/2015/07/09/featured-philosop-her-alice-maclachlan/amp/

It is both fascinating and, in my view, shows the best of philosophical intellectual virtues. Clear, insightful, curious.Report

Ian Olasov
2 years ago

Rivka Weinberg’s “Why Life is Absurd” (https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/why-life-is-absurd/)
Quine’s “The Ways of Paradox” (http://www.thatmarcusfamily.org/philosophy/Course_Websites/Readings/Quine%20-%20Ways%20of%20Paradox.pdf)
Hi-Phi Nation, S1E1: The Wishes of the Dead (https://hiphination.org/complete-season-one-episodes/episode-one-the-wishes-of-the-dead/)
The first couple of sections of Frank Jackson’s “Epiphenomenal Qualia” (http://philosophyfaculty.ucsd.edu/faculty/rarneson/Courses/FrankJacksonphil1.pdf)
This meme version of “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (https://www.facebook.com/PhilosopherGames/photos/pcb.2047960545425197/2047960302091888/?type=3&theater)
Hilbert’s Hotel (https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/wi-phi/wiphi-metaphysics-epistemology/wiphi-metaphysics/v/sizes-of-infinity-part-1-hilberts-hotel)
Angela Davis, “Imprisonment and Reform” in Are Prisons Obsolete? (https://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Are_Prisons_Obsolete_Angela_Davis.pdf?fbclid=IwAR1f5FafqDnJBBCm7i_0_LVCVIEoa-cbCxC1w5CbJf1D7iGxMOmfoOXWwNw)
Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus” (http://www.epicurus.net/en/menoeceus.html)
Josh Knobe, “Experimental Philosophy and the Notion of the Self” (https://www.edge.org/panel/josh-knobe-experimental-philosophy-and-the-notion-of-the-self-headcon-13-part-viii)
Dennett, “Where Am I?” (https://www.lehigh.edu/~mhb0/Dennett-WhereAmI.pdf)
Susan Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family (Chs. 1-2) (https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0cdUCiuJqndUTVjLWUyT0pNaFE/view)
Paul Bloom, “Against Empathy” (https://bostonreview.net/forum/paul-bloom-against-empathy)
Michael Sandel, “What Isn’t For Sale” (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/04/what-isnt-for-sale/308902/)
Sam Scheffler, “Families, Nations, and Strangers” (Secs. I-III) (https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0cdUCiuJqndVjBoYTR4azVIZ3c/view)
Elizabeth Anderson, Private Government (Lecture II) (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1up0gMeQuWr_6I1r_kqrUl6N5YpuK2LQU/view)
William James, “What Pragmatism Means” (Lecture II) (https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/us/james.htm)Report

Joshua Synon
2 years ago

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence.”
– Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason

I tend to focus on the causes and overcoming of existential nihilism, but am always drawn back to this simple yet fundamental statement from Kant. A certain sense of wonder at the world, even at ourselves, seems to me to be the fundamental force from which philosophy emerges. Report

Andrew Mills
Andrew Mills
2 years ago

I know you said no books, but I’m going to violate that rule. I’ve gifted Daniel Klein’s book, _Travels with Epicurus_ to my father-in-law (not a philosopher) and he very much enjoyed it. It’s a nice, readable, example of how one can apply philosophy to life, especially for those of us in, or approaching, senior citizen status.

https://www.amazon.com/Travels-Epicurus-Journey-Island-Fulfilled/dp/0143121936Report

Thinker
Thinker
2 years ago

Two quick comments first:

1) I think we have to be careful with the topic of what we choose to share; most people believe (very strongly!) that they are capable of reasoning just fine on their own, as they are. They may not think a piece on reasons/reasoning is very worthwhile — after all, they already see themselves as capable in such things. I should also note here that many people would not give a hoot to read about God’s existence or nonexistence — that’s another thing people are (generally, in this day & age) more or less sure of themselves with respect to, or something they just don’t care or think about much. So I don’t think either of those are the best introductions to the value of philosophy. We might, instead, lean toward pieces that address things people more often struggle or are uncertain with: ethical questions and existential questions both, I think, fall into this category (though I think the latter moreso).

2) Despite living in an age where people read mostly articles shared on social media (articles that come complete with a word count and estimated reading time *sigh* — as if no piece is worth taking one’s time with and giving extensive thought to along the way), people DO still read books. They may not be interested in the more “impenetrable” books (I’m looking at you, Kant and Hegel) or the giant, 700 page doorstops, but people do still read, often it’s part of their routine before they go to bed.

With those things said, I have to recommend the New York Times bestseller, All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly.

https://www.amazon.com/All-Things-Shining-Reading-Classics/dp/141659616XReport

Salem
Salem
2 years ago

This is ultimately an empirical question. We can show, say, Alice MacLachlan’s “Reparative Civility?” to a random sample of non-philosophers, and measure how their view of philosophy’s value tends to change.

Question: Do the people recommending pieces above genuinely have a high level of confidence that exposure to these pieces would significantly raise the public’s assessment of philosophy’s value? Do you have good evidence for this belief? Personally, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if many of these pieces lowered the public’s view of philosophy. Philosophy may well have great value, but it doesn’t follow that people will think better of it by being more exposed to it.

If philosophy-the-ideal is supposed to train our minds to think critically and get beyond our biases, what does the nature of the discussion say about the value of philosophy-as-practised?Report

Joseph Rachiele
Joseph Rachiele
Reply to  Salem
2 years ago

It’s not only an empirical question. Suppose that the piece most likely to convince someone without prior exposure to philosophy of the value of philosophy is actually not very valuable. (I actually think something like this is true.) Is this the piece you would choose?

I interpreted the task in the original post as getting someone to see the value of philosophy by genuinely recognizing the value of some philosophical work.
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Matt
Matt
2 years ago

I cannot for the life of me remember where I learned this, so I apologize for the lack of attribution. This exercise is not my own creation. On the first day of my Critical Thinking course, I ask my students where do their beliefs come from? We end up with a list on the board of usual sources: Parents, clergy, teachers, books, internet, governmental entities, etc.

I then ask them, “To what extent are these beliefs your own?” The emphasis in this activity is that being the holder of a particular belief is insufficient to claim ownership of it. Ownership is gained through thoughful reflection and analysis of the reasons for believing that particular belief. Through that process (philosophy!), we gain ownership and agency and exercise our individuality. Beliefs may be shared by a great many people, but I emphasize to my students that without a careful analysis and acceptance of those reasons, we are not exercising full agency and ownership.

I’ve found this exercise to be very effective in getting the students ready and excited about the course and philosophy in general. It appeals very directly to our desire to feel in control of our lives and our beliefs.

This exercise, along with readings such as Russell’s, “The Value of Philosophy” and others, is a great way for people to recognize the value of the very particular kind of learning that constitutes philosophy. Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
2 years ago

Well as others have noted any of the papers collected in Nagel’s “Mortal Questions” are excellent. I would also recommend some episodes of RadioLab. They’re not philosophers, but they do an excellent job of raising philosophical issues and showing why they’re important. This one is particularly good. It helps that Fink knows her philosophy darned well. (Her book “Five Days at Memorial” is an incredible bit of philosophically literate journalism, but I know I know a book is too long.)

https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/playing-god

The New Yorker also often does really well with philosophy. This piece is especially good on moral luck:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/09/18/the-sorrow-and-the-shame-of-the-accidental-killerReport

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
2 years ago

Well, almost every semester I start by giving strangers the task of reading Plato’s Apology.

For something aimed at shorter attention spans, I’d recommend ExistentialComics.com. As I recall, the answers on AskPhilosophers.org often strike a good balance between brevity and depth.

Podcasts like Philosophy Bites and the Partially Examined Life also seem like good choices. Report

Louis
Louis
2 years ago

There is some good, empirically-informed philosophical work on poverty (in the global context, esp.) which might spark a non-philosopher’s interest, though I’d let someone with deeper knowledge of the literature pick the particular essay.

Or maybe Rawls’s contribution to Dissent magazine’s 1995 symposium on the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (and Nagasaki). The piece’s argument is not surprising or esp. controversial, but it is accessible and fairly short.Report

Ernest Bornheimer
Ernest Bornheimer
Reply to  Louis
2 years ago

Layperson here. I wonder if you’d recommend some philosophical books/articles about poverty? Thanks!Report

Louis
Louis
Reply to  Ernest Bornheimer
2 years ago

On issues of global poverty, justice, and development, I’d look at the work of, among others, Peter Singer, Thomas Pogge, Mathias Risse, Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, Ingrid Robeyns. If you search on these, the titles of relevant books and essays should come up easily. (p.s. Not a philosopher myself, just have been interested in these issues.)
Report

Ernest Bornheimer
Ernest Bornheimer
Reply to  Louis
2 years ago

Thank you very much!Report

Marissa
Marissa
2 years ago

“I can say at the outset that philosophy is simultaneously the most exciting and frustrating of subjects. It is exciting because it is the broadest of all disciplines, since it explores the basic concepts which run through all our talking and thinking. It is frustrating because its great generality makes it extremely difficult: not even the greatest philosophers have succeeded in reaching a complete and coherent understanding even of the language that we use to think our simplest thoughts. The man who is, as it were, the patron saint of philosophers, Socrates, claimed that the only way in which he surpassed others in wisdom was that he was aware of his own ignorance. This may well seem a dispiriting introduction. The counterbalancing good news is that philosophy can be undertaken by anyone who is willing to think hard and follow a line of reasoning.”

I’d suggest the introduction to Anthony Kenny’s An Illustrated Brief History of Western Philosophy. I’ve just had the great pleasure of publishing a 20th anniversary edition of it (so I may well be biased!), and was reminded upon rereading the introduction in the MS that brevity and accessibility to a non-specialist audience was of course the original project two decades ago! As an editor, I am frequently tasked with advocating for and proving the value of philosophy to those who don’t actually work in the discipline, and once photocopied Kenny’s introduction and handed it out to everyone at a meeting.Report

jj
jj
2 years ago

It pays the billsReport

Jason Buckley
2 years ago

The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn, Jonathan Bennett. Very readable and yet explores a profound question about ethics through engaging paradigm examples.
https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/jfb/huckfinn.pdfReport

Adam
Adam
2 years ago

Corvino’s “Why Shouldn’t Tommy and Jim Have Sex?”
Relevant, thorough, lucid, short.Report

Adam
Adam
Reply to  Adam
2 years ago

PS: On Bullshit as well.Report

Alan White
Alan White
2 years ago

Ask someone if they know something is true. Then state that one can believe something that is fact true, and that one can have reasonable justification for that belief, and yet still be accidentally right just because of unknown factors beyond control that undermines the strength of our claim of knowledge. Then show them Gettier’s little article, and start conversations about the even larger roles that luck plays in all of our lives.Report

KL
KL
2 years ago

“Against the right to die” by Velleman- good way to demonstrate that philosophers take issues very seriously and are not afraid to vigorously defend their positionReport

RAMIRO DE AVILA PERES
RAMIRO DE AVILA PERES
2 years ago

“Darktan had never talked much to the little white rat or the little female who scurried around after him and drew pictures of the things he’d been thinking about. Darktan liked people who were practical.
But now he thought: he’s a trap-hunter! Just like me! He goes ahead of us and finds the dangerous ideas and thinks about them and traps them in words and makes them safe and shows us the way through.
We need him… we need him now. Otherwise, we’re all running around like rats in a barrel…”
(Terry Pratchett, The Amazing Maurice and his educated rodents, 188-89)
And I’d add the paradox of the question as a special case of the dangers of ideas qua traps:
“[…] a visiting angel offers to answer truthfully any single question put by the philosophers at an international conference. After much deliberation, the philosophers eventually decide to ask:
(Q4) What is the ordered pair whose first member is the question that would be the best one for us to ask you, and whose second member is the answer to that question?
The angel, who is both witty and well-informed, answers
(A4) The ordered pair whose first member is the question you just asked me, and whose second member is this answer I am giving you.”
(Scott & Scott, 1999, 331)Report

Eric Walker
Eric Walker
2 years ago

I like the spirit of the suggestion of Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit,” in that it tackles something everyone is familiar with in one sense but unfamiliar with in a different sense. Its philosophical forbears, I suppose, are Socrates’s question to Euthyphro about piety and Augustine’s question to himself about time. But I’ve found that non-philosophers find Frankfurt’s piece too pedantic. I and other philosophers might deem his approach careful and take pleasure in the way the paper blooms. But non-philosophers — in my experience, anyway — deem it circumlocutory and fussy. Cool subject matter, they say, but there’s just so much preamble.

With this in mind, but in the same spirit as the “On Bullshit” recommendation, I’d recommend Eric Schwitzgebel’s article, “How to Tell If You’re a Jerk.” It’s a serious article that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It shows how philosophical questions differ from other questions while showing at the same time how the two can inform one another. It’s careful without being pedantic. The subject matter is antecedently familiar, but Schwitzgebel demonstrates the worth of thinking it through: thinking about jerkitude, it turns out, helps us conceptualize, and recognize anew, an important aspect of our moral sense.Report

Matt
Reply to  Eric Walker
2 years ago

I had almost exactly the same experience in trying to teach “On Bullshit” to MBA students in an ethics class. They found the style to be really off-putting. I’d actually be surprised if the more than half of the non-philosophers who bought the little book version managed to finish it. Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
2 years ago

Value is a squishy term, so I’d suggest something that piques the philosophical interest of most people: things like freewill, moral puzzles, color inversion, etc.

The two things that immediately come to mind are the Euthyphro and Susan Wolf’s “Moral Saints”. Report

JG
JG
2 years ago

Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” (1980)
Daedalus, Vol. 109, No. 1, Modern Technology: Problem or Opportunity? (Winter, 1980), pp. 121-136

In the paper, Langdon Winner argues that technological artifacts can have political qualities. I have four reasons for thinking that this is a good piece to illustrate the value of philosophy (and for using it frequently in introductory courses):

(1) It’s important: the idea that technological artifacts and systems may not be mere tools (that you can see their political qualities when you see them in context) can quickly get us thinking harder and more deeply about they way the world around us is put together (and how technological and cultural change are intertwined).

(2) It’s clear: the argument and its practical significance are not hard to understand even without any background in philosophy.

(3) It’s vivid: the examples Winner uses to advance the argument are memorable and interesting.

(4) It’s true: I at least think that Winner is more or less correct.

In short, it’s the kind of paper that can really affect the way you see the world – all in 15 pages. But you don’t have to take my word for it…Report

Devin
Devin
2 years ago

Thomas Nagel “Moral Luck”
Jeremy Waldron “Homelessness and the Issue of Freedom”Report

Adam Omelianchuk
2 years ago

I shared the conclusion of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem with my Intro to Logic class and one kid charmingly asked, “Can you give us an example?” (He was asking about one of the mathematical truths that can’t be derived.) I grinned and said “Nope, because if I could, then it would be derivable” and he got wide-eyed and amused. Not sure if that was what you were looking for, but it was awesome. Report

Adam Omelianchuk
Reply to  Adam Omelianchuk
2 years ago

Am I wrong in my understanding of the implications of the Incompleteness Theorem?Report

Joseph Rachiele
Joseph Rachiele
Reply to  Adam Omelianchuk
2 years ago

It’s been a long time since I thought about this, but there is an argument that the Godel sentence for, say, PA is true but unprovable. What do you make of this version of the argument (from Section 2.5 of the SEP article on the topic)?

“In fact, in favourable circumstances, it can be shown that GF [the Godel sentence for system F] is true, provided that F is indeed consistent. This is the case if, for example, the provability predicate ProvF(x) has been chosen as a Σ0
1-formula: The Gödel sentence is then provably equivalent to the universal formula ∀x¬PrfF(x, ⌈GF⌉). Such formulas can be proved false whenever they in fact are false: if false, there would be a number n such that F ⊢ PrfF(n, ⌈GF⌉) (this holds already in Q). This, however, would contradict the incompleteness theorem. Therefore, GF cannot be false, and must be true. For this reason, the Gödel sentence is often called “true but unprovable”.”Report

Joseph Rachiele
Joseph Rachiele
Reply to  Joseph Rachiele
2 years ago

More simply, you could consider whether we are justified in believing the consistency statement for Peano Arithmetic even though such a statement is not derivable in PA (assuming it is consistent).

Do the proofs of the consistency statement for PA in stronger systems than PA justify a belief that PA is consistent?

Does the inductive evidence that no mathematician has discovered an inconsistency in PA justify a belief that it is consistent?Report

Adam Omelianchuk
Reply to  Joseph Rachiele
2 years ago

Thanks Joseph. If anything this little exercise has caused *me* to investigate the inner-workings of the proof 😀 Report

M
M
Reply to  Adam Omelianchuk
2 years ago

I think in your reply to the student you slightly misconstrued what “derivable” means when it occurs as part of the incompleteness theorem. It is not equivalent to “can be shown to be true by some means or other”.Report

Adam Omelianchuk
Reply to  M
2 years ago

Thanks, M. Report

DocFE
DocFE
2 years ago

Maybe I missed it in the above comments, but why not recommend this website’s “The Value of Philosophy”? Many suggestions are excellent but require the non-philosopher to read philosophy before being committed to its value. I think this statement is quite good at raising awareness and interest in philosophy first, then article and essay suggestions can follow.Report

Joshua Blanchard
2 years ago

“The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success: A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams,” by Deepak ChopraReport