What is philosophy good for?

By | March 7, 2011

Back a few decades ago (more than I care to admit) when I was a neophyte philosophy graduate program at the University of California, Irvine, the graduate faculty put in my candidacy for a Ford Foundation Grant to fund one year of my graduate work. I took a flight to San Francisco to be interviewed by a committee charged with scrutinizing applicants for the grant. The grant was one for minority graduate students; so the committee was composed of people dealing with minority advocacy programs both inside and outside of academia. I thought I was handling their questions well until a woman (probably a social worker) asked me, Why would anyone study philosophy? “What good is philosophy in the struggle for civil rights and social justice?” she asked. Unfortunately I was not prepared for that question. I simply assumed that philosophy was a subject worthwhile pursuing; and that I did not have to defend it as a subject worth studying. Nor had I given much thought to the role of philosophy in the context of political and social problems in American society at that time (1970 decade).

Reaching for some kind of response, I mumbled something about philosophy teaching the student how to think critically; and critical thinking, after all, was valuable in all fields and activities. I was not surprised that the questioner was not at all impressed. Even I was embarrassed by my stock answer. Needless to say, I was reaching. At that point of the interview I figured I had blown my chances of getting the Ford grant. I figured I would be returning to my work as a teaching assistant to support my continuing graduate studies. And this is how things turned out.

Later I would entertain the question: What is philosophy good for? In trying to come up with answers to that question, I had to try to state what philosophy is, which is not an easy task. But I jotted down a few ideas as to how we might describe or define this ‘thing’ we call philosophy.

Of course, the easy answer is simply to refer to philosophy as an academic discipline taught at most colleges and universities. But the question as to the value of the subject would ask why colleges and universities bother to include philosophy as a discipline in their curricula. Surely it is not simply that traditionally a liberal arts program at a university includes a department of philosophy. That answer won’t do. Even if we accept the frequently stated claim that studies in philosophy are great preparation for students who are going into other professions such as law, economics, business, politics, social theory, education, and diplomacy, the question still remains, why would anyone pursue a major and graduate degree in philosophy? What social value, if any value, is realized by specialization in the field of philosophy?

Most people who major and go into graduate studies in philosophy do so as preparatory to becoming members of some teaching faculty in philosophy. So the social value of such studies comes down to the value of perpetuating the teaching and study of philosophy. Does any significant social value result from the study and teaching of philosophy?

So the question bounces back to us: why perpetuate this social institution called “philosophy”? What good does it bring about? At this point one would try to say what the activity of philosophy might be, in order to decide whether or not there is any social value there.

If we think about it we will realize that people who do philosophical work, whether in academia or outside, whether teaching, writing and publishing, or just personal study, reflection and discussion, such people do a variety of different things. Despite the many attempts to define philosophy, there is no essential qualities that define philosophy, other than very general tendencies. Whether we look at the vertical development (history) of philosophical work or at the horizontal (current trends) aspect, philosophical people do very different things and have very different ideas about ‘philosophy.’ There is the more technical, logical, and linguistic philosophy practiced in England and other English-speaking countries. There are the philosophers of science who see philosophy as primarily the work of analyzing and exposing the results of the natural sciences. (For example, what are the implications for our view of physical reality from the latest theories in particle physics?) In the twentieth century we saw Pragmatism, Existentialism and Postmodernism as other trends that attracted much following. There are those who see philosophy as a version of literary expression. Historically, philosophy has been closely identified with theology and with religious thought. And this very limited statement of the variety of philosophical thinking applies only to Western culture. When we attempt to state the forms of philosophy practiced in other parts of the world, our variety expands even more. Borrowing an idea from Wittgenstein, we can say that philosophy consists of a wide family of loosely related activities, with no essential core that defines them. In a sense, one way of trying to ‘define’ philosophy is to point various types of ‘philosophers’ and philosophies and survey some of the great variety of work that falls under that category.

When anyone gives you his/her idea of philosophy, you must always remember that this is only that person’s perspective. Nobody can state the essential definition of philosophy that will accurately characterize all philosophical perspectives and work. (“Love of wisdom” and “search for truth” just won’t take us too far.) Any statement of the nature of philosophy is only a perspective. When I give my perspective, there will be many others who engage in philosophy who will strongly object. But this does not imply that such a statement is without value. It can still be helpful in our attempt to gain some understanding of the subject.

One perspective: Philosophy is the attempt to make sense of things, to sort out ideas, beliefs, concepts, and theories about our reality. It is the attempt to clarify our thinking and reach some understanding of our world. This will involve criticism and evaluation of our beliefs, theories, doctrines, and values. But it will also involve the attempt to assemble a picture of our reality; to tell an apt story.

As such, philosophy will have some similarities (but significant differences) to
• Literary criticism
• The natural sciences,
• Work in logic and mathematics,
• Psychological counseling (both as counselor and patient),
• History and the social sciences,
• The work of a courtroom lawyer,
• Police investigative work,
• Computer science and Engineering,
• Expression of the novelist and the poet,
• The work of theologians and mystics, and
• Satire and political analysis/commentary.

If philosophy, as a discipline, has anything to offer (in the 20th, 21st century), it may be in terms of examination and sustained critiques of some of the following:

• human existence (nature of .., meaning of…, value of ….)
• the mind (nature of thought, consciousness, ….).
(Have the cognitive sciences taken over here?)
• religion (theism, mysticism, supernaturalism, biblical study and criticism)
• nature and function of the natural sciences
• nature of mathematics
• scope of human knowledge (Epistemology, Psychology)
• concepts of truth and reality
• logic, linguistic clarity, metaphor and the uses of language
• implications of evolutionary sciences
(biology, anthropology, psychology).
• theories in contemporary physics and cosmology
• evolutionary biology, anthropology, & psychology
• moral values and behavior (Can war be justified?)
• culture, politics, history, economics, governmental. policies

And of course, there are the studies of the great figures in philosophy and the history of philosophy. Such concentration can teach us much about how others have dealt with difficult questions that life and history present.

So, besides possibly being a great intellectual adventure, what is all this (‘philosophy’) good for? Maybe the answer is that it is not worth much, if you’re the type of person anxious to act in resolving our many social and political problems, or if you’re the type who wants to go about earning a fortune and acquiring power. (For such types philosophy is likely a waste of time.) But if you’re the type of person who is not satisfied with society’s standard answers to difficult question and if you’re the type of person who has advanced from childhood (where parents prop you up in your walking and the experts do your thinking,) and you desire to walk on your own and think on your own, then maybe study, reflection, and interaction in philosophy is the thing for you. Maybe philosophy is good for something after all.

Final Note: This satisfies me, but I doubt that the Ford Foundation Committee would have been moved. Most likely – even after hearing such a spiel as I’ve outlined, they would not have awarded me the grant!

Leave a Reply

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