Why Philosophy Is Important
· 1. Introduction
· 2. Reasons why philosophy is important
· 3. Philosophical problems
· 4. Ideology, religion and philosophy
· 5. The study of philosophy
Why should a human being be interested in philosophy? Isn't philosophy fit for fools only, or isn't it a merely academic trifling and hairsplitting in search of unobtainable knowledge?
Or isn't philosophy mostly a set of false illusions from the past - sophistries designed to comfort one's desires by wishful thinking and presumption - that these days have been replaced by science and mathematics?
I can be fairly brief about why philosophy ought to be studied in some sense and why the opinion that it is useless trifling, hair-splitting or in search of unobtainable knowledge is inappropriate. TOP
2. Reasons why philosophy is important:
- All human beings orient their lives around ideas about what reality is like, that they believe explain their experiences, and ideas about what reality and human beings should be like, that they use to guide their behaviour. The first of these kinds of ideas is a metaphysical theory, the second an ethical or moral theory.
- Human beings seem to need metaphysical and moral ideas because they are not born with instincts that determine for them what they should think and want, and are born with the capacities to make up their own minds and to question any belief they have or meet.
- It is evident that most of the ideas in history that people have used to explain human experiences have been false or unfounded in many respects, and it is also evident that most of the ideas in history or direct human behaviour have been harmful to other human beings or to themselves.
- On the other hand, it is also evident that whatever adequate understanding people have of themselves, of others, and of their environments and possibilities, is based on the asking and answering of the type of general questions that are philosophical and scientific, and that there seems to be no way of being human without trying to ask and answer such questions.
- All ideas about philosophy or science, including those that ridicule or condemn philosophy or science, are themselves philosophical ideas, and such as declare all philosophy useless, trifling, or impossible are little better than a refusal to do any serious philosophical or scientific reasoning.
- The ideas people live and die for, go to war for and kill each other for, or let themselves be inspired to the making of great art or science, are all philosophical ideas.
The lives people lead and the choices they make are the result of the philosophies they hold, whether they are conscious of this fact or not.
Much of the history of the 20th century - "The Century of Total War", in Raymond Aron's apt phrase, which is the title of one of his books - is the more or less direct product of a small number of philosophical ideas and the philosophers who made them up: Marxism ruled the lives of more than a 1000 million people; Fascism destroyed the lives of millions of people and caused a World War; both Marxism and Fascism were opposed by men in the name of Liberalism, Democracy, Catholicism, Protestantism, or Science, each of which are themselves either specific philosophies or derived from more comprehensive philosophical systems.
While men like Marx and Nietzsche in their own lives may be regarded as unsuccessful, their ideas and values, or rather what was made of these by their self-proclaimed followers, have in the 20th century created and destroyed civilizations and the lives of millions of human beings. TOP
3. Philosophical problems:
More specifically, philosophy is concerned with such problems as raised by:
- logic: what are the foundations and principles of sound reasoning
- science: what are the foundations of our scientific and technological knowledge
- language: what does language have to do with human thought
- meaning: what is meaning and how do we succeed in representing one thing by another
- ethics: what are the foundations of the judgments that acts or the men who commit them are good or bad, and in what sense are such judgments true or different from mere matters of taste
- aesthetics: what makes beautiful things appear beautiful or ugly, and what is the use of having an aesthetical capacity
- self: whether there is a self, and if so, what it is and what is its foundation, or, if not, what is the reason for this popular delusion
- free will: whether human beings are in any sense free to act as they please and responsible for the consequences, or only determined to falsely believe they are free to believe as they please
- death: whether death indeed is final, what is the point of fearing something one will never experience, and whether there is anything else than self-contradiction in the belief in a life or a judgment after death
- happiness: what is happiness; how does one find it; and why should one look for it, especially if everyone seems naturally to know what feels good and what does not feel good
- the good life: what a human individual should and should not do, believe and desire to lead a good life
- the good society: what relations between human individuals contribute to the good life
That many of the questions properly raised within philosophy so-called in earlier days are now raised and answered by special sciences is true - and changes nothing about the fact that human beings are such as to lead themselves by general ideas and values, and that one of the tasks that remains philosophical, however many of earlier philosophical questions have now turned into problems of some specific science, is to try to integrate whatever specialized knowledge different sciences produce into one comprehensive view of reality and humanity. TOP
4. Ideology, religion and philosophy:
Philosophy, or more precisely, philosophy's everyday appearance, which is a political or religious ideology, guides and misguides the lives of human beings, and every human being meets daily with many philosophical ideas, and makes or avoids many of his daily choices by appealing to and relying on philosophical considerations.
Literally millions of people have been murdered in this century and other millions of people have been sent to concentration camps for what were, in the end, crude philosophical ideas (of the Marxist or Fascist variety, often).
All supposedly 'practical' men, whether they did the killing in the name of a philosophy or were the victims of men acting out a philosophy or stood at the side gawking while declaring all philosophy useless or nonsense, were as philosophical - in the sense of being moved by general arguments about what the world is and should be and how human beings should behave - as any man, except that these supposedly 'practical' men were less conscious of that fact.
In any case, it is an illusion to believe that philosophy only pertains to the goods of the mind or only is of importance to a few intellectually gifted and curious individuals:
- whatever happens in society and whatever human beings consciously do and do not do to others and for themselves is based on general ideas and values that are very properly speaking philosophical, and this has been so since human beings started to think.
And part of the reason is that all men need to answer the questions what there really is, what they should and should not do, and why they believe they know things. These questions cannot be answered by any special science, and must be somehow answered by all human beings.
Also, it is important to recognize that the philosophies that influenced much of the history of the 20th Century, Socialism and Fascism, were - at least in practice - dangerous delusions, and that indeed the same holds for religions, that tend to be beliefs that are held in irrational and fanatical ways, and tend to be very dangerous for those of a different belief. (This last fact should give people pause who believe in an all powerful and benevolent deity. It seems to me that the most a believer in God is entitled to claim, within reason, if this is possible, is that he believes in something that is totally beyond human understanding.)
5. The study of philosophy:
In general terms, philosophy aims at a way of life, namely one based on reason based on natural and moral knowledge.
The value of philosophy is the scope and clarity of mind it provides, especially as regards the fundamental general questions every human being somehow must answer, if only by tacit and blind consent to previous answers. (Likewise, the value of any specific science is the scope and clarity of mind it provides as regards the special questions the science aims to answer.)
Although the foundation of all things human is the individual human mind, human beings live, develop and die in cultures and civilizations: 'the human mind' is the coordinated product of the ideas human minds have produced in the past, and many of the questions no human individual can reasonably hope to solve himself can be solved by the efforts of many individuals through the course of time.
My case for philosophical contemplation is simply that it aims at answering the questions that lie at the foundation of all societies and all human communication and interaction, and that all human beings must answer in some fashion, if only by unthinkingly following someone else's philosophy of life.
If all men and women must philosophize, simply because they are human beings, who need to make up their own minds on all manner of questions of belief, desire and action simpler animals have instincts for, should one study philosophy academically and seriously?
I would not recommend its academic study to anyone (other than as an adjunct to a serious scientific study) for by and large academic philosophy is related to philosophy as is literary criticism to literature: as the oldest professionals are to real love.
Real philosophers have rarely been of the type of a modern academic, and doing real philosophy is difficult and normally unrewarding: philosophers are apt to find fault in many human endeavors, and to get into trouble with others for that reason.
Indeed, many of the persons known to later times as great philosophers, were, in their own time, persecuted, discriminated, killed, or removed from society. This applies i.a. to Heraclite, Buddha, Socrates, Aristotle, Epicure, Lucretius, Abelard, Bacon, Ockham, Galileo, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, Peirce and Russell, to name some.
The great philosophers have been the creators of the ideas and values many people oriented their lives around, but during their own lives they were generally silent or in trouble, for they dared to say what their contemporaries did not want to hear, to discuss what they did not want to face, and to study and write what very few took interest in or understood. TOP
Link to: Natural Philosophy and Natural Realism
Colophon: This is a somewhat rewritten version of my remarks to Russell's chapter 15 of his Problems of Philosophy.
It has been last revised on Jan 28, 2014. The original version, that differs little, is from 1998.
I think philosophy is important for two main reasons: (1) it can help improve critical thinking skills and (2) it’s a good way to know certain things. Even so, much more can be said—especially considering each specific thing philosophy can teach us. Many things it can teach us are important for various other reasons.
There are many people who question the importance of philosophy (such as Lawrence Krauss), and I suspect that the main reason that they are unconvinced is because they don’t think philosophy can make progress or provide us with knowledge. Consider that at one point Krauss said, “[Science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.”1
What is philosophy? It is the attempt to reason well about certain traditional domains of study: logic (the study of good reasoning), epistemology (the study of knowledge), metaphysics (the study of reality), and ethics (the study of morality). Just like science, some philosophy is better than others, and a lot of philosophy done by amateurs misses the mark so badly that it is often better described as something else entirely. When science is done very badly, it’s often appropriately called “pseudoscience;” and when philosophy is done very badly, it’s often appropriately called “sophistry.” (However, sophistry is generally thought to be deliberately manipulative rather than a sincere attempt to be reasonable.)
1. Philosophy can help improve critical thinking skills.
Most fields of study, such as physics, history, and economics, are mainly about providing us with knowledge of some sort. However, some fields of study are more practical, such as computer engineering, and they are mainly about providing us with skills. Practical fields are supposed to help improve our abilities, so that we can do something using them. Philosophy is not necessarily a primarily skill-oriented field of study, but it is the specialized field of study for critical thinking, and it can help us improve our critical thinking skills.
Some people have thought that philosophy automatically helps improve critical thinking skills as a byproduct, and no special attention is required for it to do so. There might be some truth to this, but non-critical-thinking-oriented philosophy classes don’t seem to be so much better than various other classes in the humanities. Perhaps writing argumentative essays in any field of study can help improve critical thinking skills. According to a meta-analysis by Claudia María Álvarez Ortiz, Does Philosophy Improve Critical Thinking Skills? (PDF), the most effective classes at improving critical thinking skills are those devoted to critical thinking, and the analytic philosophy tradition in particular is effective at teaching these classes.2
Critical thinking skills are highly related to logic (a philosophical domain), which is the study of proper reasoning. That shouldn’t be surprising because the main idea of critical thinking is to reason well. The critical thinking classes taught by philosophers teach students about logic in addition to providing practice problems that can improve their critical thinking skills.
Although philosophy can be used to improve critical thinking and most people want to reason properly, it’s a hard sell because people who know the least about logic think they know just as much as those who know quite a bit about it thanks to a cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect (PDF). How many people think they reason properly and understand logic? Very few seem to realize that they need to improve their understanding of these things and one relevant study showed that people who were tested in their competence in logic “overestimated their logical reasoning ability relative to their peers. On average, participants placed themselves in the 66th percentile among students from their class, which was significantly higher than the actual [average score] …it was participants in the bottom quartile… who overestimated their logical reasoning ability and test performance to the greatest extent.”3
You might think, “Okay, some people know less about logic than they think, but maybe people know all they need to know about logic anyway.” If you are optimistic, you might think people are automatically logical for the most part and don’t need to learn more about it. However, Tim Van Gelder has discussed some startling facts about critical thinking, such as the fact that “[a] majority of people cannot, even when prompted, reliably exhibit basic skills of general reasoning and argumentation.”4
2. Philosophy is a good way to know certain things.
Philosophers have a type of expertise—they know a lot about various philosophical issues, the history of various philosophical debates, and quite a bit about what it means to reason properly. They tend know more about these things than those who aren’t philosophers (and getting a degree is a step in the right direction to becoming a philosopher). For this reason we can learn a lot from philosophers concerning their various specializations, and we can sometimes learn a lot by doing philosophy on our own as well. We can all learn a little about what philosophy has to offer by actually doing some philosophy on our own. After all, philosophers didn’t attain their expertise just by twiddling their thumbs. It took a lot of hard work, and we can attain greater philosophical expertise for ourselves.
Not everyone thinks we have anything to learn from philosophers. What makes us think philosophers know more about logic, epistemology, metaphysics, or ethics than the rest of us? If anyone can know anything about these things, then it’s philosophers considering the rich history of ideas and the great deal of time they devote to studying various issues. Even so, I think everyone knows something about these issues. For example, everyone knows at least one thing about logic logic—the fact that it’s inappropriate to argue in the following way—“Rocks exist. Therefore, whales are not fish.” It is also indisputable that philosophers do know quite a bit about logic precisely due to the progress they have made. For example, there was a time before we knew what argument form was, but now we know quite a bit about it.5 Natural scientists agree that we can reason properly, that we can know something about proper and improper reasoning, and that logic as developed by philosophers restrains how natural science can be done. (For example, two observations that contradict one another can’t both describe reality properly.)
Moreover, we know that some people know more about logic than others (such as that shown by the Dunning-Kruger effect), and we know that logic as developed by philosophers is very helpful for improving critical thinking skills. According to the scientific studies examined by Tin Van Gelder, “The lesson from cognitive science is that if we want students to substantially improve their skills, we must at some point help them develop theoretical understanding as compliment to the crucial hands-on know-how.”6 The theoretical understanding he is talking about are logical concepts (and how they are to be properly applied), such as premise identification7, argument form, valid reasoning8, and informal errors in reasoning9.
One important question is what type of knowledge philosophy can offer us. For example, is it like the knowledge natural scientists can give us or is it mainly knowledge of concepts and logical implications? Or both? Let’s consider both of these options:
(a) Factual knowledge
Factual knowledge is the type of knowledge good natural science seems to give us: Knowledge about laws of nature, causal relations, and things that exist in the world. These are the kinds of things physicists, chemists, and biologists are interested in. However, it’s not entirely clear what entities science gives us factual knowledge about. There’s a debate over which scientific entities really exist (such as electrons), and philosophers debate over how we should answer this question. Those who think invisible theoretical entities, such as electrons, exist are “scientific realists” and those who don’t think so are “anti-realists.”
Moreover, some philosophers think that there’s also moral facts, facts about logic, or facts about mathematics. Philosophers are then thought to be able to help us decide if we should believe such facts exist (and therefore be realists of those things), and if so, what we should believe about them. These are not the type of facts scientists study, but philosophers might still help us attain factual knowledge about these things.
The view that there’s facts about logic and mathematics is especially promising because scientists often have to presuppose that there are certain logical and mathematical facts—that we can discover these facts and that scientific observation is mistaken when it contradicts these facts. For example, logicians almost unanimously agree with the principle of noncontradiction, which states that a statement can’t be true and false at the same time. If one statement is true, then all statements that contradict it are false. Sometimes we have an observation that contradicts a scientific theory we believe to be proven. At one point Mercury didn’t revolve around the Sun as Newton’s theory of physics predicted. We could say that our understanding of the observation is wrong or that the theory is wrong. There is a problem if someone says that both the observation and the theory is true, and there’s a problem if a scientist says that contradictory observations prove the principle of non-contradiction to be false.
Some people argue that philosophy is not meant to give us factual knowledge. It is often thought that philosophy is inherently unresolvable—that philosophers debate endlessly without ever expecting to give us a final answer. Sometimes it’s said that “there’s no right answer” (perhaps in the sense that there are multiple different answers that could be rationally defended). Of course, we might wonder if the same is really true of science. Perhaps science also will continue to make progress endlessly and the answers it provides will continue to be refined without ever giving us a “final answer.”
Although I am sympathetic to the view that philosophy can provide factual knowledge, I don’t think philosophy has to give us a final answer to make progress or be informative. A great deal of the factual knowledge philosophy seems to provide is knowledge about what’s not the case. We can sometimes eliminate a belief or philosophical theory similar to how scientists can often eliminate a failed hypothesis. For example, we can eliminate the belief that “all conclusions are true.”
(b) Conceptual knowledge
Some people who don’t think philosophy is meant to give us factual knowledge still agree that philosophy can be informative and that philosophers have a type of expertise, and they often say that philosophy is really about clarifying concepts and finding logical implications. For example, some philosophers are compatibilists who think we could have free will, even if the world is deterministic (which is the view that everything that happens has to happen exactly one way). They don’t think there’s a logical implication that would make a world with both of these things impossible based on their conceptions of free will and determinism. Compatibilism doesn’t state that we actually have free will or that the world is actually deterministic. It is a view about what could be the case in the world rather than what’s actually the case.
One important question is if conceptual knowledge is really so different from factual knowledge. Some people think philosophers can’t tell us anything about the world, but that they could help provide conceptual knowledge of the type described above.10 They don’t think conceptual knowledge is factual, and some people will hesitate to even call it “conceptual knowledge” because they don’t think philosophy is about generating knowledge. Even so, I think it is clear that even conceptual discussions can involve progress and they can be very informative, such as when we developed the concept of argument form. If it’s not knowledge, then calling it “conceptual understanding” might be more appropriate.
However, some people do think conceptual knowledge can be factual. For example, perhaps understanding certain moral concepts is enough to know that causing pain just for fun is wrong. (We can analyze what it means for actions to be morally wrong, the concept of pain, the concept of doing something just for fun, etc.)
One purpose of conceptual knowledge is to make clarifications and avoid sloppy thinking, but another purpose could be to help us know what beliefs should be rejected, which is quite similar to how I suggested philosophy could provide us with factual knowledge. For example, if compatibilism is true, then we should reject incompatibilism (the view that free will can never exist in a deterministic world).
Specific philosophical issues
Even if philosophy can be informative and give us some type of knowledge, we might wonder if philosophy is important in any sense. Some people criticize philosophers for doing research in an armchair or being in an “ivory tower” (with everyday life far from their mind’s eye). One possible answer is simply that knowledge has value—that it’s always better to be knowledgeable. Even if philosophy isn’t useful, it might still be worth doing. Mathematicians don’t always tell us what we can do with their results, but most of us seem to accept that it has some sort of a value anyway. However, there are many other answers as to why philosophy has value and I think philosophy can be of the utmost importance to making our lives better. The reason I think this is the case is because various philosophical issues have unique ways of helping people.
One philosophical domain in particular that I think we should all agree has practical importance for everyday life is critical thinking (and logic by extension). For example, consider the research that shows that people tend to lack in critical thinking skills, and the link between logic-oriented critical thinking education and critical thinking skills. Of course, someone might say they see no reason to think reasoning well is important. My reply would be that reasoning well helps us avoid deception (such as the deception used by advertisers, political pundits, quacks, etc.), make better decisions in general, and to increase the odds of persuading others to believe things that they should agree with.
Finally, the reasons that logic education is important can also be refined based on all the specific things it can teach us, such as logical form, logical validity, and informal fallacies. Each of these things have unique lessons to teach us, as was discussed in Why Logic is Important.
Although many people are unconvinced that that philosophy is important, I think there are good reasons to think it is important. Philosophy can not only help improve critical thinking skills, but it can help provide us with knowledge of logic that can greatly help improve critical thinking. Moreover, I do not find the view that philosophy makes no progress and provides us with no knowledge to be plausible based on the fact that it seems clear that everyone knows something about at least one philosophical domain (logic), and some people know more about that domain than others.
Note: This webpage used to have an entirely different piece. I wrote the newer piece on 8/22/13.
© James Wallace Gray 2013 (Updated last 10/28/13)
Comments Off on Philosophy is Important