Why Study Philosophy?

Philosophy is awesome for many reasons — and different people have (at least partially) different views about why studying our subject is so marvellous. Here’s a selection of some of these perspectives.

Why Study Philosophy?
By Shelly Kagan

Aristotle said, famously — and correctly, I believe — that philosophy begins in wonder. What he did not mention, however, and what seems equally correct, is that it continues in bafflement and it frequently ends there as well. You start out puzzled and you end up puzzled.

So why study it? What role does this sort of thing — this endless asking of
questions that we never seem to answer, the tireless probing and prodding and looking for objections and more objections — what role does it have in education?

Whatever specific facts we learn in college [or university] will soon be surpassed by new discoveries, new inventions, new methods and new technologies. The specific content of what we study in class is far less important than the more general skills that we attain and sharpen by working through these particular ideas and discoveries. We improve our skills by putting them to work on the materials of the class, but the central goal is not the mastery of the materials on which we work, but rather the improvement of the skills themselves.

And what are the skills that are most important, those that a college education might most centrally hope to instil and enhance? The three I have in mind are:

(1) improved critical thinking,
(2) learning to write and communicate clearly and persuasively, and
(3) creativity and originality.

[T]here is one field that most centrally emphasizes the skills in question, and it is, indeed, philosophy.

[O]ne reason to study philosophy, despite the fact that it typically leaves us puzzled and unsettled, is that there is nothing better at improving your ability to think for yourself, to see through the unsupported claims that others may be making, to examine critically the assumptions and presuppositions behind any given argument, to see which objections are troubling and which are insignificant or irrelevant, which arguments are compelling and which are simply unconvincing and inadequate as they stand.

These skills are ones that the student can and will put to use later in life, no matter what it is that they go on to do professionally. Indeed, I think that these same skills are important for achieving a vibrant, flourishing and open society, as such they are skills that everyone should hope to possess, so as better to fulfil their obligations as citizens. The ability to think critically and creatively, and to express oneself clearly — these are essential tools for many aspects of life, and they are gifts, I think, that philosophy can help one attain.

But this is not the only reason. A quite different line of thought starts with the attractive idea that there is value in knowing. [I]n countless ways, everyone would readily agree, knowledge is instrumentally useful in helping us to achieve our ends. But […]  knowledge is intrinsically valuable as well — valuable in and of itself, above and beyond whatever use it may also have for helping us attain other goals. [F]or example, I think that there is great intrinsic value in having self-knowledge about one’s place in the world, and about the relationships that one has with one’s friends and family. [P]hilosophy holds out at least the possibility of intrinsically significant knowledge of this sort. As philosophers, we aim to articulate and deepen our understanding of humankind and its place in the universe.

[T]here is one thing more to add: Philosophical questions are not questions that occur only to those of us who have studied the subject, and are trained professionals. Far from it: Philosophical questions are ones that emerge from the natural state of wondering that all of us engage in, at least in our more reflective moments. We are simply asking, in a more systematic and refined way, about the very issues that all people ask about at one time or another, even if the press of daily life leaves them little time to ponder the questions for very long.

In studying philosophy, you have a chance to return to the questions you have always wanted to ask. In studying philosophy, you have a chance to return to the self who wonders about everything.

(Original and unabbreviated source HERE.)

Science Helps Us Live Longer, Whereas Philosophy Helps Us Live Better
By David Calhoun

It’s true that there’s a lot of philosophy that is very academic and not so useful, but at its core, philosophy is a striving towards figuring out what is true and worthwhile, and what it means to live a meaningful and worthwhile life. That’s something off-limits for science, because science can tell us how things are empirically, but it can’t prescribe how we should then live.

It so happens that we already believe many things to be true and have many attitudes and dispositions towards things, whether we realize it or not. That’s what you might call a person’s personal philosophy. A person may hate philosophy, but it would be true to say that their “anti-philosophy” is a type of philosophy. In short, we all have a philosophy already. Shouldn’t we then examine it logically and try to improve it, and make sure it gets closer to the truth?

It also happens that our world is saturated with manipulation of people’s philosophies. Advertisements and an envy of other’s belongings has saturated our consumer culture and has turned into a sort of philosophy of its own, and sadly a way of life. There’s also much manipulation of attitudes and thought in politics, which is how politics have turned into a game of image and often times broad, false promises. Money and a lust for fame have also corrupted the sciences to some degree, and have turned it into a bit of a game to get research funding from large corporations, so nothing in the world is off-limits it seems.

Philosophy gives us the tools to recognize these things for what they are, and gives us some defences against them that the common person might not have.

I believe there’s a few big reasons philosophy is downplayed and ridiculed in our culture today. The main reason is that there’s no real way to make it profitable, unlike the sciences. If we’re living in a consumer culture that assigns some value to things based on money, then naturally we will value less the things which aren’t profitable. When it comes down to it, we really are living in a culture that values more the computer science graduate who goes to join a company such as Zynga to produce banal (borrowing a favorite word from David Foster Wallace) ripoff games. We value this person more than someone who stays in academia to pursue truth and knowledge, and we ridicule them for not coming out into the real world, working a real job, and making a ton of money, which is after all the highest end according to our current thinking (which is in itself a philosophy).

(Original source HERE.)

 

See also:

Why Study Philosophy? ‘To Challenge Your Own Point of View’, published in 2014 in The Atlantic

Why You Should Study Philosophy, published in 2019 in Forge