The Value of Philosophy

What is the value of philosophy? To this question we propose some possible answers. First, it’s natural to wonder, to ask questions. Children are marvelous philosophers who never tire of asking questions. However, you may reply that nature doesn’t necessitate duty, and that you don’t find it natural to philosophize. Second, philosophizing is pleasurable. We find great joy asking questions and considering possibilities. Perhaps that is why Plato called philosophizing “that dear delight.” Nonetheless, you might counter that it doesn’t suit your tastes. Third, we appeal to philosophy’s usefulness. Any kind of knowledge is potentially useful, and if philosophy engenders a bit of knowledge and wisdom, then it’s worthwhile. Nevertheless, you may not value either wisdom or knowledge unless it engenders material reward.

Finally, we argue that philosophy protects us against unsupported ideology, unjustified authority, unfounded beliefs, baseless propaganda, and questionable cultural values. These forces may manipulate us if we don’t understand them and can’t think critically about them. This doesn’t require a rejection of cultural values, only a reflection upon them. Otherwise, they aren’t our values, ideals, or beliefs—we have accepted them second-hand. To this you might respond that reflection is laborious, that ignorance is bliss, and that trust in authority and tradition maintain the continuity of culture.

Therefore you could conceivably reject all of our arguments. In the absence of definitive arguments, individuals must decide whether philosophy is a worthwhile pursuit. We all decide whether the pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, wealth, fame, pleasure, or anything else is worth the effort. In the end, to value philosophy we must believe that reflection, questioning, contemplation, and wonder enrich human life; we must believe with Socrates that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living.” And I do believe that.

Questions about the value of philosophy entwine with issues concerning education. What is the point of education? Is it merely to learn practical techniques? Consider a nurse or physician who has mastered all of the techniques necessary to practice their professions. Are they complete nurses or physicians? Most of us would say no; they need to understand their patients holistically, and this knowledge doesn’t come merely from their technical training. Thus, we do recognize the place in our education for philosophy, literature, poetry, psychology and history, even though they may not be practical. However, if material needs are all that matter, then the life of the mind may be irrelevant.

Now ask yourself: Is the point of lifting weights merely to push them against the force of gravity? No! In lifting weights we seek to transform our physiques, accomplish our goals, learn the valuable lesson that nothing comes without effort, and that life’s greatest joys accompany personal struggle and subsequent triumph.  And through this process our bodies are literally transformed. Analogously, education transforms us in a more fundamental way. Education increases our awareness, diminishes our dogmatism, hones our critical thinking skills, and, at its best, helps us to live well, and to be happy and wise.  Jiddu Krishnamurti stated the case as follows:

Why do we go through the struggle to be educated? Is it merely in order to pass some examinations and get a job? Or is it the function of education to prepare us while we are young to understand the whole process of life? Surely, life isn’t merely a job, an occupation: life is wide and profound, it’s a great mystery, a vast realm in which we function as human beings.

In this context Bertrand Russell, in The Problems of Philosophy, wrote:

The [person] who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of [their] age or [their] nation, and from convictions which have grown up in [their] mind without the cooperation or consent of [their] deliberate reason. To such a [person] the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find… that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy…. removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt…

Finally, consider the view of the great twentieth-century historian and philosopher Will Durant, who in the preface to The Mansions of Philosophy said this about the purpose of philosophy:

Philosophy will not fatten our purses…For what if we should fatten our purses, or rise to high office, and yet all the while remain ignorantly naïve, coarsely unfurnished in the mind, brutal in behavior, unstable in character, chaotic in desire, and blindly miserable?

Our culture is superficial today, and our knowledge dangerous, because we are rich in mechanisms and poor in purposes … We move about the earth with unprecedented speed, but we don’t know, and haven’t thought, where we are going, or whether we shall find any happiness there for our harassed souls. We are being destroyed by our knowledge, which has made us drunk with our power. And we shall not be saved without wisdom.

I can’t provide a knockdown argument for the value of philosophy if we measure success with money. But if measured by timeless values like truth, beauty, goodness, justice, and wisdom, then I bless the day I fell in love with philosophy.

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