(This article was reprinted in “Church and State,” May 2018)
What is the value of philosophy? To this question, we propose some possible answers. First, it’s natural to wonder, to be inquisitive. Children are marvelous philosophers who never tire of asking questions. However, you may reply that we have no duty to do what’s natural, or that you don’t find it natural to philosophize. Second, philosophizing is pleasurable. We find 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 wisdom or knowledge unless it engenders material reward.
Finally, we might argue that philosophical (critical) thinking 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 on them. Otherwise, they aren’t our values, ideas, 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 culture.
So you can reasonably reject all of our arguments. In the absence of definitive arguments then, individuals must decide for themselves 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, wonder, questioning, and contemplation enrich human life; we must believe with Socrates that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living.” And I believe that.
Questions about the value of philosophy also intertwine with issues concerning education in general. What is the point of education? Is it merely to learn practical skills? Consider a nurse or physician who has mastered the techniques necessary to practice their profession. Is that sufficient to being a good nurse or physician? Most of us would say no. One also need traits like insight, compassion, and communication skills, things we may learn from philosophy, literature, biology, psychology, history—subjects that teach about life and people—or we might learn such things from our family and friends. This suggests that real education is more than technical training.
To better understand this point 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, and learn the valuable lesson that nothing worthwhile is attained without effort. And through this process, our bodies are transformed. Analogously, education transforms us by increasing our awareness, diminishing our dogmatism, honing our critical thinking skills, and, at its best, helping us to be happy and wise. True education transforms our minds. Jiddu Krishnamurti made this case:
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.
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…
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 philosophy’s value if we measure value only in terms of wealth. If that’s all matters to you then the life of the mind will be irrelevant. But if what’s really valuable are things like truth, beauty, goodness, justice, friendship, wisdom, and love … then I’m glad I fell in love with philosophy almost fifty years ago.