The Value of Philosophy

What is the value of philosophy? Here are 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 in 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 brings material rewards.

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 can’t think critically about them. This doesn’t require a rejection of these various ideas, beliefs, and 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 reject all of these 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 be a good nurse or physician? Most of us would say no. One also needs 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 education is more than mere 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. By lifting weights we seek to transform our physiques, become healthier, 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, helping us to distinguish truth from falsity, 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.

Bertrand Russell, in The Problems of Philosophy, put it this way:

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 Pleasures of Philosophy said this about the purpose of philosophy:

The busy reader will ask, is all this philosophy useful? … If … philosophy gives us the wisdom to understand and forgive, it is enough, and more than the world’s wealth. Philosophy will not fatten our purses nor lift us to dizzy dignities in a democratic state; it may even make us a little careless of these things. 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?

Ripeness is all. Perhaps philosophy will give us, if we are faithful to it, a healing unity of soul. We are so slovenly and self-contradictory in our thinking; it may be that we shall clarify ourselves, and pull ourselves together into consistency, and be ashamed to harbor contradictory desires or beliefs. And through this unity of mind may come that unity of purpose and character which makes a personality, and lends some order and dignity to our existence. Philosophy is harmonized knowledge making a harmonious life; it is the self-discipline which lifts us to serenity and freedom. Knowledge is power, but only wisdom is liberty.

Our culture is superficial today and our knowledge dangerous, because we are rich in mechanism and poor in purposes …

We move about the earth with unprecedented speed, but we do not know, and have not 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 may be irrelevant to you. 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. My search for knowledge has been hard, and many comforting ideas were abandoned along the way, but my life has been enriched by the journey.

I’ll end with the final lines of Spinoza‘s great work, Ethics :

If the way which, as I have shown, leads hither seems very difficult, it can nevertheless be found. It must indeed be difficult, since it is so seldom discovered; for if salvation lay ready to hand and could be discovered without great labor, how could it be possible that it should be neglected almost by everybody? But all noble things are as difficult as they are rare.

Liked it? Take a second to support Dr John Messerly on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

3 thoughts on “The Value of Philosophy

  1. Thank you for a beautifully written article in defence of philosophy and philosophising. However, I feel a bit of unease at making learning about philosophy and thinking critically and wisely a matter of choice. I want to argue that such learning is one’s duty as a human being, to himself and to the society which sustains him.

    After the emergence of consciousness via biological evolution a new environment for man came to be. It has been called the noosphere by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. In this environment there is a new kind of evolution where we get to have the choice where to develop or evolve and to make the effort towards it. To best function in the noosphere we need to cultivate the best mind culture possible which includes general knowledge, learn a profession, learning to empathise, to communicate, to think, etc. and importantly to philosophise also.

    It is therefor a mistake to ponder other alternatives to learning as equally valid because they will lead to functioning at the lowest possible level in the noosphere that does not lead to flourishing for the individual or society as a whole. For me it will be tantamount to the choice of living with virtues or without virtues.

    I would also like to elaborate on the Third Reason for doing philosophy by saying that posing philosophical questions outside the frame of explanations in an already established field of knowledge may lead to breaking ground into a new branch in this field of knowledge and thus provide impetus to pursue and to gather evidence for establishing the new branch.

  2. Ignorance can be bliss, though it is true that no one could demonstrate any evidence that ignorance is Good. We all have or had relatives and friends– or friends of friends– who were ignorant, and some were blissful. Drinking wine with ignorant people at a house of worship can be very blissful. ‘Medical’ marijuana may not be strictly medicinal, but it can be blissful. Which is why dispensaries are becoming established all the time.
    There’s no agreement on whether ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ is Literature or a trashy book, but it gives many readers a blissful sensation reading it and knowing that an adolescent burnout can himself be blissful. ‘War And Peace’ and ‘Crime And Punishment’ are too heavy to be called blissful.

    “But if what’s really valuable are things like truth, beauty, goodness, justice, friendship, wisdom, and love …”

    No problem with truth, beauty, justice, friendship, wisdom, and love. Goodness does present difficulties in that Jeffrey Dahmer’s definition of goodness regarding cuisine differed from a vegan chef’s definition.
    Pol Pot’s definition of a good pasture differed from Thoreau’s.
    Now, we can surely say Dahmer and Pol Pot lacked justice, as well as truth, beauty, friendship, wisdom, and love. However there’s no real agreement on their lack of goodness; they were both violent people albeit so was George Patton, so was John McCain; so were all our ancestors who went to war. People watch violent films all the time. Why? Because they secretly enjoy violence.
    It has a religious basis to it: murdering someone for gain is considered wrong– but not if there is a higher *spiritual* purpose. Then it becomes killing. A hunter says that he killed a deer, not that he murdered it.
    I don’t see that there is any genuine agreement on what is good, though there may be someday. Whereas truth can to some degree be ascertained. Polygraphs, DNA databases, fingerprints, can provide some truth in the realms of both Truth and Justice.
    People say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, yet they don’t actually believe it. Very few movie stars are admired for their ugliness.

  3. One more (Promise). This time brief, on-topic.
    What is encouraging about philosophy is it is related to math (logic), and psychology (mental processes). That’s it– no more to write on it.

Leave a Reply

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.