Is Philosophy Good For You?

Photo of Auguste Rodin's statue The Thinker

I had a recent conversation with someone who is reading my book Short Essays on Life, Death, Meaning, and the Far Future. He told me that he was now enthusiastic about reading more philosophy. But this got me thinking. How much should you philosophize? Is philosophy dangerous? Does philosophizing make your life go better? If I had to do it all over would I have spent so much of my life thinking about life?

I have previously written an essay “The Relevance of Philosophy” and shared the views of two of my intellectual heroes on the topic: “Will Durant: The Value of Philosophy” and “Bertrand Russell: The Value of Philosophy.” I don’t deny that there is great value to philosophical thinking, after all, I’ve devoted almost a lifetime to it. Still, I have questions.

How much should you philosophize?

I’d begin with Aristotle’s suggestion that virtue is the mean between the extremes. Too little or too much philosophical thinking is problematic. Too little and we fail to follow Socrates’ wise maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living; too much and we fail to recognize that the overexamined life is not worth living either.

So while I encouraged the students I spent over 30 years teaching to think more I also warned them not to let thinking consume them. As another intellectual hero of mine David Hume said,

that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

Is philosophy dangerous?

Yes. It may lead to Hume’s “pensive melancholy” and “endless uncertainty.” It may destroy the beliefs that sustain you. Whether this is good or bad depends on the content of those beliefs but as Camus warned “beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.” If taken seriously it can be life-transforming.

Does philosophy make your life go better?

It also seems to me, on the briefest reflection, that whether philosophy is valuable for a person depends somewhat on their circumstances and their stage of life. For example, you must have financial security and free time to philosophize; philosophy is a luxury. If you’re just trying to survive there is no time for idle speculation.

Moreover, if you are, for example, a young college student with your parents footing the bill, independently wealthy, or a philosophy professor making a living by philosophizing that’s one thing. But if you’re a new parent, starting a career, or just perfectly content with your life then you may have more important things to do.

In addition, I’m thinking of all those good, happy people who might find that questioning may make their lives worse. For instance, say you’re newly married and a prospective parent who is excited about your life. Or you’re a happy-go-lucky college student who enjoys life. I don’t think your life will necessarily go better—and could go worse—if you head down the philosophical rabbit hole.

Surprisingly, I’ve known a few philosophers who seemed to enjoy causing people cognitive dissonance. It was almost as if they thought, “I’m an unhappy thinker and I’ll make sure others are too.” This isn’t typical, but I have occasionally detected this. Here I’m reminded of the wise words of Will Durant,

I note that those who are cooperating parts of a whole do not despond; the despised “yokel” playing ball with his fellows in the lot is happier than these isolated thinkers, who stand aside from the game of life and degenerate through the separation … If we think of ourselves as part of a living … group, we shall find life a little fuller … For to give life a meaning one must have a purpose larger and more enduring than one’s self.

If … a thing has significance only through its relation as part to a larger whole, then, though we cannot give a metaphysical and universal meaning to all life in general, we can say of any life in the particular that its meaning lies in its relation to something larger than itself … ask the father of sons and daughters “What is the meaning of life?” and he will answer you very simply: “Feeding our family.”

My main point is that upon reflection philosophers must ask in good conscience whether or not to try to get others thinking. When you are paid to do this, as I was for many years, I suppose you do your best with all the caveats mentioned above. But now that I’m retired I never bring up philosophy with my friends and acquaintances unless asked—and almost no one ever asks, even if they know I used to be a philosophy professor. I suppose that tells you something about how philosophy is valued in our culture.

If I had to do it all over again would I have spent so much of my life thinking about life?

This is tough. In one sense the answer is yes because I was so drawn to philosophy. Philosophical questions and the desire for answers to them came naturally, whereas questions about how my car runs or how to fix something around the house don’t. Philosophy was irresistible to me in my youth. Encountering those first philosophy books I read it seemed I had discovered some secret information that had previously been hidden. Surely the key to life and its meaning was within those books. (It wasn’t.) So I probably couldn’t help doing it all over again.

Yet there have been regrets. I may have made more money and brought greater financial security to my family had I chosen a different path. Even now I could help my grown children and grandchildren in ways that I now cannot. This causes some regret. And I don’t like when people say, as they often do when talking about the past, “I wouldn’t have changed a thing.” This strikes me as stupid; if you wouldn’t change something about what you did in the past then you haven’t learned anything. Surely every decision you made as an adolescent wasn’t the right one. Surely every choice I made yesterday wasn’t the right one either.

So perhaps I could have started philosophy earlier, studied more, went to different universities, learned not to analyze things to death, focused on different philosophical problems, etc. Maybe I should have been a physician or a scientist. Who knows how we should live a life?

In the end, I’d say that the best things are the simple things. The fun of playing ball or the piano or whatever you want to play; the joy of being with those you love and who love you; the communion you feel when engaged in honest conversation; the contentment felt from doing your duty. These things are more than enough.

Philosophizing is a small part of a good life but it is far from the whole of it.

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11 thoughts on “Is Philosophy Good For You?

  1. Your first paragraph of this post is signal, in that is succinctly encapsules a foundation of philosophy: doubt and uncertainty. Nothing wrong with that. There are things we know and things we don’t—and those we never will. Don’t trouble yourself, Dr. Had this question been more influential, there would never have been something called philosophy.

  2. my appreciation of philosophy keeps me going. I guess that is good so will continue expanding IMPs—interests, motives and preferences. My wife of thirty-four years died on or about March 31, 2024. I need to DO something, ergo, philosophy stepped forward. It is way too late to cultivate something else except, perhaps, for a few potted tomato plants.

  3. Thank you for these honest reflections after a life of philosophizing. I’m bookmarking this so I can read it again and again as I decide whether or not I have luxuriated in philosophy enough. I currently suspect I am headed for something like Wittgenstein’s path where he felt he “solved” philosophy and then retired from it for many years. We’ll see. At least I have had other careers and skills I could return to or develop in new directions.

  4. Philosophy certainly made my life better, and by a lot.

    The first and most important thing it did for me, is understanding death. And one doesn’t need to work a lot on that to reach this point: it is sufficient that Epicurus, Cicero and Epictetus are read, in that order.

    I am talking about a reasonably ‘natural’ death. It is often said that philosophy ‘is about asking questions’. Sure, but I hardly understand why the same questions are asked over and over, as if nothing was really learned by those who came before us who asked the very same questions.

    Of course, philosophy is also about asking a million questions about a million other things, but the most pressing one is the one about death. All the other ones are subordinate to it.

    Now when I hear people whining about it, pity them. I can tell that they learned absolutely nothing, which seems very puzzling to me, for this indeed very important issue has been clarified thousands of years ago.

    If only everyone learned why Epicurus said: ‘Death is nothing to us.’, how useful is philosophy would become very apparent.

    ” too much and we fail to recognize that the overexamined life is not worth living either.”.

    But is this really philosophizing? Or is it just asking a million questions? For I believe that philosophy also provides answers. In my case, I have never understood anything about myself, others, or the world around me, before I started to really learn something from these great thinkers.

    Now, it’s a whole other matter. My entire life, which previously seemed to me random, I can now explain to myself in detail.

    As Schopenhauer wrote: ‘The ball has ended. The masks have fallen. And now, for the first time, you are able to see things–and people–the way they really are.’.

    Of course, I am speaking here only of my own, personal life. Understanding that, and myself in it, has been hard enough work. I could never understand the whole world, with everybody else in it: the task is too big, and my powers are scant and limited.

    But since the question was: ‘Is philosophy good for you?’, I can only respond: ‘Yes, without a shadow of doubt’.

    Often it is a painful process. It is not pain-free. But to paraphrase Russell: ‘I’d rather be mad with pain (than being dumb all my life).

    It is strange: I also know of people who studied philosophy at university, and they seem to be complete fools. Some of them are famous (at least in Italy, for he would be laughed at, anywhere else), like Vittorio Sgarbi, a complete idiot.

    These people just didn’t learn anything: they behave, speak, write, like complete fools. I find this really, really strange. They must be a minority, I guess.

    Or else, it seems to be the case of whether the individual is good for philosophy, rather than the other way around. A painter can make a beautiful painting out of a basket of fruit, whereas for most people, it will be just fruit.

  5. ”Yes. It may lead to Hume’s “pensive melancholy” and “endless uncertainty.” It may destroy the beliefs that sustain you.”.

    This can be true, and it has been said by several philosophers. However, I think this is a serious mistake: the blame is attributed to philosophy, rather than a faulty understanding, for philosophy is about truth, and about destroying dogmas. If one stops believing in gods because of philosophy, yes it can be even devastating (this happened to Bertrand Russell, as you know), but it’s a mistake to attribute the devastation to philosophy, and the best resort is to go back to Epicurus, Cicero and Epictetus, as mentioned earlier.

    Then there won’t be any reason for melancholy, although this is a trap easily fallen into, I fall into it myself, but then I remember what I learned, and I even smile.

    This is why Socrates was so great: he didn’t just ‘accept’ death, he MOCKED it.

    But I have not read Hume, and I assume I am an idiot compared to him. Still, I can say that philosophy served me very well, and continue to do so. Not only that, these are the very best things I have ever learned. For what is more important to know than these?

    Lastly, one should choose which philosophers to study quite carefully, for not all of them are alike. For example, my favourite ones are Plato, the Stoics, Schopenhauer, Buddha, even Diogenes of Sinope.

    I tried to read Nietzsche, and several others, and I found them totally uninteresting, or even nauseating. My propensity as to what philosophers I find useful, is to go back in time, not forward.

    For a long time ago, philosophers were brutally honest, whether now I find all the ‘cultural mess’ get in the way: most will try not to offend a certain type of people, etc, and they seem to cater to the masses, whereas the old philosophers were completely oblivious to these things: they seemed to have written their book for the few, rather than the many.

    Not that there’s anything wrong about writing for the ‘many’, (although I won’t probably be found there): for I believe that any philosophers are better than none. At least they inspire people to use some grey matter, i.e. to ‘think’.

    But I believe that in the end, one should not just raise questions, but settle with answers, too, and be at peace as far as possible. Of course, this also depends on the ‘levels’ of philosophy: some of it addresses things that can be understood quickly, some others addresses questions that really have no clear answer. Personally, I am more interested in getting a few answers, than many questions.

    But this is why I do NOT call myself a philosopher, but a mere ‘learner’. Which leads to the main topic: is philosophy good for ‘the man in the streets’?

    But also: is that man, (or woman) good enough for it? I don’t think everyone is. For some it is a painting, for others, it is simply some fruit.

  6. ””Yes. It may lead to Hume’s “pensive melancholy” and “endless uncertainty.” It may destroy the beliefs that sustain you.”. This can be true, and it has been said by several philosophers. However, I think this is a serious mistake…”.

    To elaborate more on this, no better example comes to mind that what I have heard the great Robert Sapolsky saying(paraphrasing):

    ‘Are beliefs about religion, for example, good for you? Do they help you? Well, they may help. Until you are proven that they won’t.’.

    When I heard him saying this, a few days later I read about Jews in concentration camps who conducted ‘trials against God’.

    So there’s, I think, an explanation for why philosophy cannot be dangerous: what is dangerous is how your previous, and erroneous, beliefs, now are at serious odds with truth. But it’s like blaming the doctor for disinfecting a wound, because it hurts (and I did not create this analogy).

    But sure, not everybody can take it. Some people would rather endure a festering infection, than learning or understanding anything.

    But I’ll concede philosophy has a drawback: it causes you from relating yourself to people you knew, because although you all were dumb, now you aren’t nearly as dumb anymore.

    This was also mentioned by Epictetus, and he said in no uncertain terms that you should give these people up, if necessary. This was done by all the philosophers I admire. This is what many don’t get about Schopenhauer: he DID apply his ascetic beliefs. He didn’t go around like Francis of Assisi, or meditate in a cave like Buddha, but he practiced asceticism by not only being comfortable in aloneness, but in preferring it.

    So, that’s sad. You’ll be more isolated. Are you willing to pay that price? I did pay it. It’s sad, but I accept it. As the samurai Musashi wrote, it is ‘Dokkodo’, the path of walking alone.

    Otherwise, by all means, run away from all that, live like most other people do. It might work, but it might not. Your wife can divorce you, etc etc, and then you’ll whine and moan about everything like most other, weak people do, because you don’t really understand anything.

  7. You’re idea of some people not being good enough for philosophy reminds me of Aristotle’s claim that knowledge is good for people whether they want it or not. And some don’t want to know.

  8. Quoting Spinoza “I don’t know how to teach philosophy without being a disturber of the peace.”

  9. The Spinoza quote says much, i.e. that the ‘peace’ mainly consists of fools, lazy people, and people who run away from death instead of understanding it. Thank you, Dr. Messerly.

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