The Importance of Philosophy

Once someone who does not know me well comes to find out that I am a philosopher, the next question that he or she inevitably asks is, “What can you do with philosophy besides teach?” My answer is and has been, “You can think, and hopefully better.” Part of philosophy is critical thinking, which is the ability to question your (or anyone else’s) assumptions, discover and hopefully articulate good reasons for your position, no matter what your position is. Everyone has a position on every issue, even if it is, “I don’t know.

” One can then ask this person, “Why do you not know? Should you have a view on this issue?” Even if your view is that some issue does not matter, you must defend that view against the person who does think that that issue matters. And defending your view requires the ability to use your reason (which of course is thinking) in order to discover what good or bad reasons are and the best support for your position.

Philosophy can be used to help convince people that you are right, and (sometimes, when it’s done correctly, and depending on your opponent’s view) that they are wrong.

For example, if you want a raise from your boss, if you know what good reasons are, such as increasing the sales of the company, the quality of the product, the efficiency of the company, etc., and how to show the way in which these elements are vital to the company’s well-being, you would stand a better chance of getting a raise than if you were to argue with your boss using bad reasons, such as: “My poor family cannot live on my salary alone, and I really need to have more money” or “If you don’t give me a raise, I’m going to quit and take my friends with me.

” The reason the first appeal (about your poor family) is a bad one, is that it is an appeal to pity or emotion, and if you haven’t benefited the company lately, then it doesn’t really matter if your family is going hungry – it is not the company’s responsibility to feed your family (it’s yours).

The second appeal (“I’m quitting”) is an appeal to force. The company should not give you a raise out of fear because you’re threatening it; the company should give you a raise because your work merits it. In short, if you have a job (are looking for one, or even if you do not), philosophy can help you argue well for your position. And in order to be able to argue well for your position, you need to think.

As just one of its many specializations, philosophy contains the study of ethics, which is the study of happiness and how best to attain it (or indeed if and how that is possible). The main questions of ethics are “What is happiness?” and “How should I live?” There are, as you might guess, many and varied answers to these questions. I would guess that every single person is, and should be, interested in whether we can be happy, what happiness is, and how we can act so as to obtain happiness (assuming it exists). Everyone should be interested to know what the philosophers of the West and East have said about happiness and how best to attain it.

The answers range from “true happiness is not attainable in this lifetime” to “happiness is a state of mind” or “happiness is an activity” and so on. You may not think that any or all of these views of happiness are correct, but you might be able to put another theory together using your favorite parts of some of the extant ones. It is worth finding out if someone has already articulated the right theory, or whether you can improve on an existing theory, since nothing less than your current and future happiness may be riding on your view of happiness.

Someone might say that philosophy is only concerned with questions that no one can answer, and that the sciences and other disciplines have more answers that are provable and concrete. Why beat your head against a wall that will never come down, as it were? My response is threefold: First, in ancient times, as Bertrand Russell has pointed out in “The Value of Philosophy,” philosophy included the study of mathematics, geometry, physics, biology, cosmology, astronomy, political science, sociology, and psychology, in addition to the traditional sub-philosophic disciplines of logic, axiology (such as ethics), aesthetics, philosophy of language, metaphysics and epistemology. With regard to this point, Russell argues, as the disciplines of mathematics and biology discovered provable facts, these disciplines were cleaved off from the purview of philosophy and made to stand on their own as separate disciplines, while philosophy was left with the seemingly unanswerable questions (p. 26 of Louis Pojman’s Introduction to Philosophy, 3rd ed., Oxford UP, 2004).

So the first response is that philosophy would have had some more answers, if it were not for these divisions that were made throughout history (for example, psychology was relatively recently separated from philosophy around 1900).

Second (and this is my point), has every other discipline solved all the questions and problems in their respective areas of expertise? If every answer was available in every discipline other than philosophy, we should expect to find no research going on at any universities or private companies. But there are myriad research projects going on in medicine, physics, psychology, astronomy, etc. Here is a smattering of questions that remain to be answered or are still debated these days in disciplines other than philosophy: (1) Medicine: The cures for the common cold, cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, AIDS, and thousands of other diseases; (2) Physics: What light exactly is (both a wave and a photon) and the essence of gravity; (3) Biology: How the brain works, and how a cat purrs; (4) Psychology: How does the experience of consciousness arise from biochemical reactions? (5) Sociology: What makes a group of people want to follow someone like Osama bin Laden or Hitler?

You get the idea. What’s my point? Every other discipline other than philosophy, though it has some answers, does not have all the answers relevant to its study. Philosophy may have fewer answers, but it asks tougher questions, in general. Philosophy can help us eliminate some bad explanations, by examining the possible answers for solid reasoning, and helping us to cut through and reject bad assumptions. These lifelong skills are helpful no matter what one does for a living. Third, there are many answers that have already been proposed to philosophical questions such as, “Is there a God” “What is real?” “What can we know?” In fact, if you study the answers, you will get the impression that almost every general answer has been proposed. For example, we either have a soul or we do not have a soul and both positions have been supported. So it is theoretically possible, that some philosopher(s) has obtained or expressed the correct answers, but that we are too argumentative, closeminded, or something else not to accept his or her answer. So it is possible that the “answer” to some philosophical questions has already been given but we’re not able to see or understand that for ourselves. An intriguing possibility, no?

On the assumption that you cannot have all the answers in philosophy, what are you left with (or as academics would say, ‘with what are you left’)? You are left with your reason, your ability to think, and the challenge to come up with answers to ethical, metaphysical, and/or epistemological questions where such answers are consistent, convincing, and rational. For example, if someone holds that the death penalty is morally permissible because he based his view on a coin flip or because that is simply how he was raised, and another person holds that the death penalty is morally permissible after having researched both sides, and discussing her position with others and answering objections against her position, the latter person has a much more supportable and plausible position (which is not to say that her view is necessarily correct) than the former.

Where practitioners of other disciplines have the comfort (as I would put it) of being able to carry on their work while making plenty of assumptions without having to even acknowledge that these assumptions exist, let alone to prove their correctness, philosophers must both recognize and justify their assumptions in order to be worthy of the name. This is arguably what makes philosophy more challenging than other disciplines. The more you ask the question, “Why?” in any discipline, say in business or astronomy, the more you are asking philosophical questions and the more you will be directed to the study of philosophy. Dr. Barry Vaughan of Mesa Community College claims that traditionally there have only been three higher degrees given: Doctor of Medicine, Doctor of Law, and Doctor of Philosophy.

Even physicists are awarded a Doctorate of Philosophy (specializing) in physics, for instance. So philosophy seems to be the basis of all academic pursuits (where medicine and law are non-academic practices, aimed at a specific practical purpose of maintaining or preserving health, and administering justice, respectively). It is well-documented (and true) that majoring in philosophy can prepare someone well for law school, business school, or graduate school in general, since philosophy majors as a group score in the highest percentiles on the GRE, LSAT and GMAT. Besides providing excellent preparation for a career in law and business, a philosophy major is also helpful for careers in journalism, other areas of publishing, government, academic appointments in universities, colleges, and high schools, professional and clinical ethics consulting in

hospitals and in businesses, and consulting positions in government with respect to ethical and political issues and the development of public policy. [Please see this link for a long list of non-philosophy careers and explanations as to how the PHI major helps one succeed in that career.] I, for instance, found my philosophical skills invaluable in solving quality problems while working as a quality manager, and in developing a quality system for my father’s company. [Also, see “I Think, Therefore I Earn” for why philosophy grads are sought by employers in general, and “Why Future Business Leaders Need Philosophy”.]

I will close with two quotations, the first of which comes from the American Philosophical Association’s 1992 publication entitled, “The Philosophy Major:” The study of philosophy serves to develop intellectual abilities important for life as a whole, beyond the knowledge and skills required for any particular profession. Properly pursued, it enhances analytical, critical, and interpretive capacities that are applicable to any subject-matter, and in any human context. It cultivates the capacities and appetite for self-expression and reflection, for exchange and debate of ideas, for life-long learning, and for dealing with problems for which there are no easy answers. It also helps to prepare one for the tasks of citizenship.

Participation in political and community affairs today is all too often insufficiently informed, manipulable and vulnerable to demagoguery. A good philosophical education enhances the capacity to participate responsibly and intelligently in public life.


Second, Dr. George James, from the University of North Texas, warns that philosophy is not for everyone: It’s not for persons who have no interest in asking deeper questions. At the end of a lifetime of philosophizing one great philosopher made the claim that the unexamined life is not worth living [Socrates]. Many people don’t believe that. Some people don’t even care to raise the question. Philosophy very simply is not for them. Philosophy is not for followers. If all you want is to get a job and a paycheck, if all you want is to spend as little time and effort at that job as you can and still get paid for it, then philosophy is not for you.

Philosophy is not training. It’s education! It’s for persons who want to understand, who want not just to live, but to live well [Socrates]. It is for persons who simply could never be happy without asking why., now defunct

So take some philosophy courses, ask “Why?” and attempt to figure out what life is all about, while examining “life, the universe, and everything” (From Douglas Adams’ Life, the Universe, and Everything, Ch. 32). © 2001-2014 by David J. Yount