The Value of Philosophy

Science is what we know. Philosophy is what we don’t know – Bertrand Russell

August Rodin’s famous sculpture The Thinker in the grounds of the Musee Rodin, Paris

Philosophy concerns itself with the big questions in life; it is the study of the nature of knowledge, reality and existence. The etymology of the word itself comes from ancient Greece where ‘philosophia’ meant ‘love of wisdom’. This seems apt, the first philosophers were not content to accept the explanations afforded them. Instead they took it upon themselves to understand the world and provide workable theories for the laws of nature, even attempting to explain the universe at large. That some solutions were naive is a matter of indifference. The desire for truth and understanding embodied by these philosophers and those since has been crucial to our reaching what is today the pinnacle of knowledge. This attitude toward learning has lead to progress across every sphere in society.

The scope of philosophy is so broad that it extends across a wide range of disciplines, sharing a link to almost every other subject where, in many cases, it provided the foundation from which they were later derived. It has enjoyed a rich history in which it has been at the forefront of academia for milennia. Philosophy is at the root of most of what we know. In modern times however it has become somewhat unpopular and those studying it are, on some views, resigning themselves to lifelong unemployment. There is a feeling that it does not offer us much, that it has no real usefulness anymore. The problems raised by philosophers seem to obscure what we know and complicate matters whereas other subjects provide us with new information whose application is usually evident.

This is perhaps the problem. If we go by appearances philosophy seems to be at the periphery of any advances in knowledge. It tends to concentrate more on abstract thought, on positing theories and formulating problems, rather than actually proving and solving them or so those who scoff at philosophy suppose. The sciences take most of the credit, while philosophy languishes in the shadows, picking up the scraps it is left. Presently, it seems to be contributing little to the body of knowledge we are amassing. On account of this impression people feel justified in relegating it to a lesser subject, one of little or no meaningful consequence. However, on closer inspection, it becomes clear that this is merely an illusion that is prima facie tangible. 

The reality is that once something positive can be said about a thing it ceases to be a part of philosophy. What was formally a theory that belonged to philosophy will, once factually proven, become a part of another specialised subject such as physics, psychology, or economics. Indeed, many of these have their origin in philosophy and were the consequence of the work of people who were initially philosophers. Psychology was the result of Wilhelm Wundt separating philosophy from theories that were shown to be true through the scientific method. Adam Smith, the father of economics, studied social philosophy at Oxford. A few centuries prior at Cambridge a certain Isaac Newton studied natural philosophy. Science itself was included in philosophy until the 18th century.

Why then is philosophy no longer esteemed as much as it was? To be a philosopher today is seen as eccentric and almost invariably invites ridicule from those who champion what they suppose are the important subjects. Philosophy is for many people a thing of the past, formerly useful, but no longer worth inquiring into. This shift is perhaps best related by the inevitable question ‘Why are you studying philosophy?’. This is usually followed by a friendly smile which seems to invite an answer, when in truth any provided will be fleetingly considered but ultimately ignored. That it is asked is itself revealing as those doing mathematics or physics will rarely be met with that question or, if they are, never with the same air of condescension. Those studying philosophy are expected to offer a justification for their choice and interrogated as if they had acted wrongly in making it.

The sciences are deemed practical because the use of research is usually obvious and the benefits of technology can be quantified and measured. The effect of philosophy is not so easy to interpet. Philosophical output consists in ideas whose impact is inferred indirectly, through the person espousing them. A philosopher works within the realm of ideas, objectively assessing the cogency of any views and theorising their own. Philosophical speculation is a preliminary to later knowledge but, because its truth or falsity is uncertain, it deals with what we don’t know. Science takes over where philosophy leaves off, when theories are proven true and become something that is known to us. A hypothesis, once verified, is said to belong to science and philosophy is deprived of the credit.

As a result, some question the point of the inquiries philosophers engage in as these, because science lays claim to any definite knowledge, seem to lead nowhere. The common view of a philosopher is of an individual who raises problems and questions everything, almost out of compulsion, but fails to provide any answers. They have in mind a sceptic who argues that it is not reasonable to accept that he exists until this is absolutely certain. Such doubts fail to explain life and deny it instead of shedding new light on it. To those interested only in practical affairs the debates occasioned by these doubts represent trivial pursuits and, associating philosophy with this, they feel that it is itself likewise unworthy of attention. They regard it as an intellectually stimulating yet fruitless pastime, to be distinguished by the discussion of trifles.

Nonetheless, these inquiries seek to show what we really know and suggest what might be through the generation of new ideas and theories which offer novel ways in which to understand the world. The outline for knowledge is sketched out for science to eventually fill in when it is capable of doing so. The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus postulated the existence of atomic constituents of matter in the 5th century bc but this theory was ‘philosophy’ until the 19th century because it was purely hypothetical. Atomism only led to the atomic theory and became ‘science’ when no doubt could be had about the interaction of atoms, when it was no longer conjecture. Nevertheless, this is only one example. In this way much of philosophy has been spirited away to the sciences and other branches of knowledge. This begs the question; if not in the theories posited by philosophers, where are we to look for the value of the subject?

Whereas science aims at an end outside itself, the end of philosophy is itself. The value of philosophy lies in a way of thinking. Its merits are to be sought primarily in what it offers those who take it up. The student of philosophy adopts a cast of mind that encourages them to think for themselves and to analyse and communicate ideas lucidly and persuasively, both orally and in writing. During the course of study they learn to construct logical arguments and come up with solutions to problems. Proficiency in critical thinking and inductive reasoning is also inculcated in students, alongside the ability to self-motivate.

The versatility these skills grant allow graduates to work for practically any type of employer in the public and private sectors. It is not uncommon for philosophy graduates to move into business, law, journalism, marketing and media. We might then answer the earlier question about the point of a philosophy degree with ‘I’ll be able to do just about anything with it’. It is a non-vocational degree after all and those studying it are essentially given free pick of a career as a reward for the transferable skills they acquire. The employability of philosophers is, on average, better than that of most degree holders. However, this is only incidental to the worth of philosophy, representing nothing more than a recognition of the benefits of undertaking its study.

Ideas are behind everything we do. They inform our actions, direct our businesses and structure our societies. To leave them unchecked without casting a discriminating eye over them is to give ourselves up to problems that could be avoided. Prudence would then consist in deliberating over our ideas and resolving upon the best way in which to either revise or apply them, a decision that is reached through structured argument. This a philosopher is taught to do.

To ponder the questions that have puzzled humanity since the beginning of civilisation is itself fulfilling. To speculate at what might follow death and consider the place we hold in all existence, to think on what man lives for; philosophising about these questions keeps alive a sense of wonder. The love of wisdom leads one to reflect on the entire scope of life and the vastness of the universe. It takes the whole of reality and existence as its object and it is this, the greatness of what it contemplates, that sets it apart. In the pursuit of knowledge of such themes as the meaning of life and truth, I took to philosophy. 

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