The never ending discussion: what’s philosophy good for?

Seven years ago I officially began my career as a philosopher, being appointed as Chair of the Department of Philosophy at CUNY’s Lehman College. One of my first duties was to completely restructure the Department’s web site, which looked awful and was hopelessly out of date. So I spent my first summer on the job (well, technically, even before starting my job, which officially began at the end of August) putting together the new site. If you visit the web pages of most philosophy departments, including Lehman’s, you will notice two differences between them and those of pretty much any other academic field (including not just the natural sciences, but also the rest of the humanities): first, they will almost certainly feature either a painting of Rafael’s School of Athens, or an image of Rodin’s Thinker (those accompanying this post, up left). Second, they will have a tab labeled something along the lines of “Why Philosophy?” It is on this latter idiosyncrasy that I want to focus here.

As it turns out, the question of “why philosophy?” has a number of very good answers, better than those available for many of the other academic fields an undergraduate student can major in, both from a practical perspective and in terms of intrinsic value. For instance: philosophy graduates score at the top of the GRE and LSAT tests, which gives them easy admission to any graduate program or law school; and medical schools, too; a philosophy degree makes you a better technologist, or a better leader; philosophy majors earn well and above average ten years after graduation; they are better at business than MBAs; and they are highly employable. The list could continue, but you get the point. (None of the above applies to getting a PhD in philosophy. That one you do pretty much only if you have a burning passion for the field and you wish to pursue an academic career, though there are a few successful freelance philosophers.)

Mind you, all of the above is strictly evidence based (some anecdotal, much quantitative). So you would think that we could put to rest the question of “why philosophy?” and perhaps ask ourselves what people do with undergraduate degrees in other fields. Or maybe simply stop asking silly questions, period.

But no, the pro vs against philosophy debate seems never to cease, and it has generated its own cottage industry, to which I’ve added my share of contributions (this being one of them). Just in the month of October, I’ve come across three articles dealing with the issue. Let’s take a closer look, to get a better sense of what the discussion is all about.

I’m going to start with Daniel Johnson’s “Why on earth should anyone study philosophy?,” published in StandPoint magazine. It begins with a personal story: recently, Johnson’s youngest daughter decided to study philosophy at university (so did mine, incidentally), and the family was quite baffled by that decision, which they saw as eminently impractical. Johnson defended his daughter’s decision (not that she would have done otherwise anyway, as he wisely points out), on the ground that philosophy has always been the cornerstone of high culture. A well educated person must know about Shakespeare and the second principle of thermodynamics (these are my examples), but also about Nietzsche and Zeno’s paradox (Johnson’s examples).

But Johnson himself wasn’t very convinced by his own argument, so in the article he entertains a number of objections. The first one is that much modern philosophy is very technical and specialized, quite the opposite of the broad cultural view mentioned above. Johnson’s response to himself is that this isn’t new, as both the Scholastics and Montaigne had the same complaint. But he is not quite right, I think. It is definitely the case that academic philosophy is much more specialized nowadays than at any point in the history of the field — Montaigne would be driven berserk by the modern ivory tower. The relevant thing to point out, however, is that this isn’t true just for philosophy, but for any field of scholarship, both in the sciences and in the humanities. This may or may not be a bad thing (I think it’s a mixed blessing), but it certainly doesn’t single out philosophy specifically.

Objection 2 is that when modern philosophers come up with something new and of general interest, it tends to be banal. Johnson’s example is Derek Parfit’s conclusion — after 1,400 dense pages of reasoning — that the question of “what matters most?” has two broad answers: “What now matters most is that we rich people give up some of our luxuries, ceasing to overheat the Earth’s atmosphere, and taking care of this planet in other ways, so that it continues to support intelligent life” (from volume one of On What Matters, Oxford Press) and: “What matters most is that we avoid ending human history” (from volume two). Well, perhaps those two conclusions are indeed good reasons to skip the 1,400 pages and watch some television instead. But the same couldn’t be said of much of what has been written by some of the most influential philosophers of the last several decades, from John Rawls to Robert Nozick, from Peter Singer to Martha Nussbaum. Besides, a number of conclusions in other fields, including the sciences, sound banal when they are turned into bumper sticker slogans (“the world is made of stuff,” “organisms evolve,” “people seek love, money and self esteem,” and so forth); and moreover, the hard work is about showing why a certain conclusion follows from the arguments (philosophy) or the empirical evidence (science).

Objection 3 (the last one) is that contemporary philosophy tends to undermine, rather than underpin, Western civilization. Beside the fact that Western civilization could actually use a bit of undermining, it is not clear what Johnson means by this. He says that questions in ethics, politics and aesthetics seem increasingly intractable and that philosophers are “reduced” to justify themselves by teaching critical thinking. But it is precisely because questions affecting contemporary society are complex and nuanced that philosophers have a more crucial role than ever to play. And what, exactly, is wrong with teaching critical thinking? It’s not like we live in a society that couldn’t use an additional dose or two of it.

From there, the article takes a decidedly idiosyncratic turn concerned with the Nazi, which I will not follow here. But before plunging into that particular abyss, Johnson quotes Peter Singer as saying: “I know from my own experience that taking a course in philosophy can lead students to turn vegan, pursue careers that enable them to give half their income to effective charities, and even donate a kidney to a stranger. How many other disciplines can say that?” Indeed, that has been my experience as well (and I never had anything even close to that when I was teaching biology). But Johnson counters: “Philosophy certainly can do such things, but it can also turn students into stormtroopers. The most influential German philosopher of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, is a case in point” (hence the plunge into the problem with Nazism.)

Well, yes, but that’s like saying that a given tool can be used for good or for ill. True, but philosophy certainly doesn’t rank particularly high there, science does. Nuclear energy can do a number of good things for us. But it also has the terrifying power of ending human history (one of the two things Parfit thinks is really important not to do…).

Next: “Lovers of wisdom,” by Lawrence Klepp, published in the Weekly Standard. It begins by mentioning that philosophers George Santayana and William James were highly critical of academic philosophy. James put it this way: “What an awful trade that of professor is — paid to talk, talk, talk. … It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted to words, words, words.” How hypocritical, I would point out, given that both were well paid tenured professors at Harvard, and made a nice living just by uttering words, words, words. What the hell?, one would want to scream.

Klepp’s article is actually a book review of The Philosopher, by Justin Smith, another fellow who complains about the modern academy while having spent most of his life securely entrenched in it. Summarizing Smith’s thought, Klepp quips: “philosophy, which, according to Aristotle, begins in wonder, has ended in pedantry and protocols and office charts.” Cute, but, again, something like that could be said of literature, poetry, music, biology, physics, cosmology and every other modern academic field. So, once more, why single out philosophy?

Klepp at one point seem to feel the urge of that question, and ventures into an answer: “Philosophers kept arguing about the nature and status of truth, while scientists, without worrying much about what it is, were busy accumulating vast quantities of it, which transformed the way people live far more than any philosophy had ever done.” Ah, right, the old “science left philosophy in the dust” meme, for which I have repeatedly chastised Lawrence Krauss, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and many others.

This is simply intellectually lazy. To begin with, as Klepp himself points out, science is the progeny of philosophy, so, cladistically speaking, scientists are simply a type of philosopher (like birds are a type of dinosaur), and philosophy could legitimately take credit for the advancements of science. But that response in turn would be somewhat lazy. The reality is that philosophy has evolved into different pursuits, some of which have to do with the nature of knowledge in general, and of scientific knowledge in particular. Science hasn’t left philosophy in the dust, the two have simply parted company in terms of what they are after, which has been to the benefit of both.

Klepp concludes his essay with a diagnosis (inspired by Smith’s reading of the situation): philosophers should get over the entrenched distinction between so-called “analytic” and “continental” traditions, and bring philosophy back to the basics. This means turning to the ancient Greco-Roman ideal of philosophy as a way of life, a practical pursuit that rejects the hyper-specialization of the modern academy.

Now, besides the fact that there are constructive ways to overcome the analytical-continental divide (see my take here), other than getting over it, I’m all in favor of resurrecting the idea of philosophy as a way of life (indeed, I am doing it!), but I just don’t see why the two things should be mutually exclusive. Yes, philosophy can and ought to be used in practice, by everyone, not just professional philosophers. But there has always been, and there will always be, a space to pursue specialized philosophical inquiry, from the pre-Socratics down to Bertrand Russell, Willard Quine, Saul Kripke and countless other modern philosophers.

Which brings me rather naturally to the last essay I want to briefly comment on: “Accessible and inaccessible disciplines: why philosophy and science are similar but are treated differently,” by Paul Humphreys, in the Oxford University Press blog. The author makes a distinction between academic disciplines whose primary sources are, at the least to some extent, accessible by the general public, and those that require a significant amount of technical background if one doesn’t want to limit himself to secondary sources. You can read Shakespeare on your own (though critical essays and historical footnotes help). You can’t read Kant on your own (though Hume is accessible). You also can’t read much of the scientific literature without aid. So philosophy is in a sense similar to science (Hume and a few others notwithstanding), and yet it gets treated very differently by the public at large.

As Humphries puts it: “Many outsiders, while recognizing that philosophy is difficult, become hostile and resentful when reading contemporary authors. Those same readers have a different reaction when faced with a journal article or even a textbook in molecular biology, acknowledging that the subject matter does not easily yield to amateurs, and rightly so. The reasons for the difficulties in both cases are straightforward — technical vocabularies, the assumption of much previous knowledge, subject matter that is remote from ordinary experience.” As he says, what’s puzzling, then, is the sharp difference in attitude by non-experts.

Humphries blames some of the most famous scientists, and not without reason. He explains that once an academic — especially a scientist — becomes so prominent in his field as to, for instance, win the Nobel prize, he somehow infers that success in his chosen field means that he is smart enough to intelligently comment on other fields, and particularly philosophy. Since our friend has likely not read any philosophy, and what he finds in Wikipedia is either unintelligible or sounds trivial, he concludes that philosophy obviously has no value whatsoever.

But part of the blame goes to philosophers themselves, as Humphries recognizes. He mentions the impact that Bertrand Russell’s 1912 The problems of Philosophy had on him. More than a century after its publication “Russell’s book remains a model of clarity and creativity. It was successful in part because thousands of readers who had never been to university, including miners, steelworkers, and other industrial laborers, were willing to come to grips with difficult ideas presented by a master of English style. They lacked hubris; they knew that this was going to be hard work and stuck with it.”

So the task ahead of us is clear: we need to convey to the public that philosophy is a deep field of inquiry, in which one cannot simply wander without professional assistance. But we also need bright philosophers willing to emulate Russell and Hume in the way they write for others. Academic philosophy is difficult, but its fruits ought to be shared with everyone willing to do the work necessary to reap the rewards.

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Categories: Metaphilosophy, Public Philosophy

42 replies

  1. Means and ends.

    There is no final solution. Fortunately.

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  2. “What’s philosophy good for?”

    Does it help in a vocational sense for certain occupations? Even if so, that’s surely not why serious philosophers practice their craft. Therefore let’s also search for less mundane answers.

    There is only one such answer that I can confidently state — that it has been good for us in the manner that art has, or for enjoyment rather than for resolving associated questions themselves. (Though some people do not enjoy philosophical contemplation, the same can be said of various forms of art as well.)

    Regarding the future however, I believe that I do know what philosophy will be good for some day:

    Observe that over the past few centuries, science has developed various amazing understandings which have brought humanity incredible power. Unfortunately however, it hasn’t also shown us how to effectively use that power — it hasn’t given us theory from which to better lead our lives, nor structure our societies. I believe that this is exactly what philosophy will do for us, or serve as a vital complement to the power of science. Given the great disparity between our power and our understanding of how to use it, nothing could be more important for humanity to figure out!

    This is why I’m so troubled by the academic “war” that we see here which causes philosophers to feel so defensive. In order for true “non art” progress to be made regarding the questions which philosophers ask, they’ll need to look to the future rather than remain mired in the defense of their past.

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  3. Eric,

    Unfortunately for those within a particular structure, the future is defined by the output of that structure, the lightcone of possibilities, if you will. While the actual future has to take into account all possible input and that would raise questions as to the value of the authority defined by that structure.
    Which is why the reset button has to be pushed occasionally, when the older forms have to be shed, in order to allow further growth. As is said of science, “Progress happens one funeral at a time.”

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  4. Given the apparent probability of a von Clownstick adminstration in a few days, maybe I might take a second look at this Stoicism thing.

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  5. Robin,

    You’re Australian!
    It is safe to say the rot in the system has reached the top. It would be interesting to consider the dynamics of how such a process will work itself out. Wheels coming off the train, as it’s headed for a cliff. Maybe it will grind to a halt as it reaches the precipice. Maybe not.

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  6. We live in interesting times.

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  7. Hi Brodix,

    “You’re Australian!”

    But as they say, when America sneezes the world catches a cold.

    And I think Trump is fixing to sneeze hard and messily.

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  8. Robin,

    This election is a symptom of a much deeper problem.
    Having grown up under my wheeler-dealer father, I knew enough about debt by the time I was 20, to know when Reagan was elected that it all wasn’t going to end well. As his primary opponent and running mate, Bush the Elder called it, voodoo economics.
    (Speaking of which, he and my father were high school classmates, Phillips Academy, Andover)
    So think of Hillary as the wife left to answer the door to the shifty fellow from the collection agency, the Trump Man. She had fun while the party lasted, but doesn’t quite understand that she is being left holding the bag, as everyone else slips out the back door.
    I think it’s safe to say the dynamics are basic enough, that various plan B’s are ready to unfold. Much of it involving the further privatization of public assets, as well as siphoning up as much other debt encumbered valuables. Hopefully no one here has taken out a big mortgage lately.

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  9. Robin,
    To go on a minor riff and try to put it in the context of this thread, the uses of philosophy and this debate, in actual laymans terms, between means and ends;

    I would first guess that if Trump were to actually win, some of those most likely to be disappointed by his presidency would be “the deplorables.” The “Wall on the Border” is the “Close Guantanamo” of this election. Economic realities rule and everything else is show.
    To explain the forces at work, it will be disaster capitalism coming home. The ways in which the feedback loop of extending debt is used to extract wealth into ever more concentrated forms, with all the inevitability of gravity pulling mass together. The only effect which stops or slows this is when the resulting structures run into each other(war), or go supernova(revolution).

    There are no absolute ends and the means, the state of the present, is implacable.

    If there is a way to get beyond this current cycle of rule by capital, it will be to recognize that money, as a medium of exchange, functions as a public utility, very much like a road system and learn to treat it as such. It simply cannot be broadly stored, because this compels people to extract lots of it from the system, requiring ever more to be issued, until its value starts to weaken, resulting in everyone trying to get rid of it at once. Not that infinite amounts can be stably stored, beyond often limited productive investment, so it is borrowed up and often wasted by the government, as well as being invested in various ponzi and wagering schemes. Generally at the expense of the broader society and environment, as value is mined from everything.

    Which might require the input of the philosophers/economists, but that is not going to happen until they feel directly threatened. Otherwise they will keep turning in the same circles they always have been, because that is how they are trained.

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  10. Hi Brodix,

    I think that you are right that Trump’s base will be disappointed in what happens, with the wall and other things. I gather that, for the evangelicals Trump has one job and one job only, to appoint very conservative judges to the Supreme Court, and maybe that is one that he will come through on for them if he is elected.

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  11. Robin,

    Trusting Trump seems a big if. For one thing, on some aspects, he is to the left of Clinton, or at least not quite so neo conservative. Keep in mind Ivanka’s mother, Ivana, is Russian.
    On the issue of whether he caters to those who elected him, or to his own impulses, I suspect Melania and Ivanka probably have more influence than the entire state of Kansas.
    I’m afraid the only image that comes to mind for me, as to a Trump Presidency, would be a clown car. You just don’t know what’s going to come out next.

    A thought on my prior post, as to economics as philosophy; Currently it is considered a science(lol). Possibly, as a study of human interactions, needs and desires, it might work better to think of it as a field of philosophy; Understanding it in the context of the bigger aspects and issues of society and human character, rather than the scientistic/mathematical paradigm of distilled, specialized and controlled studies, with lots of charts and graphs.

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  12. The idea that economics is not a science seems to be predicated on the idea that economists ought to be able to predict economic crashes, which is, as I have said before, like expecting physicists to be able to predict plane crashes.

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