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Why Philosophy?

Philosophy is pretty useless. It does not come up with a cure for cancer, it does not put food on the table, and it hardly inflates one’s popularity among friends. So why bother?

Perhaps philosophy is, in the words of Bertrand Russell ( † 1970 ) no better than ” … innocent but useless trifling, hair-splitting distinctions, and controversies on matters concerning which knowledge is impossible …” Surely, to people who expect practical solutions as a result of thinking, the philosopher’s thinking about thinking is a royal waste of time. If the engineer’s thinking leads to safer constructions, the doctor’s thinking leads to healthier patients, and the programmer’s thinking to applications that make our lives easier, what exactly does the philosopher’s thinking lead to?

Philosophy does not bring about practical solutions, or conclusive answers to practical questions. But that is because philosophy does not ponder practical questions. The questions philosophy deals with, are questions so big, so deep and universal, that if answers were to be available at all, they would surely be unverifiable and inconclusive.

So, why should philosophy bother? If the questions are too big for answers, can’t we just forget about the whole philosophy business and get on with our lives, both feet squarely on the ground?

Sure we can, and many people do. But some can’t, and believe one shouldn’t. First, some people deeply enjoy the intellectual stimulation they get from philosophical thinking. Like some people enjoy painting, cooking or playing the piano, philosophy can be enjoyed passively, by reading other people’s ideas, or actively, by coming up with your own. But then, there’s more to it. Because, secondly, our practical problem-solvers are not able to provide answers to all our questions. Even if engineers, doctors and programmers would come up with answers to all of humankind’s practical questions, we would still need answers to other, non-practical questions, like “How should we live?”, “What is uniquely human, and what distinguishes us from machines and non-rational organisms?” and “What are the foundations for morality?” Practical science is not equipped to deal with these questions. Even if philosophy fails to provide conclusive or demonstrable answers to these questions, it is able to provide a framework of well-argued, consistent theories to work with. Thirdly – and here we get to the heart of philosophy – there is great value in critically questioning the things we take for granted. Philosophy’s highest and most profound value is in questioning the beliefs, habits and dogmas we knowingly or unknowingly assimilate throughout our lives – instilled in us by our families, cultures, moralities and religions. Philosophy shows familiar things in an unfamiliar light. It keeps us wondering and searching. It keeps us amazed, it shows us how other people see things and how we may see and do things differently. It may even reveal fallacies which we have unknowingly fallen into. It often has …

So, after all, it seems that philosophy ís useful. Its critical questioning stimulates our thinking and extends our views of the world, encourages us to stand back in wonder and amazement, exposes fallacies in our believes, and opens us up to other people and unfamiliar ideas. In doing so, we get a glimpse of the bigger picture. In doing so, we become “citizens of the universe” rather than citizens of a “walled city at war with all the rest.”

  • Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (1912) Chapter XV
Hello, I'm Jeroen. I study philosophy at the Universities of Oxford and Stellenbosch. I use this website to gently wrap my head around the new concepts I learn, to practise my writing skills, and to occasionally vent an opinion. Here's one: I like hats. [+]