The Value of Philosophy

Don't put Descartes before the horse: why philosophy won't save ...

I was prompted to write this article after listening to a couple of podcasts which sought to defend the humanities, and argue for their continued place in the academic world. The first was called “Why the Humanities?” on ABC’s The Philosopher’s Zone. The second was a Philosophy Bites episode entitled “Martha Nussbaum on the Value of the Humanities.” I will discuss this topic in three parts. First, I will make a critical observation on the way people tend to defend philosophy. Next, because it was quite good, I will briefly run through Robert Stern’s answer in the ABC podcast. Finally, I will offer my own thoughts as to what philosophy is, and why it is valuable.

How Not to Defend Philosophy

The biggest trap people fall into when they try to defend philosophy is to accept the benchmarks set by science; namely, quantifiable results coupled with progress towards a determinate goal. Science has, for sure, been outrageously successful following this strategy, but that is because those benchmarks are tailored to it. Science deliberately excludes everything that isn’t quantifiable from its purview. In itself, this isn’t a problem. The problem arises when we let scientists tell us that anything that isn’t quantifiable is also unimportant and not worth investigating.

Philosophy, on the other hand, deliberately includes the non-quantifiable. It takes for its subject matter precisely those ambiguous, messy topics that science eschews; topics like morality, mind (as opposed to neuroscience), metaphysics, perception, politics, and so on, not to mention any subject prefaced with ‘philosophy of…’ indicating a critical examination of the foundations and implications of a subject.

Given the disparities in the subject matter the two disciplines concern themselves with, and in particular, the obvious fact that philosophy, being intrinsically qualitative, cannot produce quantitative results, it would clearly be counter-productive for philosophy to try to defend itself using the benchmarks that science has established for itself. What one often hears then, is people arguing that philosophy contributes to the sciences, typically by cultivating things like critical thinking, research skills, etc. Is that really the best that philosophy can aspire to? To be science’s lackey? We used to respect our philosophers; now we tolerate them as long as they help scientists pose interesting questions?!

To argue for philosophy in this way is to tacitly accept that the benchmarks and standards of science, and then to sell philosophy to its little sister. Once we accept the premise that the only form of legitimate inquiry is that of the objective, scientific variety, there is simply no other option for philosophy because it cannot produce unambiguous equations describing physical phenomena, or invent some new technology that doubles efficiency, or make discoveries that lead to a cure for cancer and improved medical treatments. Then, when we offer ourselves as clear thinkers, the obvious retort from the scientist is, “We also teach critical thinking, research skills, encourage creativity, and anything else you believe makes you valuable.” And they’d be right. If this is the best philosophy can offer, I vote we put it out of its misery already, and euthanise the poor beast.


Robert Stern

Robert Stern is a professor of philosophy at the University of Sheffield, and in that ABC podcast he outlines three traps people fall into when they try to defend the humanities. The first he calls the instrumental/intrinsic distinction. Briefly, in noting that any attempt to defend the humanities by appeal to actual instrumental value typically ends up looking “lame,” people often then try to claim they have intrinsic value. The problem is that this makes the humanities seem as if they are an “optional indulgence,” something we can think about if we like, but which are ancillary to our real interests; making money, inventing new technology, or discovering new fundamental particles.

The second trap is trying to defend the whole by the parts. Broken down into individual research projects, the humanities can indeed seem frivolous and meaningless. Stern mentions the early works of Hegel as one such research project. What possible value can come from such a study? However, Stern argues, the value of a field as a whole cannot be summed up with a stocktake of individual projects in this way.

Finally, he cautions against falling into the progress trap. Just because the humanities don’t progress inexorably towards a final ‘theory of everything’ doesn’t render them meaningless. His example is the multiplicity of interpretations of Hamlet. There isn’t one single interpretation of Hamlet that is ‘true,’ and which holds for all time, but surely this fact doesn’t mean that reflecting on the possibly meanings the play has is a waste of time.


The Value of Philosophy (I)

Those critical of philosophy tend to paint it as an armchair discipline, something akin to a bunch of people getting together and having a discussion. Sure, the topics they discuss might have some gravitas, but sitting around talking about the mind, no matter how intelligent the discussion, is basically idle time-wasting compared to getting into the lab and testing hypotheses, or constructing rigorous psychological theories backed up by experimental evidence. The only thing that can emerge from this type of activity are questions or interesting hypotheses which it will then fall to scientists to confirm or reject. And as we saw above, scientists can develop interesting hypotheses all on their own.

This, however, is a fairly shallow view of philosophy, more caricature than genuine. Philosophy is not just about asking the deep questions and speculating about possible answers (the former being at least as important as the latter); rather, it is fundamentally about human existence, and understanding our place in the universe. This makes it inherently subjective, not in the disparaging sense of personal opinion as opposed to fact, but in the sense that it concerns the individual subject him or herself. It also makes it qualitative, meaning that it can’t be calculated, measured, or described in a neat mathematical formula that fits on a t-shirt. One might be tempted to think that this makes it useless (especially in this era), but if you take a moment to think about the things that really matter to you, you will find they aren’t the things you can quantify or measure, but the things about you and your life that elude such facile descriptions.


Karl Jaspers

In Way to Wisdom, a book modest in length but brimming with original ideas, 20th Century German philosopher Karl Jaspers discusses some of the features that characterise philosophy. First, whereas the sciences require years of specialist training, almost anyone is capable of doing philosophy. If you’ve ever wondered why you are here, or what death means, or what it is to be conscious, you’ve engaged in philosophy. One might think that this makes philosophy easy, or at least unnecessary as an academic discipline, but this would be to have missed the point. Although it is true that as soon as one asks the question, one is (in a sense) immediately able to engage with the big guns (i.e. it isn’t necessary to have mastered a whole range of sub-disciplines before tackling Hegel or Kant), that starting question immediately puts one in touch with an enormous range and depth of thought about ourselves that more than qualifies philosophy as a discipline worthy of serious study in an academic environment.

Second, it must always have its source in a free creation that each individual must accomplish for him or herself. This is crucial. It isn’t enough to merely read about Heidegger or Plato and their respective philosophies; instead, one has to take them up, engage them, think their philosophies. This is because philosophy isn’t a body of knowledge to be remembered, it’s an activity. And rather than being an activity we do in order to achieve something, it is an activity we do in order to become someone. Jaspers calls philosophy the “principle of concentration through which man becomes himself, by partaking of reality.” This might sound a little grandiose, but it is simply a function of the subjective focus of philosophy; the drive to understand what it means to be human, and how it is that we (and I) fit into the world.

Finally, because philosophy goes right to the heart of what it means to be a human being, one cannot actually avoid doing philosophy. Wherever one finds humans, one finds philosophy; it is buried in proverbs, popular phrases, ancient myths, songs, movies, novels, and a hundred other places. There is no escape from philosophy because, rather than being something we learn, it embodies who we are. “The question is only whether a philosophy is conscious or not, whether it is good or bad, muddled or clear.” To claim philosophy is dead, or that we don’t need it, is to already be engaged in philosophy. Indeed, to simply be living a life is to already be philosophising.


  The Value of Philosophy (II)

So, how can philosophy justify itself? The truth is it can’t, and we make a mockery of philosophy every time we call on it to do so. It can’t justify itself because it isn’t something we do on the basis of something else; in other words, it isn’t instrumental. A justification always involves explaining why an activity or object is valuable in terms of something other than itself. We’ve already seen how ineffective it is to defend philosophy by looking for instrumental benefits, but more importantly, reducing philosophy to ‘critical thinking,’ ‘research skills,’ or ‘logical analysis’ completely misses what is intrinsically valuable about it.

Philosophy is ultimately the study of ourselves; who we are and how we make sense of the (necessarily) human world we project around us. It doesn’t produce anything or have any tangible benefits. Instead, it offers insight into the human condition, a deeper understanding of where we are, why we are, and what we perhaps should be. It changes the individual who studies it, not so that they can make more widgets than their competitors, design new technology to harness ever more of nature’s power, or even become a better person; rather, it puts the living subject in touch with their subjectivity, allowing them to truly become themselves. Nor does it make progress towards some quantifiable, objective goal, but that doesn’t mean it is stagnant. On the contrary, wherever there are conscious beings thinking, loving, creating, evolving, changing, living, one also finds philosophy keeping pace; living, changing, and evolving right along with them. At the risk of stating the obvious, philosophy, and the humanities in general, are the most human of all the academic disciplines (it’s right there in the name!). They don’t advance science or engineering goals, or produce objective, tangible results like them, but that’s because they are directed towards the subjective, intangible subjectivities who lie behind those objective disciplines.


The careful reader might have noticed here that I have fallen into the intrinsic snare of Robert Stern’s first trap, defining philosophy in such a way that it appears as an ‘optional indulgence’ unrelated to our 21st century, materialist concerns. The thing for me, and I guess I disagree with Stern here, is that this is exactly the way it appears to me. Philosophy is completely different from our outward-focused, appearance-driven, soundbite-obsessed, ‘show me the money’ mind-set. Moreover, in such a setting philosophy is an optional indulgence, not because philosophy can’t cater to modernity, but because modernity isn’t up to the task of philosophising. Stern implies the problem is with philosophy; I’m suggesting the problem is with modernity. If we, as a society, no longer value the inner dimension of our lives, if we no longer care about cultivating our humanity, and prefer instead to seek meaning in bank account balances, productivity reports, and the sophistication of our gadgets, philosophy truly has no place in our world anymore.

Of course, philosophy isn’t quite that easy to get rid of. Wherever human beings are being human, philosophy will still have a role, even if it is an unacknowledged, silent one. To assert that the only thing of value is the collective GDP of a country, or how many cars one owns is to tacitly espouse a philosophy. To throw in with the reductive materialists, and claim that the self is an illusion, and consciousness an epiphenomenon produced by purely determined, physical processes is to make a metaphysical declaration about what the real is. To argue that philosophy is dead because it is still wrestling with the same problems Plato and Aristotle raised two thousand years ago is already to have adopted a philosophical position. Perhaps we ought to take a leaf out of Jaspers’ playbook then, and instead of arguing for philosophy, make the argument that we should be philosophising consciously.

One thought on “The Value of Philosophy

  1. Isn’t philosophy just about making assumptions; whereas science tries to prove or disprove realities? I could say that there are aliens in our universe and I may be right and I may also be wrong.The great thing about science is that we can prove facts, while the great thing about philosophy is that it makes us want to try to prove them through science.


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