Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Why Study Philosophy?

I note that at http://users.ox.ac.uk/~worc0337/why_phil.html there is a set of for/against arguments dealing with this topic – and links to the many University Departments who offer a rationale for such studies.

At Elon University, Nim Batchelor has a page entitled: How can I tell my parents that I want to be a philosophy major?

But – what do those who are actively studying on a philosophy course – or active in philosophy as teachers or in some other sense - think?

Does the study of philosophy make you:
More content – or more despairing and miserable?
A better (more virtuous) person?
Awkward and disputatious?
Smug and self-righteous?

Or perhaps the study of it has benefits that aren’t as clear and as much to do with what impact it has on the individual student…

Comments welcome…


  1. Anonymous10:05 am

    chicks love it!

  2. While anon may mean that studying philosophy is a way to attract women (or men) - I am not convinced that this is true. Is the idea that it makes one look interesting / thoughtful / 'deep' / sensitive / etc ?

    As I say, I am really not sure this is the case - unless others have evidence to the contrary...?

  3. The benefits of studying philosophy are not to be found directly in the mercantile environment. Nim Batchelor is possibly experiencing a degree of self doubt regarding the choice of philosophy as opposed to business law, engineering or some other vocational course because of current social mores. My experience, such as it is, tells me that philosophy is a vocation where fufilment is a greater imperative than financial gain. The mere counting of chips, whether pounds, dollars, ingots or otherwise is in itself no more than a mechanised process. The ability to argue or reason one's position and to elucidate upon the pressing and urgent questions that present themselves to the human race adds to the collective evolution of our sentience and energises the zeitgeist. The lover of wisdom for the sake of wisdom is one who flirts with immortality and a beancounter is a mere beancounter. Of course we have to meet our commitments - the mortgage, the bills etc. - but once they are met, what then? Remember that in human endeavour the pioneers are always followed by the administrators and beaurocrats; we simply live in an age where the beaurocrats are pushing the cultural agenda that they wish to see established. Study philosophy, hang the consequences, immortality or earthly misery, it's your call but remember also that within the delicacies of family relationships your parents don't own you. Be diplomatic, be polite but most of all be clear in your own mind about why you wish to study philosophy and then present your case to your parents.

  4. The study of Philosophy is a way of trying to answer the ultimate questions. For those disinterested, not convinced or merely not contented with religious and scientific explantions. It is about looking at everything, and nothing - literally. A way to see and read how others have felt the same as you, have wondered the same as you, and in many cases have ultimately struggled the same as you.

    I believe it can make you a better person - but I believe studying and learning about anything can potentially make you a better person , the very act of 'studying' something is a way of growing as a person.

    Pragmatically, it can make you self-righteous and argumentative - but surely one has to be those things prior to beginning the study of philosophy to have an interest in studying philosophy to begin with?

  5. Gordon Fisher7:51 pm

    Aristotle claimed in his Metaphysics that all men (i.e. people) by nature desire to know. While this may be true for all people who are not physically unable to function in some suitable way, it doesn't necessarily imply that all people desire to know metaphysics or some other branch of philosophy as taught in academies these days. Still, this is the way some of us are.

    I suppose the question of why some people are this way and some are not is an example of a philosophical problem. That is, the question is suitable for wondering and argument and debate with interested others, though perhaps not soluble like lots of mathematical problems. In fact, that's what we're doing here.

    I am 81 years old. I started studying philosophy when I was 12 years old or so. I recall reading Will Durant's book, The Story of Philosophy, at about that age, and being inspired by Durant's description of Hegel's views. After serving in the US Navy during WW2 (and later in the US Army for a while), I engaged in university study intending to become a physicist. However, I ended up with a major in mathematics and a minor in philosophy. went on to get a PhD in mathematics, and became a university professor of math(s) and computer science. I have been retired for some 17 years now, and have turned for a hobby to studying philosophy in various ways. For example, I have completed via email three of the Pathways to Philosophy program at the University of Sussex run by Geoffrey Klempner, www.philosophypathways.com.

    I have found studying philosophy an enjoyable pastime in my old age, after having enjoyed dabbling in it for many years, off and on.

    Ask not the reason why, it's yours to try and scry (or not, depending on -- well, on what?).

    Gordon Fisher gfisher@shentel.net

  6. Anonymous7:52 pm

    David W.

    This is not "proof" per se, because I am only ONE "chick", but I would have to agree with Anon that it IS very attractive to women. If you are already a drop-dead gorgeous man, you don't really "need" philosophy, although it certainly doesn't hurt.

    If you are, however, kind of an average-looking guy, being able to "do" philosophy makes you very, very, very sexy!


  7. David,

    Although I can't claim to have Gordon's depth of exposure to the study of the subject, I am in my 40's and have studied philosophy to post grad level, and am still an active reader.

    I think the answer to all of your example questions is probably a qualified "yes". The study of philosophy has the potential to make you all of these things (although for good looking I would prefer attractive and/or its opposite), perhaps at different times, and to different degrees.

    The unique strength of the subject I believe, if taught and studied well, is that it encourages a level of critical self and other awareness that few, if any, other subjects can match. This is of course a process and, with the rare exceptions of epithany and blinding enlightenment, takes time. The intelectual equivalent of the transition from adolesence to adulthood maybe? From argumentative and ugly to balanced and attractive, but nonetheless still human. Erudite and thoughtful but still able to talk down the pub without appearing or feeling aloof (sounds like Hume?). How's that for a condescending arrogant view:-)?

    My own experience has taught me that, once you can overcome the overwhelming urge to lecture all and sundry on the logical flaws in their arguments and the looseness of their semantics (and drop the names of obscure philosophers into arguments about who's fault it is that the bills haven't been paid or that granny is dying), the study of philosophy is an invaluable guide through life's ups and downs. Inevitably, it raises more questions than it answers, but that in itself is an important lesson, and a lesson that the enquiring mind will want to learn for itself, despite millenia of frustrated predecessors who tried to make the job easier.

    Many many other other reasons to study philosophy of course. I was just fascinated by the personal aspect.

    Great to see such interesting stuff being taught locally.

    All the best, Paul, Cheltenham

  8. Anonymous chick: if you are in England next year we should meet up!

    I'm not sure if it makes us more attractive, but I've been chatted up by girls who ask me about Sophie's World etc. as an icebreaker!

  9. David W.

    I dont know the acdemic reality of England or USA, but here in Brasil philosophy is considered totaly "dispensable". I am ashamed to say this but this is my reality. I am teacher of philosophy in Brasil: if I was handsome to women, now I am and old man; money is something that we receive for teaching somethig that is like philosophy. So, study philosophy is if you have money you can study, if not, try to be a soccer player, a samba dancer, or imigrate to USA/England to live a better live.
    The University in Brasil are of two types: we have that that are Private, you pay a lot of money and do not know what kind of philosphy you are doing or studyng, that is to manatain a certain number of public they teach wath is more degustable to people, and on the other hand, that that are financied by the state. In this second type you can have the pleasure of study philosophy and listem all the great philospher from England and USA or Austrália, Germany etc. However in all cases in Brasil you have to be "capo di capo", "amicci di amiici", or you be very unhappy and the woman will run from you. In the end of things you will be old very fast.


  10. Of course, people have many different (and good) reasons for studying philosophy. I’m very interested in human morality, and I’ve been studying it from scientific, logical, and philosophical angles and trying to bridge these. “Philosophy” still means love of wisdom. I, for one, agree with Epicurus (at least to a degree) when he says, “Empty is the argument of the philosopher which does not relieve any human suffering.” And I think an improved understanding of morality/ethics is vitally important for reasons reflected in these two quotes: “It is all too evident that our moral thinking simply has not been able to keep pace with the speed of scientific advancement.” (Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama); AND “Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem, in my opinion, to characterize our age.” (Albert Einstein). If we aspire to a more healthy, just, and sustainable world, we’ve got to understand how to help make it so. To me, philosophy in this sense is not a video game. It’s a calling. Please feel free to visit me at www.ObligationsOfReason.com.

  11. I agree with the commenters who have said philosophy is (at least for some) a calling or vocation. Some people are natural philosophers. They are more interested in questions than in facts. They want to sort things out, and see the problems with every way of sorting that is presented to them. They continue to be interested, long past childhood, in those philosophical puzzles that children discover (how can I tell that you see colors the same way as I do?). They wonder about things. These people should study philosophy because they are philosophers. Other people should study a bit, too, for all the standard reasons - it makes you better at thinking, more critical in your understanding, and so on. But for some of us it isn't really optional. Think of this comparison: why whould you study music (say, learn to play a musical instrument)? Well, it's useful in some sorts of situations, it hones your aesthetic sense and develops some cognitive/mechanical/aesthetic capacities, it opens certain social situations up to you (and yes, it's sexy), it's part of being generally cultured, it's fun, etc. But for some people this is all beside the point. They are musicians, and they have to do music. If they have the opportunity to study music, they should, just because of the kind of people they are. It's the same with philosophy.

  12. I spend quite a lot of time talking to mid-teenagers about what I do (bioethics) and about philosophy more generally as part of the Aim Higher scheme. Invariably I get asked about whether philosophy is useful in respect of getting a job (which, in the absebnce of a grant and the inevitability of a huge student debt, seems reasonable). I have three standard answers.
    The first, which is my least favourite, is that philosophy is very useful inasmuch as it teaches critical and abstract thinking; the ability to solve problems and - more importantly - the ability to spot problems in the first place; and encourages articularcy. All these things are very handy skills to have, and should make you a very useful person to employ.
    My second answer is that philosophy per se isn't all that directly useful, but, then again, nor is anything else: once you enter the real world, regardless of whether you leave school at 16 or do a PhD, the chances are that any job will require that you do some training for the role you're taking on: it's unlikely that anyone has precisely the right skills. So you might as well study something you enjoy, because you're no worse off in the long run. If it's philosophy, or Latin, or physics, or colour chemistry that rings your bell, then so be it.
    the third answer is my favourite: philosophy will utterly fail to make you a useful member of society. But being useful is a virtue in power tools, not persons. If your aim is to be useful that suggests that you aspire to being told what to do for the rest of your life. Nuts to that. Isn't it more admirable to carve your own niche? In that case, the fact that philosophy is useless is irrlevant - and we could add to that Socrates' parallel of himself to a horsefly, too weak to move the haycart alone, but capable of generating productive irritation if necessary...

  13. Anonymous9:28 pm

    I think it's important to study philosophy because I think it's interesting to consider that it's not so much about KNOWING what others have said, but more that, just as many others have done, it's important to contemplate things and try to figure out the significance and importance of them, perhaps especially in the overall scheme of things. I remember reading a story about a POW who survived in prison, he said, thanks to his philosophical education, not so much because of the wisdom of the philosophers that he studied but more because of the wisdom he gained in learning how to cope with certain situations. I think ultimately this is what philosophy is all about, and to have a philosophical disposition is really what is important. This is why I think people should study philosophy, it helps them think about what's important to them in order to try and shape their lives around their conclusions.

  14. I love philosophy and am passionate about it so much so that I want to teach it and I can get a little preachy about it at times.

    That's it. I don't think it makes me any better because I'm taught to think and not really do anything practical, so at life in general I'm really rather useless unless you want an essay!

    My love of the subject totally benefits me and not society as a whole. If i wanted to benefit society I would have done the law degree my parents wnated me to do...

  15. I would be thrilled if one of my children wanted to study philosophy. But I've never been particularly practical or vocational. Also 'vocation' means 'earning money' or being 'employable', and personally I have never found a more unsound or tedious motivation for activity than 'money'.

    Maybe to form an opinion of the benefits of philosophy we could glance backwards at our great philosophical forefathers to see if they may have enjoyed peace, happiness, attractiveness. The Greeks put much emphasis on a 'good' standard of living. They seemed happy, not despairing or miserable. Not sure they cut fine figures, although they did place a great deal of emphasis on good looks. Superficiality aside, concentrating on our philosoper’s good looks, has absorbed many a good hour for me on Google ‘images’, while I may have been better employed writing essays. I would conclude that 'good looks' are not a prequisite to studying philosophy and really, the women win hands down. Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Sartre - no classic beauties there. I always thought Spinoza and Kierkegaard cut dashing figures, but Kierkegaard particularly was of a tormented, miserable and isolated disposition. Kant was a weird, little man who did his village the immense favour of walking precisely at the same time every day so the villagers could set their clocks to his movements. He was probably happy though. On the other hand, women philsophers are more handsome - Iris Murdoch, Simone de Beauvoir. Simone Weil was a victim of anorexia nervosa, died of starvation, but she was beautiful before her illness. Socrates killed himself before they killed him, Deleuze jumped from his flat, Gandhi assassinated, Trotsky bludgeoned to death by an axe, Weil died of self-induced starvation, Nietzsche went insane, Dag Hammarskjold's plane crashed under 'strange' circumstances.

    Never mind content and peaceful, philosophy is downright dangerous. Philosophy wants a re-examination of existing values and social constructs to identify strengths and vulnerabilities often leading to new constructs and revolutionary change. Existence itself is constructions of habits, people, places, beliefs – change incurs instability and unrest. And those who want to maintain those constructions take an immediate dislike to the rabble that instigate change.

    Philosophy is not an armchair activity. It is a courageous attempt to lock horns with outmoded, stale, pale norms, to shake humanity from its dull complacency. That's when it is lively, active and worthwhile. It's best when it's miserable, shouldn't be allowed to plateau at the mundane level of 'happiness'.

  16. Paul Caddle3:36 pm

    There were two too many "very"s in anon's response of 7.52 p.m. One of the benefits of philosophy is in the exposure of weak and narrow thinking usually covered up by exagerated responses to varous proposals such as "philosophy is sexy". We have a modern fear of grey areas and therefore need to compensate by a constant use of superlatives. One prime example of this is in the use of the word "absolutely" when really "yes" or "indeed" would suffice.
    Philosophy is an important subject because without it we are still confined to Plato's cave, staring at the wall instead of gazing into the light.

  17. Anonymous1:27 pm

    I think its important to consider that what we believe or have been told, may not be the only answer. I love how philosophy allows you to explore the possibilities and opens your mind to new ways of thinking.

  18. Anonymous1:30 pm

    This is Xiaomin. I read the pro/cons for studying philosophy. As far as I can see, the cons are all about how the philosophers were under-appreciated. Thus, my conclusion is that philosophy is only for those who enjoy it and who can afford to enjoy it. Well, I guess this is generally true for anyone who wants a phd in humanities. Higher Education (MA and PhD at least) is a privilege or investment, not a right. That being said, the pleasure of studying philosophy lies in the pursuit for excellence and self-improvement, not in its utilitarian values (it's pretty much useless in the humdrum of daily lives, meditation can be much more useful if you just wanna peace and harmony)