Why Study Philosophy?

The term has recently begun here in Pittsburgh, which means I’m teaching again. The last few semesters I’ve begun the term with a quick spiel for my students about why to study philosophy, which I thought I’d share here.

A lot of people have the impression that philosophy is a useless discipline. (Even, sometimes, famous educators). I’m going to avoid a digression for now about what it means for a discipline to be “useless” and the various misconceptions about philosophy that come into play here. Instead I’ll just discuss one way of thinking about the value of philosophy education.

There are different kinds of questions that, for one reason or another in your life, you may want to answer. The most straightforward kinds of question, from an answer-finding perspective, are questions that (a) have definite answers, and (b) have universally agreed-upon methods for finding those answers. For example, questions of arithmetic are like this. What is 128+64? In school we’re taught an algorithm for working out the answers to such questions (remember to carry the 2). Not all of these questions are easy to answer, though. A trickier question is “What is the value of π?” We may never be able to give the full answer to that question, but we can calculate the value of π to a fairly extraordinary degree of precision. Many questions in science are also like this. (Many are not but that’s a conversation for another time.) One might ask, “When did Tyrannosaurus rex live?” That’s not a question we can answer with a pen and a napkin, but we can examine fossils and the places we find them and, with some creative reasoning and background knowledge, make progress on answering questions about facts.

Straightforward questions:
What is the sum of 128 and 64?
What is the value of π?
When did Tyrannosaurus rex live?
Under what conditions would the Mackinac Bridge collapse?

A second kind of question is one that has no definite answer. For example, “What is the best kind of ice cream?” This might have no answer because perhaps all there is to being better ice cream is being preferred, and people have different preferences. Or there might be no correct ordering of ice-cream features such that one could determine which is best. Or there might be better ice creams for different circumstances.

Questions without definite answers:
What is the best kind of ice cream?
Does the top stop spinning after the end of Inception?

However, there is a third kind of question, questions that have definite answers but no universally agreed-upon methods for determining the answers. For example, we might wonder whether, if the Federal Reserve were to raise interest rates this month, the unemployment rate would go up, go down, or stay the same. There is an answer to this question; there is a fact about what would happen, at least in a particular circumstance. But economists often can’t agree on the answers to these questions. They have a bunch of different models that predict different things and take different factors into account, and they argue with each other about which one is right, or right for a particular set of circumstances.

Nevertheless, just because there isn’t a universally agreed-upon method for determining an answer doesn’t mean we can’t know the answer. It doesn’t mean some answers aren’t better than others. And it definitely doesn’t mean that there is no right answer. What it means is that in order to sort the better answers from the worse, we have to rely on the method of last resort: evaluating arguments and reasons.

Well-posed philosophical questions are questions of this third kind. They have answers, but there is no agreed-upon method for determining what the answers are. In addition, classic philosophical questions of the sort discussed in intro philosophy classes also often concern very abstract or general matters. They are determinate enough that students can engage with them, appealing to familiar considerations, but general enough that there are few guides to success other than clear reasoning. Philosophers have to be comfortable with a greater degree of ambiguity and uncertainty in their subject matter. The quality of the arguments can always be questioned—the premises may not be true, the principles of reasoning may not be reliable, the terms in which they’re expressed can be misunderstood and reinterpreted.

Some classic philosophical questions:
Is all knowledge ultimately grounded in sense experience?
Is all value ultimately grounded in pleasure and pain?
Does free will require that you could have done otherwise?

So the familiar philosophical topics from intro courses have two interesting features: (1) they can only be answered by the method of last resort, evaluating arguments and reasons unsupplemented by other more specific methods, and (2) they involve a high degree of uncertainty and ambiguity. Both features can be extremely frustrating, but philosophical inquiry and discussion requires that we be as clear as we can in spite of the difficulty. I think that philosophical engagement can be very valuable in education precisely because it involves practice confronting these frustrating circumstances. Philosophy helps us practice sorting good arguments from bad, and being comfortable with uncertainty.

There are a lot of important questions that share these features with philosophical questions. Questions in macroeconomics, for one, on which the welfare of millions of people may depend. These are important skills in contemporary society, in professional and personal life. And they are also important civic skills in democratic societies.

Of course, I’m not saying that everyone should be a philosopher. A society in which everybody is a professional thinker sounds terrible to me, and would probably not be a very prosperous society. However, I do like the sound of a society in which everybody has some training and practice with the kinds of intellectual difficulty raised in philosophical thinking. And in a democratic society, where voters have important responsibilities to look after their collective welfare, I think some philosophical education does some good for everybody. That’s why I tell my students they should study some philosophy in school.