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Why Philosophy Is Important

Maarten Maartensz

·       1. Introduction

·       2. Reasons why philosophy is important

·       3. Philosophical problems

·       4. Ideology, religion and philosophy

·       5. The study of philosophy

1. Introduction: 

Why should a human being be interested in philosophy? Isn't philosophy fit for fools only, or isn't it a merely academic trifling and hairsplitting in search of unobtainable knowledge?

Or isn't philosophy mostly a set of false illusions from the past - sophistries designed to comfort one's desires by wishful thinking and presumption - that these days have been replaced by science and mathematics?

I can be fairly brief about why philosophy ought to be studied in some sense and why the opinion that it is useless trifling, hair-splitting or in search of unobtainable knowledge is inappropriate. TOP


2. Reasons why philosophy is important:

  1. All human beings orient their lives around ideas about what reality is like, that they believe explain their experiences, and ideas about what reality and human beings should be like, that they use to guide their behaviour. The first of these kinds of ideas is a metaphysical theory, the second an ethical or moral theory.
  2. Human beings seem to need metaphysical and moral ideas because they are not born with instincts that determine for them what they should think and want, and are born with the capacities to make up their own minds and to question any belief they have or meet.
  3. It is evident that most of the ideas in history that people have used to explain human experiences have been false or unfounded in many respects, and it is also evident that most of the ideas in history or direct human behaviour have been harmful to other human beings or to themselves.
  4. On the other hand, it is also evident that whatever adequate understanding people have of themselves, of others, and of their environments and possibilities, is based on the asking and answering of the type of general questions that are philosophical and scientific, and that there seems to be no way of being human without trying to ask and answer such questions.
  5. All ideas about philosophy or science, including those that ridicule or condemn philosophy or science, are themselves philosophical ideas, and such as declare all philosophy useless, trifling, or impossible are little better than a refusal to do any serious philosophical or scientific reasoning.
  6. The ideas people live and die for, go to war for and kill each other for, or let themselves be inspired to the making of great art or science, are all philosophical ideas.

The lives people lead and the choices they make are the result of the philosophies they hold, whether they are conscious of this fact or not.

Much of the history of the 20th century - "The Century of Total War", in Raymond Aron's apt phrase, which is the title of one of his books - is the more or less direct product of a small number of philosophical ideas and the philosophers who made them up: Marxism ruled the lives of more than a 1000 million people; Fascism destroyed the lives of millions of people and caused a World War; both Marxism and Fascism were opposed by men in the name of Liberalism, Democracy, Catholicism, Protestantism, or Science, each of which are themselves either specific philosophies or derived from more comprehensive philosophical systems.

While men like Marx and Nietzsche in their own lives may be regarded as unsuccessful, their ideas and values, or rather what was made of these by their self-proclaimed followers, have in the 20th century created and destroyed civilizations and the lives of millions of human beings. TOP

3. Philosophical problems:  

More specifically, philosophy is concerned with such problems as raised by:

  • logic: what are the foundations and principles of sound reasoning
  • science: what are the foundations of our scientific and technological knowledge
  • language: what does language have to do with human thought
  • meaning: what is meaning and how do we succeed in representing one thing by another
  • ethics: what are the foundations of the judgments that acts or the men who commit them are good or bad, and in what sense are such judgments true or different from mere matters of taste
  • aesthetics: what makes beautiful things appear beautiful or ugly, and what is the use of having an aesthetical capacity
  • self: whether there is a self, and if so, what it is and what is its foundation, or, if not, what is the reason for this popular delusion
  • free will: whether human beings are in any sense free to act as they please and responsible for the consequences, or only determined to falsely believe they are free to believe as they please
  • death: whether death indeed is final, what is the point of fearing something one will never experience, and whether there is anything else than self-contradiction in the belief in a life or a judgment after death
  • happiness: what is happiness; how does one find it; and why should one look for it, especially if everyone seems naturally to know what feels good and what does not feel good
  • the good life: what a human individual should and should not do, believe and desire to lead a good life
  • the good society: what relations between human individuals contribute to the good life

That many of the questions properly raised within philosophy so-called in earlier days are now raised and answered by special sciences is true - and changes nothing about the fact that human beings are such as to lead themselves by general ideas and values, and that one of the tasks that remains philosophical, however many of earlier philosophical questions have now turned into problems of some specific science, is to try to integrate whatever specialized knowledge different sciences produce into one comprehensive view of reality and humanity. TOP

4. Ideology, religion and philosophy:  

Philosophy, or more precisely, philosophy's everyday appearance, which is a political or religious ideology, guides and misguides the lives of human beings, and every human being meets daily with many philosophical ideas, and makes or avoids many of his daily choices by appealing to and relying on philosophical considerations.

Literally millions of people have been murdered in this century and other millions of people have been sent to concentration camps for what were, in the end, crude philosophical ideas (of the Marxist or Fascist variety, often).

All supposedly 'practical' men, whether they did the killing in the name of a philosophy or were the victims of men acting out a philosophy or stood at the side gawking while declaring all philosophy useless or nonsense, were as philosophical - in the sense of being moved by general arguments about what the world is and should be and how human beings should behave - as any man, except that these supposedly 'practical' men were less conscious of that fact.

In any case, it is an illusion to believe that philosophy only pertains to the goods of the mind or only is of importance to a few intellectually gifted and curious individuals:

  • whatever happens in society and whatever human beings consciously do and do not do to others and for themselves is based on general ideas and values that are very properly speaking philosophical, and this has been so since human beings started to think.

And part of the reason is that all men need to answer the questions what there really is, what they should and should not do, and why they believe they know things. These questions cannot be answered by any special science, and must be somehow answered by all human beings.

Also, it is important to recognize that the philosophies that influenced much of the history of the 20th Century, Socialism and Fascism, were - at least in practice - dangerous delusions, and that indeed the same holds for religions, that tend to be beliefs that are held in irrational and fanatical ways, and tend to be very dangerous for those of a different belief. (This last fact should give people pause who believe in an all powerful and benevolent deity. It seems to me that the most a believer in God is entitled to claim, within reason, if this is possible, is that he believes in something that is totally beyond human understanding.)


5. The study of philosophy: 

In general terms, philosophy aims at a way of life, namely one based on reason based on natural and moral knowledge. 

The value of philosophy is the scope and clarity of mind it provides, especially as regards the fundamental general questions every human being somehow must answer, if only by tacit and blind consent to previous answers. (Likewise, the value of any specific science is the scope and clarity of mind it provides as regards the special questions the science aims to answer.)

Although the foundation of all things human is the individual human mind, human beings live, develop and die in cultures and civilizations: 'the human mind' is the coordinated product of the ideas human minds have produced in the past, and many of the questions no human individual can reasonably hope to solve himself can be solved by the efforts of many individuals through the course of time.

My case for philosophical contemplation is simply that it aims at answering the questions that lie at the foundation of all societies and all human communication and interaction, and that all human beings must answer in some fashion, if only by unthinkingly following someone else's philosophy of life.

If all men and women must philosophize, simply because they are human beings, who need to make up their own minds on all manner of questions of belief, desire and action simpler animals have instincts for, should one study philosophy academically and seriously?

I would not recommend its academic study to anyone (other than as an adjunct to a serious scientific study) for by and large academic philosophy is related to philosophy as is literary criticism to literature: as the oldest professionals are to real love.

Real philosophers have rarely been of the type of a modern academic, and doing real philosophy is difficult and normally unrewarding: philosophers are apt to find fault in many human endeavors, and to get into trouble with others for that reason.

Indeed, many of the persons known to later times as great philosophers, were, in their own time, persecuted, discriminated, killed, or removed from society. This applies i.a. to Heraclite, Buddha, Socrates, Aristotle, Epicure, Lucretius, Abelard, Bacon, Ockham, Galileo, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, Peirce and Russell, to name some.

The great philosophers have been the creators of the ideas and values many people oriented their lives around, but during their own lives they were generally silent or in trouble, for they dared to say what their contemporaries did not want to hear, to discuss what they did not want to face, and to study and write what very few took interest in or understood. TOP

Link to: Natural Philosophy and Natural Realism

Colophon: This is a somewhat rewritten version of my remarks to Russell's chapter 15 of his Problems of Philosophy.
It has been last revised on Jan 28, 2014.
The original version, that differs little, is from 1998.