On the value of studying philosophy

Craig asked:

While I understand the reluctance to allow anyone to answer questions on Pathways, and very informative it is, the simple question of academic qualification is a little strange. My question is does the study of philosophy create a philosopher or is it the random thoughts of a simple mind asking the most basic and important questions, then formulating the most striking and thought provoking answers.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

Craig suppose you find a website called ‘Ask a doctor?’ and you post a question there. You would probably expect your question to be answered by someone who had a medical degree from a recognised medical school. You would feel cheated if the person who answered your question had no medical qualifications.

Suppose you find a website called ‘Ask a Psychic’ and you post a question. Well psychics are self appointed and there is no evidence that any of them are genuine so you would have to take what you get from such a website.

Suppose you find a site called ‘Ask a philosopher’ then your question will be answered by people who have some academic qualifications in philosophy. They may not be great philosophers, they may not even be good philosophers but at least they have taken the trouble to study philosophy. Now in general philosophy does not lead to lucrative jobs or great riches. People who study philosophy do so because they want to.

You seem to think that philosophy is about sitting around having deep thoughts about life. It isn’t and academic philosophers have no interest in such things. We have no interest in striking thoughts or simple minds with their thought provoking answers. We have no interest in such things because we are philosophers and we are only interested in philosophy. Philosophy is the continuation of something that first arose in ancient Greece more than two thousand years ago. It is a rational inquiry into the nature of truth, the scope of human knowledge and nature of logic.

I know that in general the word philosophy means the most basic and fundamental ideas about things but it doesn’t mean this to us academic philosophers. So in an agricultural college they might talk about the philosophy of animal husbandry and in medical or nursing schools they might talk about the philosophy of patient care. Neither of these things are dealt with in the university philosophy departments.

You can become a philosopher without going to university but you have to read all the books and you have to study logic and you have to understand the books. When you have read all the books then you are ready to have your own original deep thoughts. Qualifications or book reading don’t make you a philosopher but they are a necessary stage on the road to becoming a philosopher.

I would contend that the most thought provoking questions and answers about life have been provided by the academic philosophers and not by simple minds sitting around waiting to have deep thoughts. Philosophers aren’t interested in deep thoughts we are interested in rational thoughts supported by logical rational arguments.

If you can’t be bothered to study the work of past philosophers, how will you know that your questions and answers are thought provoking and worthwhile. They might be shallow and worthless. or a mere repetition of work that has already been done.

Now I am sure that you will understand that we are not Psychics and we can’t allow just anyone who claims to be a deep thinker to answer questions on this website. We can’t set exams to find out who is really a deep thinker. Universities already do this. Their exams are called philosophy degrees.


Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Study of philosophy does not create a philosopher. Academic qualifications have very little to do with it anyway. The academic pursuit of philosophy can have one of two targets: First, that the person may wish to pursue philosophy for the sake of getting a job in an institution. That’s common, and applies in exactly the same way to doctors, engineers, economists, lawyers and many other professions. These people, in other words, end up as teachers of philosophy, or as researchers into the history of philosophy. There is no reason to believe that they are philosophers, although a few undoubtedly end up that way.

The other reason to submit to academic study is that philosophy is not just a pack of personal opinions. Philosophical thought tries to find ways of making meaningful and long lasting contribution to the self-understanding of human beings, not only for thinking, but for political theory, for examining scientific principles and so on. For these purpose it is necessary to acquire a rigorous discipline of thinking. Academic study has a way of enforcing that discipline.


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