What’s the point of philosophy?

Christopher asked:

I’ve noticed from reading older posts that everyone who asks about what makes someone a philosopher, the answer is always go to school and get a degree, or study it yourself, intensely. I think those are both good points, but doesn’t there have to be a certain degree of creativity involved in being a philosopher? Just because you know what everybody else thinks about X doesn’t mean you know the ‘right’ answer, or that you can take that knowledge and apply it, manipulate it, perfect it, refute it, etc.

My view of philosophy is that it is a subjective way of establishing your own personal beliefs through which you can ‘know thyself.’ Maybe it is more beneficial to think about the questions you personally have and try to answer them yourself, rather than know everyone else’s answer and try to refute/agree with it. I’ll admit it is helpful to know what has already been said, quite often repeated, so that you can know why X is viewed as invalid or wrong or bad, but that only goes so far as establishing yourself as a philosopher. No one is remembered for knowing everything everybody else said, philosophers are remembered for their creative approach to solving a problem, for their ‘armchair theorizing.’ Right?

Answer by Shaun Williamson

No! Wrong! If you go to a web site called ‘Ask a Doctor’, you would probably expect that the questions would be answered by people who were qualified doctors. This does not mean that these doctors are great doctors or even good doctors but at least they have done the training course. They are not just amateurs.

In the same way people who ask questions on this web site expect that their questions will be answered by people who have academic qualifications in philosophy. They do not expect that their questions will be answered by self appointed deep thinkers who can’t even be bothered to read the books but still think they are philosophers.

In general the word ‘philosophy’ can just mean the most fundamental set of ideas about something. So we can talk about the philosophy of train spotting or the philosophy of fly fishing. Of course everyone has their own philosophy of life but this isn’t how we use the word philosophy here. For us philosophy is the rational inquiry into the nature of truth, logic and the scope of human knowledge that started in ancient Greece. This rational philosophy has always been an academic subject. Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras all founded academies. People who are looking for a short cut i.e they want to become a philosopher without doing the hard work are unlikely to have the mental capacity for the really deep abstract thought that philosophy requires.

Now of course studying philosophy doesn’t guarantee that you will be a creative philosopher but not studying philosophy guarantees that you will only ever be a superficial uninteresting philosopher.


Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Let me recommend that you read some of the older posts again, because your question has been asked before and, speaking for myself, I distinctly remember writing words to the effect that ‘getting a degree’ and that sort of thing is an institutional issue that has only the most peripheral relevance to philosophy. It is important to a society where the majority holds the view that the public education system is responsible for manufacturing ‘experts’, and that in consequence only suitably trained experts should be consulted on issues belonging to their area of expertise. That’s fine, indeed indispensable, for plumbers and shipbuilders, meteorologists and graphic designers. But you might take note that ‘going fishing’ or ‘climbing Mt Everest’ is not an academic subject, so you consult someone who knows how to do it, without asking for their paper credentials, and then you’re on your own.

Philosophy has simply been integrated by society into its official teaching disciplines. The idea goes back a long way, to the middle ages, when monks had to study in order to learn how to think, if they wished to rise in the ranks. What they thought about is not the crucial issue here; simply that theology is a hard nut for anyone without appropriately attuned mental equipment; and because of the social responsibility that came with rising in the ranks, it was necessary to ensure that all monks had the same form of indoctrination. The early universities followed suit; and to some extent (despite the liberalisation of the curriculum) they still do.

The essence of it, you see, is that philosophy is a school for thinking; and the doctrines of philosophers serve very well for this purpose. Where things might come adrift, is when those doctrines are no longer taught and studied for their merit in sharpening the student’s intellect, but as crutches to excuse student from learning how to think. I have observed that students are very inventive when it comes to fudging exams, but extremely uninventive when it comes to doing real thinking. But that’s the risk of institutionalising philosophy. Exactly the same arguments apply in any case to all examinable subjects of study.

You are right in bringing up ‘creativity’. We talk about it endlessly, but evidently this is another issue where ‘experts’ are out of their depth. Creativity can’t be taught. Yet we slaves of institutionalisation and the media talk it up big, as if it was everyone’s birthright – as if, for example, doing a colourful ad on TV were ‘creative work’. Most of this fiddle faddle is nothing more than a misplaced subjectivism.

Your question is loaded with this impression. If you understand philosophy (in your words) as a ‘subjective way of establishing your own personal beliefs’, then you’re talking of beliefs, not of philosophy. Beliefs do not usually arise from thinking, applying reason, engaging in dialectical curiosity. Beliefs are easily acquired, easily changed and in most cases an altogether unreflective, unexamined residue of common fears and desires, or at most a ready response to the quotidian facts of life. Hence philosophy – creative philosophy – tends on the whole to be at war with beliefs, because sooner or later all beliefs are exposed to stand in conflict with reality. This is one reason why philosophy does not have ‘results’ like science. It must constantly be on the alert, for social situations change, necessitating a change in the approach of philosophers to its fundamental tenets and issues. E.g. although the issues animating Aristotle and Aquinas are superficially the same, in fact their thinking on those same issues is a million miles apart.

Philosophy is not ‘armchair theorising’ either. That’s a convenient way of holding philosophy in contempt. Most theoretical physicists are ‘armchair theorisers’, and they would certainly resent being called by that name! But to get back to the basic point: Philosophy is a school for thinking. We study the ‘great’ philosophers not primarily for what they contributed to knowledge, but for the example they gave us on how to think deeply, how to pick the subject you must think about, and how to impose meaning on a cosmos that is totally indifferent to our puny form of existence.

Most importantly, philosophy comprises the foundation of a liberal society. The freedom of speech and thought that we enjoy is the fruit of philosophy – a value system emerging from this school of thinking that we take so much for granted that we are in danger of forgetting its source. But it is extremely vulnerable; like philosophy, freedom it is a ready-made object of ridicule and easily polluted. There have been very few liberal eras in the history of mankind, all of them children of philosophical thought. You will not find a philosophy in any of the others.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.