Why do people study philosophy?

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13 January
00:05
31 January
18:07

Well, one of the things that you learn from studying philosophy is to make sure you have a question straight before starting to answer it. As it stands, this is an empirical question about students’ motivations – to answer it you’d have to put it to a sample of philosophy students and see what their responses are. I would predict a whole range of answers: ‘it sounded like I’d spend a lot of time with my hand under my chin thinking and looking deep, without needing to do much work’; ‘my boy/girlfriend chose philosophy and I wanted to be with him/her’; who knows?

There is a wide range of fundamental questions about the universe and the role of humans in it that seem unavoidable for the reflective person.

What is really being asked, I suppose, is ‘what (good) reasons are there for studying philosophy? ’. This is a normative, rather than empirical question. Before trying to answer it, one further clarification (one of the frustrating things about philosophers is that they are so keen on clarity, that it often takes a while for them to get going!): my answer applies only to the heavily analytic, heavily logic-based style of philosophy in the current Anglo-American tradition. I doubt that there are any good reasons at all to study the postmodern, largely French (though often Hegel-inspired) ‘continental philosophy’ that is also on offer. Indeed there seem to be good reasons not to study ‘continental philosophy’: it appears to prevent you from thinking straight.

OK, so lots of good reasons for studying analytic philosophy are linked to Socrates’ famous dictum ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. There is a wide range of fundamental questions about the universe and the role of humans in it that seem unavoidable for the reflective person. ‘What space, if any, do the laws of nature as they apply to humans leave for a notion of human “free will”?’ ‘Are there objective standards of morality - of right and wrong; or merely culturally accepted norms that differ from culture to culture, without any one set of such norms being “correct”?’ ‘What, if anything, is special about the scientific method of arriving at theories about the universe on the basis of observational and experimental evidence? Is science “the royal road” to truth? Is any such claim compatible with the historical fact of ‘scientific revolutions’, such as those associated with relativity and with quantum theory, in which science seems radically to have changed its collective mind about the likely structure of the universe?’ And so on.

It is really valuable to be able to spend time thinking about such issues, understanding how others have developed arguments that attempt to answer those questions, identifying strengths and weaknesses in those arguments and trying to come up with one’s own (reasoned) answers. And not just valuable for its own sake - thinking hard about such issues creates any number of important “transferrable skills”: the ability to summarize succinctly a complex body of information, the ability to discern the main lines of an argument, to identify gaps in arguments and consider analytically the plausibility of proposed ways to fill those gaps.

Finally, it’s important not to think that, by choosing to study philosophy, one heads off into the highly abstract ether, cutting oneself off entirely from issues of any practical important. To take but one example, philosophical analyses of scientific confirmation - of what it takes for something to be evidence for a theoretical claim - have direct relevance for ongoing and highly practical issues in medicine and in particular the methodology of clinical trials. But my favourite example of a purely philosophical problem turning out to have enormous practical consequences also shows that one need not go round carrying the label ‘Philosopher’ in order to be doing philosophy. Alan Turing was a mathematician, or mathematical logician, but his ground-breaking work began as a problem in pure analytic philosophy: what exactly does it take for a piece of reasoning to count as a ‘computation’? It was through thinking (hard!) about this apparently entirely theoretical, impractical issue that Turing was led to the concept of a ‘Turing machine’ – a concept which forms the theoretical basis for the digital computer that has so radically transformed our lives.

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