The Relevance of Philosophy
So many students come to my philosophy class wondering if it will be relevant to their lives or careers. The simple answer to the relevance question is that there’s no way to say for sure. As Thomas Sowell points out, relevance is something you can only assess after you've learned a subject. You can't tell until then whether something is relevant to your life or not. Closely related to this point is the fact that none of us knows for sure what will happen next in our lives and so we can never be absolutely sure that a subject, any subject, will not be relevant. Think about it. As a 20 year old you might say, I know I'm never going to use this in my career or life. Assuming (which is a safe assumption) that you'll live for 50-70 more years, how can you say this? How do you know for that length of time what will be relevant to your life and what won't?
Connections can be made between subjects that seem completely unrelated. A good example of this is offered by Jeffrey Schwartz in his book The Mind and The Brain. Schwartz himself is a professor of psychiatry who writes about treating patients with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). In trying to describe his four step treatment he writes as follows:
“I was sitting at the keyboard, typing out a case history to describe the treatment, with Iver beside me. How to explain what I was doing with patients? Okay, Relabel, Reattribute, Refocus- but what else was going on? It suddenly hit me. In 1989 I had begun reading the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, who defined valuing as ‘man’s emotional reaction to the various states of his environment, both that of the external world and that of the physiological conditions of his own body.’ This was exactly what the OCD therapy was changing. Combining Buddhist philosophy with Austrian economics, I had a name for the last of the Four Steps: Revalue.”
Could Schwartz have guessed as he was studying Austrian economics that he would one day connect it with Buddhist philosophy to help develop a treatment for OCD? No way! Similarly, you cannot guess how you might find philosophy relevant to your life or career. Rest assured though that the chances are very great that you will. Just consider the subjects philosophy addresses: the meaning of life, ethics, morality, God, knowledge, certainty, the self, the mind, government, society, language. How could learning how to think about these various subjects not be relevant to your life?
But, learning to think is not what everyone wants. Many simply want easy answers to life’s most difficult questions and when they are not forthcoming they conclude that there are no answers to these questions or what is worse that philosophy is simply incapable of supplying them. While it is true that philosophy does not provide easy answers, there is still much to be gained by studying the great works of philosophy.
To illustrate let me use a very practical example from Martin Seligman’s book The Optimistic Child. In describing the process of disputing pessimistic beliefs he outlines a multi-stage process. The first three steps are particularly useful and require the reader to ask the following questions:
1. What is the evidence for my belief?
2. What is the evidence against my belief?
3. What are some other ways of seeing this situation?
These can be very difficult questions to answer especially the second one. Many people are reluctant to search for evidence against their beliefs and all of us find this difficult from time to time for reasons I will discuss in the chapter on using logic. My point here is that the study of philosophy teaches precisely these skills. In reading philosophical texts you are always being asked to consider evidence both for the author’s argument as well as against it. This is probably the single greatest reason for the difficulty in many philosophy texts. But, it is an immensely practical skill and one well worth the time and effort to learn.
But given the other opportunities to learn these skills you still may be wondering why do philosophy? This is a question all philosophers must face and answer. However, it is not good enough to provide an answer that will satisfy other academic philosophers. No we must provide an answer that will satisfy other human beings. Not because philosophers in particular must justify their activity, while others simply perform their activities unjustified, but because our activity, qua philosophers, is prima facie unjustified. It is not clear what we do in the way it is clear, but perhaps equally uninteresting, what historians do. You might not care what it is a historian can tell you, but clearly they can tell you something you didn't know before. Philosophers, it seems, cannot do this. So before we answer the first question, why, we must answer a second question: What is philosophy?
Clearly I cannot provide an answer that will suffice in the short space I will use here. However, I think I can say something about what philosophy is, or better yet what philosophy should be, that will provide us with a foundation upon which to build an answer to our original question. I think philosophy is best thought of as a method. Philosophers clarify concepts and in doing so provide us with a method for thinking clearly. We can see this clearly in the work of Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege in the areas of logic and mathematics. Here the notion of clarification can become quite technical. Its application as well is very narrowly defined. However, there is more than an accidental connection between the work of such logicians and the work of Alan Turing and Alonzo Church in mathematics and logic which led to important advancements in computer science.
The other area of clarification which philosophy contributes to in a particularly useful way is in the realm of ordinary language. The best exemplars in this area are John Austin and John Wisdom. This area of philosophical analysis less clearly lends itself to breakthroughs than the previous area, but is not for that reason irrelevant or uninteresting. This philosophy is in a sense potentially more useful because it deals with subject matter that all people commonly use; language. Here the only goal is to understand what we mean when we say things and in doing so improving our clarity. To encourage clarity of thought seems to me to be not only the most noble of philosophical goals, but also the most useful.
I have defined philosophy here in terms of utility. The use of philosophy is clarification and the value of this can be seen in its application to what we do and say and think. However, I do not think this line of reasoning constitutes the best answer to our original question concerning why we should do philosophy. This line of reasoning fails for me because it is not universal. Everyone need not do philosophy, in this respect, because everyone need not desire clarity in their language use. They may feel that their ways of talking and thinking are in need of no further clarification. Additionally, there is no universal need for clarity in logic or mathematics because everyone need not deal with the concepts of logic and mathematics. The best reason to do philosophy would be a reason which would encourage everyone to do philosophy in the sense of philosophy I have outlined. However, the best answer to the normative question, why ought I to think philosophically or clearly, will appeal to the sheer humanness of doing philosophy. Philosophy is a way to enhance human communication.
The best of philosophy, even in the clarification sense in which I have defined it, would address serious questions in a personal way. In this respect, philosophy provides us with a method, to communicate amongst ourselves on serious human questions. This kind of communication when done philosophically can enhance our ability to communicate and relate to people in general. It is important at this point to contrast this notion of philosophy with some notion of psychoanalysis and be clear about the differences. This kind of philosophical communication is not simply an enunciation of feelings on subjects of personal interest. My ideal of philosophy here is critical thinking, clearly stated, on serious human questions which are in some sense universal. Although they do involve me personally, they do not involve only me. Philosophy deals with and describes our human condition as beings in-the-world, to use Martin Heidegger's phrase and in doing so, it seems to me, we improve our ability to relate to others.
Where, then, lies the end of inquiry? It would seem, on this interpretation of philosophy, that there is strictly speaking no end of inquiry in the sense in which I've normally understand this term. That is, I maintain that philosophy is misunderstood if it is taken to be the quest for the meaning of life for all people and all times. Even if such a thing does exist, philosophy, and all other human disciplines, would be inept in pursuit of it. We are forever enclosed in our human world of meaning and we run up against this barrier when we search the eternal. The problem of the hermeneutical circle is what our philosophy in the twentieth century has left with us; even if it proves to be wrong it is where we must begin our inquiry.
Philosophy is continuous in our life even as our thinking is. It is the goal of the former to improve the latter and in doing so have some positive effect on human life. Philosophy at its best is good conversation; critical, serious, humorous, interesting. It is personal communication. In this respect Wittgenstein has a very personal view of philosophy saying in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, "perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself had the thoughts that are expressed in it...Its purpose would be achieved if it gave pleasure to one person who read and understood it." But philosophy, that is, clear thinking, is not easy. It is a rigorous discipline which works best when it forces us to improve our own thinking. In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein said "I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own." This is the apex of what philosophy can achieve and I hope that my own modest contributions can meet the rigorous standard I have set for philosophy.