What is Philosophy, and why is it valuable?

I recently had a debate with a friend about why philosophy is valuable. More specifically, we were debating the way in which philosophy is valuable to an audience which does not specifically desire to study philosophy in an academic setting. I proposed that the initial value of philosophy is that it teaches us how to think: a bit of philosophy goes a long way in making us more critical of others and ourselves (or at least, that is what I think it should do). My friend felt that this was selling the public quite short, arguing that you don’t need an academic background in philosophy in order to critically engage with problems. In the end, I persuaded her with an analogy to cooking: cooking is important because we all need to eat, almost all of us pick up at least a little skill in the area and some of us can become very skilled, but almost all of us could probably benefit from a little formal training (though, to push the analogy further, many of the skills we will learn will pertain to the contingencies of the profession as it has developed in society). However, I’ve decided I want to explore the question further.

Even after a bachelors and a masters degree primarily focused on philosophy, I still struggle in actually defining what philosophy is. Perhaps my central problem is that my inclination is to be very greedy with my definition: I want to pull all reasoning and discourse into philosophy. But if philosophy is just reasoning1, then why does it need its own profession? Would not all other kinds of activity just become specializations of reasoning, leaving philosophy simply a synonym with rational activity? Further, what does that make a professional philosopher, because they certainly are not experts in everything. There are, however, philosophies of near everything (philosophy of science, history, econ, etc.). I think this point is key for entry into the nature (and value) of philosophy: somehow philosophy is not all rational activity, but philosophy is interested or involved in all rational activity.

My rough notion is this: philosophy is the creation and investigation of structures within which we can rationally operate. Philosophy of other disciplines, such as philosophy of science, investigates the framework within which the discipline operates. It is the difference between defining and doing: a scientist does science, while a philosopher of science seeks to understand what the scientist is doing.

Once other disciplines have been exhausted, what is left over? We are left with specializations such as ethics, metaphysics, epistemology. It seems to me that these are all structural elements of life. In other words, using the same structure as I utilized with science, we ‘do’ life, while philosophers seek to understand what we are doing. This post is meta-philosophy (philosophy of philosophy), because it is a reflection on what philosophers are doing. This account also explains why some rational traditions such as ethics are philosophy at their foundation and throughout (i.e both ethics and meta-ethics belong to philosophy, compared to, say, science, where only philosophy of science belongs to philosophy). Ethics is already a step removed from acting: we all struggle with ‘choice’, ‘freedom’, ‘right and wrong’, and ethics tries to understand this activity.

What does this account mean for the value of philosophy? First, philosophy seems pragmatically useful because it is the step back from doing: it encompasses deliberation about whether a goal is desirable, or a method effective. But it also seems valuable because it is a kind of freedom: through philosophy we, in a sense, transcend life.

Let me know what you think, and thank you for reading.


1. I use the word ‘rational’ here very loosely in an attempt to encompass all thinking activities.

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