9. What Is Philosophy?

Is philosophy good for anything?

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Is philosophy good for anything? A perennial claim against philosophy is that it is a useless discipline, divorced from action. Some defenders of philosophy would agree with the claim, but reply that the value of philosophy lies elsewhere than in any utility. If the unexamined life is not worth living, they say, then the value of philosophy is the value it gives to life just by being what it is, and not by any contribution it makes either to setting or achieving other ends. Later in this essay, I will present an Enlightenment critique of philosophy charging that by defining itself as reflection divorced from social practice, philosophy stands condemned by its inherent failure to realize some of its own ends. Thus philosophy as I will conceive of it, and even as I will defend it, cannot and should not reply to the charge that it is useless by claiming that its value is independent of any utility. At the same time, I think there is something right about this reply, but it is not inconsistent with the recognition that philosophy aims at changing human life for the better and must be measured by its effectiveness in doing that.

I will try to explain what I have just said by recalling, and then reflecting on, two legendary stories about Thales, who, legend has it, was the first philosopher. One story, reported by Diogenes Laertius, is that one night while Thales was out walking, pursuing his interest in astronomy gazing at the stars, he failed to look where he was going, and fell into a well. He was helped out of his predicament by an old woman, who laughed at him for being so interested in the far off heavens that he could not see what was right in front of him.1 The second story, from Aristotle, also relates to Thales’ interest in astronomy. Through observation of the heavenly bodies, Thales concluded that there would be a bumper crop of olives later that year. He raised the money to put a deposit on the olive presses of Miletus and Chios. When the olive harvest came in, olive presses were scarce, and he rented them out at a rate which brought him a large profit.2

These two stories, taken together, can be understood as saying something profoundly true about philosophy. Philosophy for Thales studied the distant heavens, and since Thales it has come to be interested in many things that are even farther than that from the practical concerns of life. Thus philosophers looks like – because they are – foolish people who are not at home in the everyday world of practical concerns. They are likely to stumble into wells because they are so preoccupied with distant, useless things that they do not pay attention to what is right in front of them. Yet some of the knowledge they acquire in this way turns out to be extremely useful. Thus ‘impractical’ thinking is in the long run the most ‘practical’ form of thinking, while ‘practical’ thinking is inevitably too shortsighted. The thoughts that prove most useful in the long run are those we think not because we see can any utility in them, but because we simply find something valuable about thinking them. They are available only to people who are not afraid to fall into wells and get laughed at for their impracticality.

The study of philosophy, in the narrow sense, as the academic discipline taught under that name in most universities, certainly can be defended on practical grounds. The training it gives people in reading and understanding difficult texts, and in thinking analytically about questions and arguments, teaches people a very practical (and even salable) skill. It gives them the ability to understand abstract problems and to articulate your reasons for believing what you believe. But the only authentic way to convince yourself of the value of studying philosophy is experiential: expose yourself to what philosophers do and let yourself catch the bug. The moral of the two stories about Thales is that the only people who can benefit practically from the study of philosophy are those who value it independently of its practical benefits.

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