A Ku Indeed!

What’s Philosophy For, Anyway?

Posted in Pedagogy, philosophy by Chris on September 3, 2008

One of my students in my Being and Knowledge seminar (basic Metaphysics and Epistemology course) posted a thread on the course forum (I use electronic forums for many classes to supplement in class discussion). I thought the questions he raised in the thread were valid ones, and also very typical ones that both philosophy and non-philosophy students ask frequently about our courses. Although many issues come up, the overriding question is straightforward: “what’s philosophy for, anyway?” or “when is philosophy useful?” I am reprinting the student’s post below the fold (with his permission). I’d be very interested (he would too) to hear replies from any of the students and teachers who read this blog.

I want to preface this with the statement that I’m really excited to take this class and engage in all sorts of great discussion.

That said, I’m not such a big fan of analytic philosophy. Without being too stereotypical, I think analytic philosophers don’t deal in the real world. What I mean by this is that your stereotypical analytic philosopher could sit in a room all day and think about [insert analytic philosophy topic here], and when they settle down to sleep, it doesn’t seem that they’ve really interacted with the world at all. Sure, this philosopher may have figured out whether or not we exist, but how much does that really affect your average world citizen?

In my opinion, philosophy is useless when it doesn’t relate to everyday experience. I guess one way of putting it would be that if a business major “bro” couldn’t understand something I’m learning about, then it seems a little too far removed to be of much use (or even application) in today’s world. In real life, I like to talk to people, to learn about their experiences and to share with them my own experiences. Obviously, as a philosophy major I have to play with language for people to be able to understand what I’m talking about.

So how can I do this with epistemology and metaphysics? I’d like to hear everyone’s opinions (Dr. Panza included) about how epistemology and metaphysics can be reconciled with the world today. On the premise that philosophy ought to be related to/ active in the real world, what justifications or drawbacks can anyone find? Maybe we can update this every time we come to a new reading?


3 Responses

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  1. Will said, on September 3, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    Good question, one that I’ve thought about often, but also one that’s been posed by my parents (my father: “What can you DO with philosophy?”)

    I can’t answer for anyone but myself here, but this is the answer I give:

    “Philosophy is the tool I use to understand the universe and my relationship to- and within it.”

    Religion works for most folks in exactly the same way. So the question becomes, “why philosophy and not religion?” Well, besides not being my cup o’ tea, religion restricts self-correction and open dialogue. Philosophy invites it.

    I come back often to this argument that “ignorance is bliss;” that we would all be much better off if we just didn’t even pursue such things. And my response, time and time again, is that self-deception is not a way to live. Because at the end of the day, I have to rationalize my actions and behaviors or, at the very least, deceive myself into thinking what I did was right. I don’t know where this innate feeling comes from, I certainly see the benefits of ignorance, but it seems so inauthentic and pointless–a very cautious, safe approach to living life.

    I’m reminded of a quote from Wittgenstein I read in Michael Slote’s “Morals from Motives” in which Wittgenstein says “You could attach prices to thoughts. Some cost a lot, some cost a little. And how does one pay for thoughts? The answer, I think, is: with courage.” Slote himself continues: “Many of the conclusions philosophy tends toward are unsettling and uncomfortable, and it requires courage rather than wishful thinking to accept them.” (pg 159). Those two answers best put my innate feelings about philosophy into language.

    Now when it comes to pragmatism, what comes out of philosophy is up for debate. The optimist philosopher would say that EVERYTHING we do hinges on how we view ourselves in relation to the universe–seeking the truth about these things gives us the reason and knowledge to live as we see fit. The pessimist philosopher would say that philosophy just keeps our head in the clouds to whats really going on. I can’t say I haven’t taken refuge in either of these camps at some time along my philosophical career. As a whole though, I tend to lean towards it influencing everything I do.

    Maybe I’m deceiving myself. If nothing else, I must say its damn near the only thing that keeps my interest more than two seconds, and I’m probably going to pursue it until someone pays me to do it–because I just don’t have fun doing anything else.

  2. alexusmcleod said, on September 3, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    I’m sympathetic to many of the sentiments your student discusses here, Chris. One thing that strikes me as problematic, though, is this bit:

    “if a business major “bro” couldn’t understand something I’m learning about, then it seems a little too far removed to be of much use (or even application) in today’s world.”

    Most fields, even the most “real world applicable” ones will be ones which an untrained outsider would not understand without pretty intensive training (think of molecular biology, for example). All of these fields (physics, economics, mathematics, international law–the list goes on and on) will only be accessible to those trained in them at a high enough level. We generally don’t think that undermines the usefulness of these fields, however.

    I think part of the problem is that contemporary academic philosophers have a problem in general relating to the public how our discipline is important, in ways that those in many other fields do not (physicists are pretty good with this, for example–see any book by Michio Kaku or Brian Greene). Most philosophers don’t write books and articles for “general consumption”, because such books generally don’t count for much within the academy, they won’t help one’s career any. Of course, this is also the case in other fields as well, but philosophers seem more insular than most in this regard. I think many of us tend to think that it’s not our job to “spread the word”, and we’d rather work on our own little niche in area x, y, or z. (I know this is the case for myself, for example–I’m pretty much focused on Confucius and Han dynasty Confucianism and that’s about it).

    I think the problem is that philosophy needs some generalists and popularists, and there really aren’t any (that I know of, at least) out there. It’s an important job, and more of us need to do it.

    Although I don’t think this really answers the core question your student raises, but it goes some way toward explaining why such questions often arise.

  3. Reepicheep said, on September 3, 2008 at 9:34 pm

    I also am a student of CP’s and a Philosophy major as well. And like the student who posted the question I share the same battle. It is this question that never seems to never leave me. At times I swear it haunts me like a demon or something. So, after reading some complex articles (well, complex to me) by Dan Dennett I found myself looking over my shoulder for that god-forsaken thing.

    I have a problem with watching people, well, observing them is a better word. One of favorite places is the downtown library, right off the square. Man, tons of people walk by there, all sorts of people. See, the square is probably the most diverse place in all of Springfield. Its like as close to a big city environment as we can get. Anyways, I often think about all the different variety of thoughts, experiences, and life-goals that those individuals at the square have.

    Just the other day I was reading a short article on mysticism by Bertrand Russell in the Library. There was some sort of teen-mother meeting taking place at the square. The young moms looked pretty poor and stressed out as they wheeled their strollers over the square edge down to the middle section. I felt really awkward as I looked out the massive glass windows, isolated from the real world. Here I was reading about some long, complex, and sophisticated topic while those mothers outside were dealing with major issues, though issues. I was kind of embarrassed because I didn’t want to become like one of those people who think that they are so much better and smarter than everyone else because they read fancy books or know fancy words. Sure, the mothers outside probably wouldn’t have known about Russell, but they are the ones who are struggling with life’s hard reality on a personal level. At that point, I struggled to find the legitimacy in studying philosophy. But then it kind of hit me.

    I come from a white, middle class, close-nit family, I’ve never had to fight for physical survival as some do. However, and here is my best answer to your question, I have and will continue to struggle with understanding my mind and the fundamental existential questions of life. Here, studying philosophy has played a pivotal role in my life thus far. In a way, philosophy has allowed me to connect with and understand those who I otherwise wouldn’t have. Studying philosophy has allowed me to know that I am on common ground with all of those around me.

    And so far, the further I go in Philosophy I more compassion and understanding I find in myself for others. To me, the study of Philosophy is like the study of the universe. It’s big and complex; It’s MASSIVE. But when you look at the earth from 75 billion light years away it’s really dinky (small), unimaginably small. The boarders and barriers that we humans set up to divide ourselves become as nothing before these awesome distances and all divisions fade to gray. The same holds true for philosophy, it’s big, complex, and some is impossible to grasp. But in its vastness, divisions break down, and you end up finding common ground with the rest of humanity. For me, studying philosophy has made me a broader individual, enabling me to accept and relate with those from all walks of life. Because of it, I will never be one of those people I described above, one of those people who feel as if they are better and smarter than everyone simply because of the family they were born to.

    Well, at least that is my take. Maybe it’s a bad answer to your question but it’s all I got.

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