It’s one of those questions someone who studies philosophy gets quite a lot. You’re sitting at a family dinner table and a distant relative asks you the question: “So, what do you do?” You answer: “Philosophy.” They stop to think for a small moment and then ask you what in the world you can do with a degree in philosophy. This is a legit question to ask yourself regardless of what degree you pursue. However, in the humanities this question is a bit more prominent. Someone studying physics or engineering can easily answer that they’ll get a good job which brings in a decent income. Many businesses are looking for engineers. Not many (read: none) businesses are looking for philosophers to join the workforce.
The idea that businesses should hire philosophers is another matter, but it is a fact that having a degree in philosophy isn’t the best way to get a decent job which applies to your interests. So, why study philosophy? What are philosophers good for? What kind of skills do they learn which is beneficial to society? With doctors it is clear; they help people when they are sick. The same goes for architects; they design houses. And plumbers are essential for restoring your pipes. But what about the philosopher?
There are many answers to this question. So, what I want to do is give two common answers and then the reason why I think philosophy is a worthy subject to pursue.
The first idea is that the philosopher is someone who knows a little bit of everything and can synthesize this knowledge into a coherent framework. A small homo universalis who can connect certain domains of expertise. She is the one who knows a bit of psychology, biology and politics, not as much as the experts in their respective area, but more than the average person. This way she can help create a broad framework from where to act. Take the pandemic for example, the news is filled with experts who all have their expertise. You have politicians who know a lot about politics, but you also have scientists specialized in diseases. The philosopher serves as a bridge between the two so better regulations can be made. This view sees the philosopher as the intermediary of the multiple disciplines.
This, however, cannot be what the philosopher does. At least, it cannot be the reason why philosophy is something distinct from the other disciplines. Why do you need an interdisciplinary mediator if you can just put the experts of different disciplines together in a room and ask them to find a solution to the problem? Or why wouldn’t experts be able to have some knowledge of the other disciplines in the scientific community? When you’re studying for your degree, if you want some more knowledge of the different disciplines, why not just insert a couple of extra courses into that degree? Being interdisciplinary doesn’t create a philosopher. It just makes you someone who knows a bunch of things about a bunch of things. Being an amalgam of facts is hardly something that we should prescribe to the philosopher. That just makes the philosopher obsolete in a world where all the facts of the world are just on Wikipedia. There must be something else which distinguishes the philosopher from any other person.
Another idea is that the philosopher has an edge over other people concerning conceptual ideas and arguments. Someone might have an opinion or give an argument and the philosopher will ask “Is that really the case?” or “What would happen if we thought that argument through?” The paradigm of this idea would be Socrates. The gadfly of Athens would talk to anyone of stature ask if he knew what ‘x’ was. For example, he would go up to Thrasymachus and ask if he knew what justice was. Thrasymachus would give a definition or an argument and then Socrates would respond by showing the inconsistencies of the definition or the argument. The idea is that the philosopher doesn’t have an opinion of his own, by doing this he would instantly not be a philosopher anymore but a citizen or politician. Instead, the philosopher shows the consequences of having a certain type of reasoning. By showing the consequences of thinking things through the philosopher shows that things aren’t as clear cut as they might seem at first sight.
Here is an example. What would it mean for you to own your body? Do you own your body? At first sight we might say: “of course!” The idea here is that you have the autonomy to decide what to do with your own body. But do you have the right to do everything with your own body? What about selling yourself as a slave to someone else? We could claim that if you own your own body and regard your body as property, that you can sell your body to someone else. You would be able to sell your autonomy. Currently you aren’t allowed to sell yourself as a slave but that could be a juridic consequences of conceptualizing your body as your property.
This is in my opinion already a better conceptualization of what the philosopher is and why you should study philosophy if you’re interested in it. However, it seems to me that there is a bit more to being a philosopher or studying philosophy. Being able to distinguish concepts coherently is something everyone in every discipline can learn, but that wouldn’t make them philosophers. I would follow Pierre Hadot’s interpretation of philosophy. In his book What is Ancient Philosophy? Hadot shows that philosophy during antiquity was about construing a way of life. Philosophers would think about the best way to live your life. In many ways, this conception still exists today but has been pushed a bit to the background in my opinion.
The philosopher tries to conceptualize the best way to live and organize your life. He does that by going into debates and by showing the consequences of living a certain way. The second idea of philosophy is thus incorporated into my view of philosophy. When Socrates questions Thrasymachus on justice it is about how to conceptualize justice in order to obtain the good life. Your acts will reflect what your idea of justice is. When your idea of justice is whatever the powerful can obtain as Thrasymachus claims, your actions will be different than when you conceptualize justice as having equal opportunities or seeing humans as being inherently equal.
Nowadays you still see a difference in the way people act, depending on what kind of philosophy they describe to. This is also a good a way to recognize what people actually believe. Don’t listen to what people say, look at what they do. That way you’ll see what kind of ideas they prescribe to. A Marxist will act different in the world than a liberal. A Muslim will act different than an atheist. Depending on what the philosophy of the person is, the acts of that person will change. When studying philosophy, not only will you better recognize what ideas people have, but you’ll also realize the ideas that you have yourself. And that is highly valuable. Because the ideas that we have are not perfect and by becoming conscious of our unconscious ideas we can alter those ideas for the better. Philosophy helps with that.
This was a small essay on why someone should study philosophy in my opinion. Unlike what Stephen Hawking might have claimed, philosophy isn’t dead. But it also doesn’t’ need ‘progress’ in the sense that science has progress. Philosophy helps you better organize yourself in the world. It can be a rough subject, giving existential crisis when you don’t really want them. But it is good to rock your world view occasionally. It doesn’t help having the same rigid and faulty ideas for your whole life. We continuously need to work on ourselves. I believe that that is what philosophy is for. Becoming better. Becoming more. Becoming good.
One reply on “Why Study Philosophy?”
A great perspective!