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What Is the Public Value of Philosophy?

04/08/2015 05:28 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015
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I am a professor of philosophy at a public university. What is the value of philosophy to the taxpayers who subsidize my teaching? Philosophy is an abstruse and difficult field. Many of those whose taxes support higher education probably would have a hard time seeing the point of most philosophical debates. Why ask people to pay for discussions of seemingly arcane and incomprehensible topics? Besides, does a field like philosophy have any quantifiable or objectively measurable value, or do its putative benefits seem vague and elusive?

Further, don't philosophers raise troublesome questions and defend positions that might undermine the bedrock convictions of the people who subsidize their salaries? Why, for instance, should conservative, God-fearing people be willing to help support research and teaching that might lead their children to liberalism or atheism? Shouldn't professors instead have the responsibility of inculcating the values of the people who help pay our salaries? I think that too many academics dismiss such questions with a condescending smirk or a dismissive shrug. Yet these are serious questions and they deserve direct and convincing replies.

Yes, philosophy, like any field in which people conduct advanced research, can be very technical and the output of its professional practitioners can seem esoteric. An article from a professional philosophy journal might be just as obscure to a non-philosopher as an article from a chemistry journal would be to a non-chemist. But all philosophical discussion, however rarefied, exists in the context of a conversation that has been going on for over 2500 years about the most important and fundamental questions that humans ask. Philosophy is one of the humanities. Various fields, such as art, literature, history, and philosophy are called "humanities" fields because they deal with the concerns we have not as members of any particular group, ethnicity, or nationality, but simply as human beings.

The questions that occupy philosophers are the questions that arise naturally in the mind of any reflective human being once he or she has brief respite from life's most pressing demands. These are questions of right and wrong, good and bad, and whether there is a best way to live a human life. Humans are also inevitably curious about the nature of the reality -- whether, for instance, it is wholly physical or whether there is a transcendent dimension in addition to the world of space, time, matter, and energy. Further, we want to understand ourselves as rational beings. We want to discover how much we can really know and how we can know it. What is the scope of reason and how rational can we be? One who has never paused, or never had the chance to pause, to ask these questions, has a life that is diminished and poorer than it could be. As Socrates, one of the founders of Western philosophy, put it, "The unexamined life is not worth living."

The point, then, is that the obscurity of philosophical discussion does not indicate the irrelevance or the unimportance of what is discussed. Rather, philosophy is difficult because the questions are hard, and the answers are not obvious. We can only arrive at satisfactory answers by thinking as rigorously as we can with the strongest logical and analytical tools at our disposal. Professional philosophers know how to use those highly technical tools, and that is why their writings often appear abstruse. Yet the technical discussions are merely part of a larger conversation about big questions. These are questions that we humans cannot help asking, and if we do not strive to answer them rationally, we will settle for foolish and lazy answers, and our lives will be poorer. I saw a poster once that put it this way: "Society needs good philosophers just as it needs good plumbers. Without good philosophers and good plumbers, neither our pipes nor our ideas will hold water."

So, does philosophy have any practical value? I think that a personal answer is best here: I have always regarded my vocation as a university professor as a sort of secular ministry. Teaching is not just a career; it is a vocation, a calling, like the ministry. You do not choose it; it chooses you. Every true teacher -- everyone for whom teaching is a calling -- sees his or her mission as something more than merely imparting information. At bottom, teaching is about instilling values. My aim, quite frankly, is to help my students become better people. I want them to care more about things like truth, clear and rigorous thinking, and distinguishing the truly valuable from the specious.

The way to accomplish these goals is not by indoctrination. Indoctrination teaches you what to think; education teaches you how to think. Further, the only way to teach people how to think is to challenge them with new and often unsettling ideas and arguments. This is why education must be uncomfortable; it inevitably involves exposing students to ideas and values that may seem strange or antithetical to them.

Some people fear that raising such questions and prompting students to think about them is a dangerous thing. They are right. It is. As Socrates noted, once you start asking questions and arguing out the answers, you must follow the argument wherever it leads, and it might lead to answers that disturb people or contradict their ideology. If you are primarily concerned to insulate your worldview from any dissent or questioning, then it would be far safer for you if students were simply indoctrinated with the "right" answers instead of being required to think things out. But indoctrination and education are polar opposites and absolutely incompatible.

Whatever your pet ideology, you cannot consistently advocate both education and the preservation, at all costs, of your favored doctrine. Indoctrination makes an ignoramus into a more articulate ignoramus. An education in philosophy gives a person the tools to reflect critically, think logically, make rational decisions, and enjoy more abundantly the riches that life has to offer. And that is its public value.