Valuing Philosophy Without Valuation: A Defense From Within

05/14/2015 09:38 am ET | Updated May 14, 2016

What are you going to do with your philosophy degree?

In graduate school, this question proved to be a favorite among those with whom I was getting acquainted for the first time. Given my philosophical predilections, its condescending subtext struck me as foreign. Equally foreign to me, also, was the standard grab-bag of answers that many of my colleagues would avail themselves of in reply: that, e.g., graduate philosophy applicants score the highest out of all intended majors on two out of the three sections of the GRE, and undergraduate philosophy majors score sixth highest on the LSAT and fourth highest on the GMAT.

To be perfectly frank, I sometimes rattled these statistics off without second thought myself. Without a doubt, they would be nice findings to cite, if the aim in doing so was strictly to correct some misconception about a philosophy degree when it comes to its ability to help students project their major into professions and careers where their talents are appropriately utilized (for which the high scores might be taken to evidence). Yet, I can't help but feel that more often than not, philosophers gravitate towards them at least in part because they agree with the obvious neighboring assumption: that a major is worth the diploma one receives for completing it only if it tends to lead to substantial financial, professional, or social gain (with respect to all of which, maybe minus the last one, philosophers actually seem to do okay for themselves).

Philosophical romantics like me will, predictably, inveigh against this sort of ends-based calculation of the worth of a college major. But whether or not you consider yourself a philosophical romantic, we would do well to examine an alternative position, the one that I follow. This position is based on the concept of eudaimonia, or human flourishing (roughly speaking). Though very well-represented in the western philosophical canon, it is only, I think, as explicated in Plato's dialogues through Socrates' character that philosophy finds its most principled, self-affirming defense, a vivid painting of philosophy as Socrates practiced it -- his philosophy of philosophy, if you will -- that validates his vocation from within.

To cite just one of them, the Theaetetus provides illuminating insight concerning the role of the intrinsically virtuous in Socrates' view of philosophy. In a famous passage from that dialogue, Socrates says to his eponymous interlocutor, "This feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy." Decoding this cryptic argument requires our attention to a little artfulness on Socrates' part, his play on the etiology of "philosophy." In the original Greek, it is, as you might already know, a portmanteau of "φιλο" (philo) and "σοφία" (sophia), meaning "love of wisdom." The suppressed, or implicit, premise here is that one can have wonder only if one loves wisdom -- to wit, only if one is a philosopher. The argument, with all of its premises made explicit, thus goes: He who is a lover of wisdom loves it precisely because he has a wonder for it. And he who has wonder has it precisely because he loves wisdom. Therefore, by having wonder, one is a philosopher.

The larger point for the purposes of this article is that truly intrinsic virtues are virtuous without exception; their cultivation alone is both necessary and sufficient to bring about undiminished eudaimonia. Socrates' point then is that philosophy treats wisdom as an intrinsic virtue. Here, I introduce you to a method distinctive of philosophy, an extension of its general receptiveness toward -- and indeed, reliance on -- data generated from the intuitions of philosophers to support ostensibly empirical claims (e.g., adducing the possibility of unconscious actors, i.e., philosophical zombies, when determining which metaphysical category consciousness belongs to). Very briefly, the method consists in performing what is called a thought experiment: Imagining a state of affairs relevantly similar to a control group, introducing the necessary changes to set up the experimental group(s) and then inferring what might reasonably happen if their conjunction was to obtain.

For our purposes, the relevant experimental scenario we imagine should answer to this question: All else being equal, can I imagine wisdom without its received plaudits and perquisites -- the two p's, for short -- commanding the same level of respect that I now show it? If I can't, nor can I imagine others to reasonably be able to either, then wisdom is a non-intrinsic, i.e., extrinsic, virtue. How you know wisdom is intrinsically virtuous, then, is if no amount of hard reflection can convince you of the possibility of a relevantly similar scenario in which either you or your peers reasonably lose respect for it upon its loss of the two p's. (The operative word here is respect: one can revere something even if they act in contradiction to it.) We can call this the "invariantist" principle. Clearly, if you accept the truth of this principle, you also accept that wisdom is an intrinsic virtue.

Just so there are no questions, let's do this one thought experiment together. Consider a wonder that doesn't come already packaged with a love of wisdom, or a love of wisdom that isn't also accompanied by wonder. Supposing the possible (though not probable) scenario in which wisdom somehow lost its two p's, wisdom would be as causally inefficacious as philosophy would then be nonexistent. But, one reasonably thinks, this seems patently absurd and antithetical to the very concept expressed by the term "wisdom." Therefore, since we buy the invariantist principle, we buy also its deliverance in this case: That wisdom as a virtue needs nothing else above our innate impulse towards it (i.e., Socrates' "feeling of wonder"). Wisdom is hence an intrinsic virtue.

The foregoing brings out the seeming paradox of philosophy as a field of study. Whereas the typical collegiate experience begins with the selection of specialty majors with well-defined post-graduation career and wage-earning pathways, philosophy students willingly plod through abstruse and seemingly inconsequential literature even though it is regarded as a field which produces no clear outcomes on either criterion. I hope with this article that I have succeeded somewhat in explaining this puzzle away: it's a puzzle only because valuation ignores what is intrinsically virtuous about philosophy. And as Socrates seems to have thought, for those who wonder, that is enough reason to study philosophy.