The Intellectual Value of Modern Philosophy

I don’t go to philosophy for answers or evidence.
07/06/2016 07:51 pm ET Updated Jul 06, 2016
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At a time when fascinating advances in science and technology have made probable virtual reality becoming a social rather than solo experience, it is easy to question the value of modern philosophy. After all, knowledge of Plato’s Republic isn’t exactly a skill that you can list on your resume.

So, why should anyone spend their time reading obscure philosophical texts written by dead white men? More pointedly, why should anyone be concerned with Zeno’s paradox when millions of Americans live in poverty, black men are 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men, and ISIS is still terrorizing innocent people?

Many philosophers argue that thinking philosophically helps us to clarify the meaning and implications of our sacred beliefs so that we can ably defend them against objection. This reasoning may persuade some that philosophy is not altogether irrelevant to practical knowledge. Still, others might wonder why, then, do philosophers disagree about everything they discuss?

True enough, considerable disagreement among philosophers makes it difficult for non-philosophers to rely on philosophical knowledge. Sure, philosophical thinking clarifies conceptual distinctions and specifies the significance of individual assertions. But the world is full of smart people who think philosophically without reading philosophical texts.

On top of that, compared to physics, chemistry, and engineering, philosophy doesn’t offer much in the way of measurable, observable progress. On that score, philosophical debates can seem circular, predictable, obsolete, and highly speculative. I mean who can prove that the chair I am sitting in right now is an inferior copy of a chair that exists in another dimension?

Considering this, it is tough to come up with a satisfying answer to the question: Why read the work of philosophers like David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Hegel, or Ludwig Wittgenstein?

After testing the strength of many arguments in favor of wrestling with canonical philosophic texts, I’ve resolved that I can only speak for myself, for why I find the study of philosophy rewarding.

I don’t go to philosophy for answers or evidence.

For me, philosophy has been an invaluable source of edification and inspiration. Philosophy challenges me to consider facets of reality that I would otherwise overlook. It raises questions that further my understanding of the human condition. Philosophy, for me, has been a vehicle through which I have been able to grapple with what it means to be uncertain and still maintain personal beliefs and values that I’d adamantly defend.    

There are certain questions that can be answered intuitively or imaginatively, others that can be answered scientifically—or by referencing a dictionary, an academic journal, or some credible source of information. The best thing about philosophy in my experience is that thinking philosophically and re-reading the work of dead white men like Aristotle and Aquinas has improved my ability to think about everything else—from art to science. More specifically, reading philosophical texts and trying to thoroughly understand them forces me to be a more detail-oriented thinker—to consider the logic and structure of arguments, counterfactuals, presuppositions, and varying conditions for the validity of assertions. 

For example, it was through reading works of philosophy that I began to consider how human understandings of objectivity and ethics have changed over time. Those same books are the ones that challenge me perennially to clarify, question, and refine my understanding of the world, whether it be a political issue or a new development in clean-energy technology. 

In my view, philosophy doesn’t offer us certainty or even clarity necessarily, but it certainly has improved the ability of many to think critically about questions and answers surrounding critical issues of our time.