To many, philosophy* is an obscure and largely outdated discipline that has little relevance in the real world. I’ve taught an introductory philosophy course for many years and many of my students come into the course with the idea that philosophy is little more than opinions wrapped in big words and focuses on topics that have no bearing on practical matters like paying for school or landing a job. So what’s the point? Why do people study philosophy and what, if any, value does it have?
I’ve found the study of philosophy to be life changing. This isn’t a slogan for me. Philosophy has proven to be immensely satisfying and valuable. Here are seven reasons why.
It broadens my world
Like the freed prisoner in Plato’s allegory of the cave, studying philosophy forced me to think differently about the world around me. Prior to studying philosophy, the world was simple, dogmatism came cheap, and frankly, the world was pretty bland. Don’t get me wrong, simplicity is great when things are simple. Few of us seek to make life needlessly more complicated. But complexity can actually be quite wonderful when it opens up new vistas. As I’ve aged, I’ve learned to appreciate fine cooking and all the adornments that go along with it (like a good wine and an enveloping atmosphere). As many an epicurean will tell you, the best cooking is generally not simple cooking. Tasting excellent food that has layers of perfectly balanced flavors that were prepared over hours or days and that come alive with the right wine or a hand-crafted bread is among the most enriching experiences one can have. Philosophy does the same for me with ideas. Getting past the boxed mac-and-cheese simple answers to a feast of nuanced philosophy is, simply, wonderful.
It trains my mind
The mind is in many ways like a muscle. It needs to be exercised, stretched, and pushed to the limit to be at its best. Philosophy can be very tough. As Alvin Plantinga has said, “Philosophy is just thinking hard.” Philosophy as a discipline has forced me to think more precisely and carefully. It is teaching me me how to frame problems and where to go to make better sense of those problems. It always pushes me to be a better thinker. For me, there was an unexpected outcome to stretching my mind to my intellectual limits. It makes many of the more mundane, daily challenges I face much easier to handle. Training your body to bench press two hundred pounds makes opening the pickle jar quite a bit easier.
It continually challenges me
This probably goes without saying and is closely related to the point above. Philosophy is challenging not only because it tackles hard problems, but because it unrelenting in its demand for clarity. A friend of mine who was struggling with the question of God’s existence once expressed exasperation with the unsettled nature of the philosophical literature on the question. “If you read a good argument for one position one month, the next month there will be three journal articles with counterarguments that show why the first argument was wrong.” This constant dialogue with no clear end can be very frustrating. But it also forces us to learn how to evaluate what we’re thinking about and synthesize it. This challenge is something I find invigorating. I expect it to last a lifetime.
It makes me careful
One of the greatest lessons I’m learning from studying philosophy is that there are very few easy answers to life’s intractable problems. Philosophy has pushed me to labor over the nuance of a word or phrase. It encourages me to constantly challenge my assumptions and to slow down and be patient while looking for something that might resemble an answer. Finishing a great book in philosophy most of the time means concluding with more questions than I started with. While this can sound frustrating to some, it has brought a great deal of peace to me. I’m learning that when it comes to ideas, the journey is quite a bit more enjoyable than the destination.
It changes my point of view
There’s a popular bumper sticker that reads, “Hire a teenager while he still knows everything.” It’s funny–at least to everyone but teenagers–because with age we come to learn that life is nuanced and requires changing our minds about a great many things. Philosophy provides the means by which I can consider view points I would not otherwise consider and to look in a different way at problems I once thought were solved. Think of where’d you’d be if you still believed all the things you were certain of when you were twelve. Healthy change generally means growth and that’s a good thing.
It tempers dogmatism
I’m learning that dogmatism may partly be rooted in a desire to be secure. While security generally is something to be prized, when it comes to the life of the mind, too much security can actually be a detriment. Because logic is so central to philosophy, it’s natural to think that intellectual problems all have hard-and-fast logical outcomes and the goal is to find those irrefutable conclusions. If this were the case, dogmatism would be hard to avoid. But philosophy, taken holistically, has led me in the opposite direction. The ambiguity of words, the fuzzy nature of our knowledge of the truth of many facts, the influence of the passions and desires, the imprecision of experience, and the obvious limitations of our mind should introduce a great deal of intellectual humility and tentativeness to our worldview. Philosophy as a discipline (and, in my opinion, when done properly) exposes both the power and the limitations of logic. As G.K. Chesterton rightly observed, “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”
It puts things in perspective
As I alluded to above, philosophy is teaching me how to understand the relative importance of ideas. It’s all too easy to view every idea as equally important and to want to “go to the mat” for every idea we find disagreeable. But by having to go deep on concepts, I’ve learned that some ideas are worth wrestling with and others are not. There are a lot of very interesting ideas to labor over, argue about, and spend time on. There are a lot of others that aren’t. Philosophy is helping me figure out which are which.
*If you don’t feel you have a good grasp of what philosophy is, try this short introduction.
For Further Reading
|Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason (Vintage)
Shorto, R. (2008). New York: Random House
An enjoyable, accessible story about the history of the tension between faith and reason using the bones of the famous philosopher Descartes as the focal point.
|The Abolition of Man
Lewis, C.S. (1974). New York: HarperCollins
A Lewis classic in which he attempts to identify problems with modern (at the time of writing) education. The book stands the test of time and though Lewis was a Christian theist, his polemic is instructive and interesting regardless of your worldview.
|The Existence of the World : An Introduction to Ontology (The Problems of Philosophy)
Grossman, R. (1994). New York: Routledge
A fine introduction of the philosophical discipline of metaphysics. A bit challenging for the beginner but worth the effort.
|Free Will and Determinism: A Dialogue
Williams, C. (1980). Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett
The Hackett dialogue series are good primers on the topics they cover. This book addresses problems of free will in an accessible and enjoyable way.
|How to Do Things with Words: Second Edition
Austin, J.L. (1975). Cambridge, Massachusettes: Harvard
A classic in linguistic and the philosophy of language. Should be fairly accessible to the general reader though have a good philosophical dictionary on hand.
|The Problems Of Philosophy : Complete And Unabridged
Russell, B. (1997). Oxford: Oxford University Press
A fine introduction to philosophy by one of philosophy’s modern heavyweights.
|A Primer on Postmodernism
Grentz, S. (1996). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans
One of the better introductions to postmodernism that I’ve read. Though Grentz is a theist and not a postmodernist strictly speaking, his primer is not agenda-driven or ideological in its perspective. It’s is well written and very accessible.