In the first part of this essay, I explored what philosophy is for me, what is its meaning and value. Now it is time to address one of the most frequent objections to philosophy: namely, that it is something too abstract, too theoretical, impractical, and, therefore, useless. Here we go!
First, I would like to better understand the objection – what is meant by it. I think this objection is not really directed to the qualities of something being abstract and theoretical as such. After all, most of us don`t have anything against theory as long as we understand its application and consider that application valuable. If these two criteria are fulfilled, we often don`t even insist on comprehending the theory itself to recognize it as useful. For example, I am sure many of us regard the theories behind the science of medicine as valuable and useful despite our lack of detailed understanding of them. In life, it is not just the ‘know-how’ that we appreciate, it`s also the ‘know-why’. By the way, it`s the ‘know-why’ that makes us get out of bed every morning, not the ‘know-how’. Check it yourself next time you need to get up earlier than you`d prefer.
So, it seems the problem at the core of the discussed objection is not about philosophy being abstract and theoretical. Rather, for many people, philosophy does not fulfil the two criteria necessary for the recognition of being useful and valuable: the application of philosophical ideas is not clear and this leads to difficulties in locating the value of such unclear application (the ‘know-why’ isn`t understood). In other cases, we might be able to identify the potential application of certain philosophical concepts but we anyway do not consider them valuable due to our personal preferences (the ‘know-why’ is understood but we don`t like it). For instance, some of us may not recognise how the socialist ideas of Karl Marx could possibly be applied to and fully implemented in the governance of an actual state, and, therefore, regard the whole thing as a pure ‘armchair’ speculation lacking any real value. Alternatively, we could well imagine an application of his concepts to the governance system of a state but still deem it of no use to even think it over because of our strong personal preference for the values of individual freedom and self-actualization.
This shows at least two things. First, the discussed objection to the value of philosophy as a whole is often a sweeping generalization. We all are prone to the appeal of making swift and simple general conclusions about something based on a limited selection of instances of that ‘something’ (you can find examples of this in abundance: ‘all men are…’, ‘all women are…’, ‘all people are…’, ‘all politics is…’, etc.) It is an inevitable practice and has its usefulness in systemizing the world around us into a comprehensible structure. Yet, it also has crucial drawbacks in that it robs us of the richness and variety of life. Perhaps somewhat ironically, philosophy itself can serve as an antidote to our habit of generalization becoming overly dominant.
The second observation from our discussion is that the widespread objection to the value of philosophy rests on two prerequisites: a) we need to understand the application of a given theory; b) we need to be able to relate to that application. It is hard for me to relate to something I do not understand. This doesn`t mean I have to deny the existence of something I do not understand (that would be overly simplified generalization). Nevertheless, I will still find it difficult to relate without understanding (here again we are reminded of the importance of ‘know-why’). However, my understanding alone does not necessarily guarantee that I will relate to what I understand. Therefore, the supporters of this objection will need both requirements to be satisfied to view philosophy as something valuable. If all this sounds a little confusing, have another look at the example I made earlier about the socialist ideas of Karl Marx. You can substitute them with any other theories, the point of the structure of the objection discussed here remains the same.
On one side, it could be seen as an irrelevant problem for philosophy. This type of objection arises mostly among the ‘uninitiated’, those outside of the small circle of professional philosophers. On the other side, however, it is just this kind of attitude that has contributed heavily to the spread of the discussed objection along with such unflattering characterisations as ‘armchair thinkers’ who philosophize high up in their unreachable ‘ivory towers’.
Another way forward could be to accept this objection as a challenge and opportunity to advance philosophy to the next level of its development. After all, as discussed in the first part of this essay, philosophy is one of the reflections of the human condition – of our search for meaning. And meaning is always experienced on a personal, subjective level. Therefore, anything meaningful to me will inevitably also be understandable and relatable.
So, the widespread objection to the value of philosophy can also be fundamentally seen as a challenge to deliver what philosophy is essentially meant to deliver – a clear path for our search for meaning that respects the vast diversity of personal ‘meanings’. If such a path is made available to us (it is understandable) and we choose to walk it (it is relatable), it is then up to us to make use of all it has to offer and broaden our views beyond those we had when we stepped on that path. For example, we may realize that besides our own there is a great variety of different views that are and can be meaningful and because of that – valuable. We may well find out that a contemplated life is a more meaningful life, and this might be the only necessary answer to the question – what is the value of philosophy?
I hope you found some value for yourself in this article. As a final note, I close with the following, in my view, disarmingly relatable quote:
“Do you have some idea, however vague, of how the world works? Do you have a sense of how to properly behave toward others? If you answered yes to both questions, congratulations, you have a philosophy of life!”From the book “How to Live a Good Life” edited by M. Pigliucci, S.C. Cleary and D. A. Kaufman, 2020
Image reference: (1) By Anonymous – Camille Flammarion, L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888), pp. 163., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=318054