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Philosophy, in the sense I am discussing it here, is the sustained, systematic, reflective thinking about concepts and beliefs in any subject to see what is clear (i.e., intelligible) and reasonable to believe about it, and why. It differs from science in that it includes the study of more than what is empirical (i.e., physically observable), and in that it tends to examine data and evidence already available, usually trying to put it into a clear and reasonable perspective, rather than to seek new data. Examples of philosophical writing that examine concepts and beliefs about various topics are many of my essays at www.garlikov.com, such as "Guilt and Forgiveness", "Justification of Punishment", "Understanding and Teaching Place-Value", "The Concept of Racial Profiling", "The Concept of Intimacy", "The Definition of Death", "Scientific Confirmation", "Constitutional Safeguards for Majority Rule", "A Philosophy of Photography", "A Philosophy of Science Logic Problem", or "Five Questions [About Economics]".
In normal usage, the terms "philosophy" and "philosophical" have a number of trivial meanings which have nothing to do with the academic subject of philosophy (or the slightly broader sense in which I use it here, that includes thinking more deeply and systematically about topics which may not be found in typical college philosophy department courses), so people tend to misunderstand what philosophy is, and see no point in studying it.
"Philosophy" in ordinary language is perhaps most often meant to refer to a set of guidelines, precepts, or to an attitude, such as in comments like "Jones' philosophy is not to worry about the future" or "It is the philosophy of this company that everyone should be able to take over for anyone else in his/her department at a moment's notice; thus it is imperative that you all learn each others' work as well as your own." Or "Our philosophy is ‘all for one and one for all'." In the movie Wall Street the philosophy of the tycoon Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) is that "Greed is good." This use of the term philosophy is sometimes referred to as a "philosophy of life" or a "philosophy of business". It is not related to philosophy in the sense of sustained, systematic, reflective analysis of any topic.
A corollary to this usage is to characterize as "philosophical" a specific attitude of acceptance, acquiescence, or submission to whatever happens, perhaps with some interpretive reason, as in "Jones took the news of his dismissal quite philosophically; he said that if the boss didn't want him there, it probably was a place where he wouldn't be happy working long anyway." Or "Smith took the news of the tragedy very philosophically; he said that was just the way life was sometimes and that you had to just accept it and go on or you would go crazy." Or "Johnson was philosophical about the tragedy, saying ‘We just have to trust in God to know what is best for all of us, even if it seems terribly sad at this time; it must all be for the best ultimately.'" This also is not related to philosophy in the sense of sustained, systematic, reflective analysis.
A more recent usage that is perhaps becoming more and more common is to equate philosophy with "mere idle speculation", particularly as in "Rather than sitting around merely philosophizing, we decided to do some actual empirical research into the phenomena." Or "There is no point in thinking about this philosophically; we need to find out what the facts are." Or "You can do all the philosophy about the likely result of this you want, but at some point you are going to have to get out of your chair and actually see what happens when you try to do it." In this sense, philosophy is equated with the kind of pointless thinking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; it is considered to be a waste of mental energy, for no useful purpose.
Loosely associated with this view of philosophy is the one that thinks philosophers are at best merely "book-smart" people who have no common sense because they come up with crackpot beliefs and ideas. While in some cases this may be true, more often it is believed because it is not the reasoning but only the conclusion that is looked at, and it is true that many conclusions philosophers reach are counter-intuitive or odd, or contrary to conventional belief. It is important, however, not to look just at conclusions that people reach, but the evidence and reasons they give for them. That is where insights lie if there are to be any.
Thus, in a time of great economic, scientific, and technological advancement, one might mistakenly believe that there is no particular use for philosophy, because it deals with intangible ideas, some seemingly crazy, which cannot be proved scientifically or verified objectively, and which have nothing to do with providing greater creature comforts or material progress. Pragmatists may believe at any time that there is not much use for philosophy and that philosophy is merely about having opinions, opinions which are no better than anyone else's opinions, and of no more value than idle speculation. So what is the use of philosophy?
In the first, and narrowest, place, for some people philosophy simply satisfies a personal need or interest. Philosophy is, as it has always been, interesting in its own right for that minority of people who simply like to think about, or who are by nature driven to think about, and who appreciate and find great pleasure in discovering insights into, what seem to be intangible or complex issues, great or small.
But the tools of philosophy can be important to everyone because it potentially helps one think better, more clearly, and with greater perspective about almost everything. There are numerous specific topic areas in academic philosophy, many of interest only to a few, even among philosophers, but there are features and techniques common to all of them, and it is those features and techniques which also can apply to almost anything in life. These features have to do with reasoning and with understanding concepts, and, to some small extent, with creativity. Normally, all other things being equal, the better one understands anything and can think clearly and logically about it, the better off one will be, and the better one will be able to act on that understanding and reasoning. (It is my view, for example, that better conceptual understanding by NCAA and NFL administrators would lead to a far more workable and acceptable "instant replay review" policy.)
Furthermore, philosophy in many cases is about deciding which goals and values are worthy to pursue -- what ends are important. One can be scientific or pragmatic about pursuing one's goals in the most efficient manner, but it is important to have the right or most reasonable goals in the first place. Philosophy is a way of scrutinizing ideas about which goals are the most worthy one. A healthy philosophical debate about what is ideal or which ideals ought to be sought and pursued, is important. Efficiency in the pursuit of the wrong values or ends is not a virtue. President John F. Kennedy, in speaking at Amherst College on a day honoring poet Robert Frost, said: "The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation's greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us." And "When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. ... for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgement." I believe philosophy could be added to art in these statements to form the following: (1) The people who bring together power with purpose make an indispensable contribution to the nation's greatness, but the people who question power and any particular purpose make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is distinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us, and they determine whether our purpose is meaningful or our power misdirected. (2) When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry and philosophy remind him of the richness and diversity of his existence. ... for art and philosophy establish the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.
It is also important that beliefs and goals be examined, even if they are idealistic; that is, even if society is nowhere near ready to proceed from where they are to some idealistic state. For it is important to know what is most reasonably ideal, and to understand the reasons for thinking it is the ideal, in order to try to make stepwise progress (as society is ready to discover and accept any step in the right direction) and in order to reassess what one thinks is ideal when unexpected social responses show flaws or undesirable side-effect in the concept. For example, welfare and housing for the poor have often run into unexpected difficulties and in some cases have been counterproductive to the desire to help people improve their lives. While the basic goals of helping people escape poverty and substandard housing in order to become productive, secure, and hopeful about their lives may remain ideal, supplying homes or money in certain ways may not be the effective means to that, or may not be the equivalent to it as an end.
While science tests hypotheses by empirical means, philosophical pursuit of values and ideals tests concepts of the ideal in two ways: (1) by the debate of differing ideas and values to see what seems most reasonable, and (2) by the constant monitoring of the satisfactoriness and desirability of the stated goal as socially acceptable steps toward it come into place. Social progress toward an ideal often takes place in small stages, and sometimes flaws in the ideal become visible as the stages are implemented. It takes understanding of the stated values, ends, and means in order to recognize missteps.
However, it must be pointed out that there are people trained in philosophy who do not think very well, at least not on all, if any, topics. And there are people who have never had any sort of philosophy or logic course who are quite astute in their thinking in general. The study of philosophy is something like the intellectual equivalent of training in sports. Those with natural talent and no training will often be better than those with training but little natural talent, but proper training should develop and enhance whatever talent most people have to begin with.
And it also must be pointed out that not all philosophical writing or thinking is very good, and, perhaps more importantly, not all philosophy courses are very well taught or very good. In fact, there are a great many terribly taught philosophy courses, where students come out having learned very little and/or where they have mostly learned to hate what they think is philosophy and consider it to be stupid. In some cases, however, where teachers are entertaining and articulate, students come out favorably impressed, but still with little or no understanding. Neither of these kinds of courses serve students or philosophy very well, though the latter are at least more enjoyable than the former. So when I talk about the uses of philosophy or about "philosophy" itself, I really mean to be referring to the best of what philosophy has to offer, not necessarily what one might learn in some particular philosophy 101, or even upperclass or graduate level, course, and not necessarily what one might find in a book chosen randomly from the philosophy section of a university library or bookstore.
The tools of philosophy are important to individuals and to society because as long as we are not omniscient, factual knowledge by itself is no substitute for philosophy, just as philosophy is no substitute for factual knowledge. Philosophy is about the intelligent and rational uses of knowledge, and it is about the scrutiny of beliefs to see how clear and how reasonable they are in the light of knowledge we have. Knowledge is the substance of philosophy, not its opposite. As I explain in "Words, Pictures, Logic, Ethics, and Not Being God" because there is much we cannot know directly or even by observation, much of our knowledge comes from our use of reason. And philosophy, when done properly, perhaps more than any other field, gives training and practice in the most general and basic elements of reasoning. The essay "Reasoning" explains what reasoning is, how it works, and why it is important. It also explains that it does not always yield the truth or knowledge, but that in certain circumstances, it is the best we can do to try to attain knowledge. In many cases, reasoning will show us what we need to find out in order to have knowledge about a particular phenomena, by showing us what the gaps are in the knowledge we have.
What underlies most philosophy -- particularly perhaps British and American philosophy -- is training and practice in (1) analyzing and understanding concepts, (2) recognizing and showing the significance of hidden, unconscious, or unrealized assumptions, (3) recognizing and remedying various forms of unclear conceptualization and communication, such as vagueness and ambiguity, which are often unintended and at first unrealized (4) drawing reasonable conclusions from whatever evidence is at hand, and (5) recognizing evidence in the first place -- seeing, that is, that some knowledge can serve as evidence for more knowledge and is not just some sort of inert fact or end in itself. These things are, or can be, very important for science, social science, economics, business, and other practical and empirical pursuits, but they are crucial for knowledge about matters of value, interpretation, perspective, and that which is intangible. It turns out that much of science, social science, economics, and business contains elements of the intangible, and questions about values, which can only be dealt with philosophically. Moreover, even the most empirical matters have conceptual components that require careful analysis and understanding. The essays "Scientific Confirmation," "Explanations and Pseudo-Explanations in Science," "Shedding Light on Time: Learning and Teaching Difficult Concepts," and "More About Fractions Than Anyone Needs To Know" exemplify that.
It also seems to me that those who are most successful at analyzing and understanding concepts would also be better at teaching those concepts if (and perhaps only if) they also understand what made those concepts difficult to analyze and understand for them, and/or for others, in the first place. Nobel physicist Richard Feynman had the view that if he could not explain a concept or principle in physics in a way that a college freshman who was interested in physics could understand it, he probably did not understand it himself as well as he thought he did. I think such understanding is often important or even necessary for teaching well, but I am not sure it is sufficient, because one might be able to understand a concept without seeing why or how it might be difficult for other people to understand it. Philosophers, or anyone who has analyzed concepts, ought to have some advantage in teaching them, but that advantage may not be sufficient to teach those concepts to others very well. I have seen philosophers (and others) who were quite good at doing philosophy, not be able to teach it to beginners, simply because they left out too much in their explanations, did not start at a basic enough beginning place, did not wait to see whether there was comprehension before they continued from point to point, did not appreciate how strange or difficult or complex an idea was to the student, did not know how to get points across not only logically but psychologically, and, in short, did not know what groundwork needed to be done in order to help the student understand and see the significance or meaning of the explanation being given. My long essay "The Concept and Teaching of Place Value" gives an explanation and an example of how understanding a concept, and understanding and appreciating the psychological difficulties of comprehending it, are necessary for teaching it well.
Pervasive Philosophical Subject Matter
But there are pervasive philosophical areas of life that nearly everyone recognizes as important, though perhaps not recognizing them as primarily philosophical in nature, and perhaps not recognizing that they require deeper and more sustained thought than is typically given to them, even by supposed experts. These areas include ethics (moral philosophy -- including value and "meaning of life" issues), logic or reasoning, religion or spirituality, aesthetics and related quality of life issues, and political/governmental/social philosophy, particularly for all those who have a part in government and who are affected by it, including those able to vote in a democratic or representative democracy. While everyone has "opinions" or beliefs about many of these intangible things, there are better and worse opinions, beliefs that are more reasonable or less reasonable than others. Not all opinions or beliefs are equal in quality or in value. One opinion is not necessarily as good or as reasonable as another; is not likely to withstand scrutiny or to be compatible with all the evidence available.
Unfortunately in many cases, politicians, bureaucrats, news commentators. idealogues, and the "man on the street" or a majority of people polled", are considered to be experts in areas of social/governmental philosophy, though they usually are not; and ministers or church leaders are often thought to be theologians (or philosophers of religion), which they are not. So a natural hunger for philosophical wisdom is only partially addressed, and not always in the most satisfying, nutritious, or practically useful and advantageous manner. Shallowness in these area is often sufficient as long as it sounds good or seems deep to those who think less or who do not think much for themselves at all. Still the issues are philosophical ones, and they are often recognized as such, even if most do not realize that there are better answers and better ways of thinking about them than they are aware.
Moreover, most people seem to think they "reason" well enough and that any argument that shows otherwise is merely someone else's opinion, and does not need to be considered any further than it takes to ignore, dismiss, or reject it. So although these are areas where people could benefit from philosophy, they usually do not, and do not care to. In that sense philosophy is just of potential benefit. But it is not unlike other, practical, areas of potential benefit that are ignored. When the inventor of the Xerox (photocopy) machine was looking for financial backing, almost all the large business concerns of the day turned him down. The primary reason given was that there was no need for copy machines; we already had carbon paper to make copies of documents. Not only have prominent inventions and scientific ideas been rejected, but so have business ideas and management plans. Many a successful enterprise has resulted from employees going into competition with their former bosses who would not listen to, or could not understand or appreciate, their ideas for innovation.
Philosophy is about careful, sustained, and systematic
It is about a willingness to pursue the possible truth and value of
and the evidence for them, no matter what conclusions might result or
strange they might initially seem. Philosophy does not always
to truth or to ideas of great value, but it can. It often
And the potential always exists. There is much yet to be learned
by the application of thought to what is already known or believed to
I say "what seem to be" intangible issues,
because some topics which start out as apparently intangible turn out
have tangible and practical features and consequences. Physics
was called "natural philosophy" meaning philosophy of nature or of the
phenomena of the natural world, and seemed to be primarily a
enterprise. Social and ethical philosophy can have profound
that make a significant difference in the quality of life for an
or for a community. There are many specific subjects which start
out seeming to have no objective or tangible answers, but which, upon
do. In some cases, such as physics and parts of social science, what
out as philosophy, once it is seen to have tangible, practical,
empirical aspects and consequences, becomes science and is no longer
part of philosophy. Newton's Laws are based on certain
insights and perspective different from how issues of motion and force
were previously thought of. Einstein's work on relativity stemmed
in large part from his philosophical analysis and understanding of what
it means to tell that two events occur "simultaneously". That analysis
is spelled out in great detail in his first paper on relativity, and is
crucial to the understanding of the theory. (Return
To some extent reasoning also can sometimes
foster creativity, in cases where it points to thinking that is more
narrow, or confined than it might need to be. Just seeing what
constrictions or boundaries are in a line of thinking, can sometimes
you see how they should be eclipsed, extended, or
The fashionable phrase today is for people to learn to "think outside
box", and philosophers have been and continue to be, in many cases,
who tend to think most outside the box and furthest. Sometimes
too far for others to appreciate. And, in general, when anyone
you they want you to think outside the box, they probably only mean to
the extent they can fairly immediately appreciate. If you go
than they can appreciate, your ideas will not be considered creative,
original, and visionary, but wild, unrealistic, impractical,
or foolish. (Return to text.)
Philosophy is typically taught in one of three ways. There is a fourth way that is better, but is relatively rare. The three typical ways are:
1) to use "classic" readings, such as works by Plato, Aristotle, Kant, etc.The problem with the first approach is that the readings tend to be meaningless to students at the introductory level, and most teachers are no help in making them interesting or meaningful to the students, or showing their relevance to ordinary issues or to issues that would be interesting if presented correctly or in an accessible way.
The problem with the second method is that class sessions often turn into endless debates or simple bull sessions where everyone presents fairly shallow opinions and no effort is made by the teacher to analyze those opinions in a meaningful and deeper way that actually helps students resolve differences and come to deeper understanding.
I have not yet seen any textbooks of the sort in 3, that were particularly interesting or enlightening or, in some cases, even very good philosophical reasoning.
I think the best way to teach philosophy is to raise issues in
that makes them gripping to students, often by Socratically asking
that make problems and issues puzzling, challenging, and stimulating to
students, and then asking other questions that help shape their answers
and help guide them to a deep and meaningful understanding of the
When done well, this helps students develop ideas which are similar to
or which parallel many of the great historical philosophical answers
to these issues. Students may then be assigned reading, if there
is time, or told which works they may want to look up on their own
argue for many of the views they have come to. At that point,
students will be able to make much more sense of the classic
works and of the debates about contemporary issues. They will
likely find the details interesting, and they may even be able to shed
some light of their own on difficult problems and issues. (Return