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, 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
and values are worthy to pursue -- what ends are important. One
be scientific or pragmatic about pursuing one's goals in the most
manner, but it is important to have the right or most reasonable goals
in the first place. Philosophy is a way of..........