By Michael De Dora

I am a student of political philosophy, and more specifically a person interested in the intersection of political and moral life. This has placed me in the middle of numerous conversations about the nature of politics and morality. But it has also forced me into discussions on why I care about such subjects at all. Indeed, people often tell me that my interest in philosophy is weird. They tell me that while I might enjoy philosophy, it is an esoteric and useless enterprise.

Before moving on, I should define philosophy. For this, I reference philosopher Massimo Pigliucci (note that this is an abbreviation of his definition): “An activity that uses reason to explore issues that include the nature of reality (metaphysics), structure of rational thinking (logic), limits of our understanding (epistemology), meaning implied by our thoughts (philosophy of language), nature of moral good (ethics), nature of beauty (aesthetics), and inner workings of other disciplines (science, history, and more).” In short: reason-based conceptual analysis of the human experience.

To be sure, many objections to philosophy have been put forth. Some have already been discussed in books, or elsewhere on this blog, such as “philosophy doesn’t make progress” (here), “we don’t need philosophy, we have science” (here and here), and “philosophers wrongly want to exclude or downplay the role of emotion” (here). I only hope this essay is a constructive addition to this existing catalogue.

Objection 1: Philosophy deals not with practical (and thus important) matters, but with theory. We should be concerned with what’s actually going on down here on Earth.

Response: On its face, this is a disingenuous criticism. Many other fields of study, such as science, are characterized in great degree by a lack of apparent “practical” appeal. Just ask Massimo about some of his graduate students’ lab projects. Why single out philosophy?

More to the point, this objection is a misunderstanding of philosophy and its link to everyday matters; or, more specifically, the relationship between reasoning and practice. Philosophy is the critical study of what is going on down here on Earth. While it is largely about abstract reasoning, one cannot so easily separate this from practice. Philosophy studies whether practical matters are being carried out as they should be, or whether a certain practice ought to be continued in the future. It helps us formulate a more rational and consistent view of the world. For an example of this relationship between reasoning and practice, consider that the philosophical discourse on morality over the past 2,500 years has undoubtedly furthered our understanding of how to live better with one another. In short, our practice can only be improved by our theoretical reasoning about the practice.

Objection 2: Philosophy too often focuses on splitting fine hairs. Who cares about the details?

Response: The fact is that details can often make all the difference in our reasoning, beliefs, and decisions. For example, consider the debates over what is really science and what is really art. Why does any of this matter? Why can’t we just get on with our lives? Well, you can get on with your life, but the distinctions matter. At the very least, they matter to public understanding, funding for research, and university departments. Or consider how different people can come to the same conclusions for different reasons. Imagine two medical doctors going to Africa to help the disadvantaged. One is going because his empathy tells him this is a good thing to do; the other is going because he believes it is God’s will. Both people are making quite a sacrifice, which should be respected as such. But doesn’t the motive also affect our understanding of what they do, and perhaps how they do it?

I think details can be seen as a form of context. They provide us a deeper understanding of the issue at hand. Consider the statement “killing other people is wrong.” Details make all the difference here, as some instances of killing are not wrong (self defense being the obvious example).

Or ponder a topic dear to my heart: batting in the sport of baseball. Many people judge a batter’s worth on basic statistics. These might include batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. Yet these numbers are subject to the whims of luck and setting, so it is important to look at what we might call the statistical details. For instance, instead of merely looking at batting average, we would also study a player’s batting average on balls in play (since the player doesn’t have full control over where the ball drops or where the defender is; a high number suggests good luck, while a low number suggests poor luck). We would also look at the player’s on-base percentage, which provides a more illustrative account of the player’s ability to not get out (i.e., his ability to draw walks). Instead of just looking at a player’s home runs, we would also see whether he hits in a ballpark friendly to home runs (baseball is unlike other sports in that the fields vary in size and structure), and look at his splits (did he hit many more home runs on the road than home?). And instead of looking merely at runs batted in, we would look at the rest of the lineup in which he was hitting (was he hitting in a spot before great hitters? Was he hitting in a high-scoring offense generally?) All of these stats together would give us a better idea of whether a player is actually very good, or is to some degree lucky or dependent on the rest of his team or ballpark. Perhaps now you see why the details, or context, can be absolutely important, not just in philosophy.

Objection 3: Philosophy can be hard to understand! Haven’t you ever tried to read Immanuel Kant?

Response: My immediate response is that of course philosophy can be hard to understand — but so can all intellectually serious subjects. Again, why pick on philosophy?

Now, I have read some of the works by Immanuel Kant, and I cannot lie (no pun intended!) and say they were thoroughly enjoyable. But I read them because I get enjoyment from challenging my ability to think deeply. I also considered it a sacrifice for a greater benefit waiting at the end of the tunnel, like a greater understanding of morality.

You still might not be ready to run out to Barnes & Noble to buy the complete works of Kant, but then again, nobody is telling you to spend your life reading original philosophical work. The point here is that not all philosophy reads like Kant. For instance, if you want an accessible account of Kant’s moral theory, you can pick up Michael Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? Though you might find your comprehension of Kant’s ideas would be deeper by reading the primary source, you need not do so to understand and gain insight from his ideas.

Objection 4: Philosophy rarely, if ever, provides us with definite Knowledge (as opposed to what we might call reasonable knowledge, with a lower-case k).

Response: Philosophy alone might rarely provide Knowledge, but why blame philosophy for something it isn’t quite meant to produce by itself? This objection sets up a straw man, for philosophy is not meant to function like mathematics (logic) or science (empirical verification). It is meant to function more like, well, philosophy.

For instance, math tells us 2+2=4. Science tells us the universe is about 14.6 billion years old. These are based on logic and empirical evidence, respectively. What does philosophy tell us about how to live a moral life? It turns out the answer is not so concrete: a number of different philosophers over the past 2,500 years have weighed in on the question and provided a range of considerations. This is because answers to questions like “how do I live a moral life?” do not come in the guise of a formula or empirical data. Math and science tell us what are logically or empirically true, regardless of what humans think. Philosophy is necessarily caught up in human thought; it depends on the human capacity to reason, and it analyzes the irreducibly subjective human experience. Indeed, even this neat division between the logical/empirical realm and a broader conception of reason does not entirely hold. Math and science are themselves founded on particular philosophical principles. That is, philosophy alone might not produce Knowledge, but it’s a necessary part of the equation.

Philosophers are less focused on building Knowledge and more focused on clarifying and connecting our ideas and worldviews. This means pointing out logical fallacies and inconsistencies in our beliefs and decisions, and suggesting ways in which we might be able to overcome such ills. Philosophy, in this sense, might be seen as a never-ending process of checks-and-balances on our customs and behaviors. Questions and analysis lead to discussion, which leads to tentative answers, which lead to more questions and analysis, more discussion, and more tentative answers. And somewhere in there, we might begin to accrue knowledge.

In closing, it is not easy to promote philosophy given how many Americans already disdain any form of abstract reasoning and critical thinking. But increasing the amount of philosophical thought among the American public, or in the world at large, will be an even tougher job than it already is if even reasonable people reject it (for not so reasonable motives). This is why we must clear up public misconceptions about philosophy, and properly portray its role to the public. I hope I’ve at least made you consider why you do or do not think philosophy is important or useful (i.e., made you engage in philosophizing about philosophy!). Remember, I am not arguing you should enter a philosophy program or go read a book by Kant. But you need not do so to value philosophy as a worthwhile endeavor.

Note: this essay was first published on the blog Rationally Speaking in January 2011.