What good is philosophy?

Thanks to a facebook friend’s post, I had the opportunity to look at some interesting photographs of philosophers taken by photographer Steve Pyke. Many of these photographs are accompanied by something that the philosopher had to say about herself, how she came to be a philosopher, or something about philosophy. So, for instance, Sally Haslanger says:

“Given the amount of suffering and injustice in the world, I flip-flop between thinking that doing philosophy is a complete luxury and that it is an absolute necessity. The idea that it is something in between strikes me as a dodge. So I do it in the hope that it is a contribution, and with the fear that I’m just being self-indulgent. I suppose these are the moral risks life is made of.”

Contrast this with Hartry Field:

“A nice thing about the sort of philosophy I do is that it can never be used to justify wars or oppress the disadvantaged or anything like that. Unfortunately, this follows from a more general principle.”

While Haslanger worries that she may not be making enough of a contribution, Field comforts himself that he is contributing nothing (and so nothing bad).

While it is probably true that many non-philosophers worry about whether what they are doing is worthwhile, this worry seems integral to being a philosopher. If we are to question everything, then surely we must also question that very activity. I think that I was particularly struck by these two quotes because they captured views that I have held at various different times. When I first became interested in philosophy I came to believe that it was, as Haslanger put it, “an absolute necessity”. I believed that it was through ideas that change would occur and that promoting the right ideas was crucial to bringing about the changes that I believed needed to take place. But my years of studying analytic philosophy in graduate school brought me much closer to Field’s understanding of philosophy. I enjoyed philosophy and it did no harm, so maybe it was, as Haslanger suggests, a luxury, but it was a harmless luxury. It took a few years, but I did eventually recover from graduate school and in doing I have thought about the value of philosophy almost every time I step into the classroom.

My current views on philosophy are not captured in either of these quotes. Haslanger claims that the idea that philosophy is something between a luxury and a necessity is a “dodge”, but I think that it all depends on what one means by “something in between”. There are times when philosophy is a necessity. There are times when a better understanding of the concepts that we are using to understand a problem or revealing unexamined presuppositions is the only way to make progress towards a solution. At such times I would argue philosophy is a necessity. But there are also times when it is nothing but a luxury because sitting around examining the situation is simply not what is called for at the moment. There are times when action is the right thing and though philosophy may lead to action, it is not the same thing as action. But even in such circumstances, we still need for people to be doing philosophy. We need to have people who are practiced in philosophical skills so that when we need them, they are there. Firefighters spend quite a bit of time just hanging around the firehouse. But firefighters are not a luxury – even when they are not needed.

Of course, what Field expresses is not a view about philosophy more generally, but only about the philosophy that he does. I wonder if he is right about that. I think that I still believe too strongly in the power of ideas to feel comfortable about accepting that even his philosophy is harmless without really thinking it through. If there are times when philosophers are needed, then perhaps to be a philosopher and to believe that philosophy has no bearing on life would seem to be shirking one’s duty.

Update: At the end of October the NYT carried a photo-essay on Steve Pyke’s work and an essay by him.

See these at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/11/01/opinion/20101101_Stone_Profile.html and

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1 Response to What good is philosophy?

  1. Liberation says:

    Very interesting info, I am waiting for more. Keep updating your site and you will have a lot of readers!

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