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In Defense of Philosophy

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Philosophy is under attack.

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While universities are shutting down their humanities faculties, the profession of philosophy is taking hits all over the place. For example, here on Medium, Rachel Anne Williams (here), Mr Nemo (here), Secular Stoic (here) and Martin Rezny (here) have written forceful critiques of the enterprise.

Evidently, something is going on.

It would be interesting to know what exactly.

Academic philosophy’s wrong turn

I would like to take you on a (very) small tour through the history of philosophy.

When philosophy begins, in ancient Greece, it sets out to be therapy for the soul — it sets out to be a practical tool that can help you live well. Philosophers in those days are interested in finding out how families work, how money works, how status works, what we should do about public opinion, death, ambition and all those things that bother each us day.

By contrast, in the 20th the century — I know, big jump — the humanities started to have to compete with the sciences for money and attention in universities. They decided to take the battle by turning themselves into pseudo-sciences. Suddenly the great questions of life became the subject of the kind of study that was akin to studying theoretical physics, all to make sure that the departments would get funding and the governments would be suitably impressed.

That’s where it went wrong.

When philosophy transitioned into a structured academic setting, it tried to mimic the progression in difficulty that the sciences experienced. This was bound to fail: when you take philosophy and try to force fit it into that type of progression, you no longer strive to make it useful, but you strive to make it obscure.

Much philosophy done today is dry, wordy and abstract and many justifiably avoid it.

The perils of academic philosophy

Of all the attacks on academic philosophy, especially Williams’ essay clearly exposes its faults.

She is correct to point out that getting your degree is a very time-consuming and CV-oriented process, culminating in a dissertation that almost no one is going to read, ever. This is unfortunate.

She rightly argues that — like every academic discipline these days — the narrow focus on publications gives rise to all the wrong incentives. This needs to change.

Her diagnosis that the majority of academic philosophy hardly has bearing on ordinary human existence is spot on — it’s part of the reason I started blogging.

I also share her uncomfortable feeling about the overdoses of abstraction and the seeming lack of relevance that is typical for much academic philosophy.

Her examples are a powerful reminder of the (Wittgensteinan) point that philosophical theorizing can, and sometimes does, generate fake problems.

Yet, I don’t think that, as its critics assert, philosophy is a silly profession.

Here’s why it’s not.

The value of philosophy

Does philosophy teach anything useful?

You might think that studying philosophy doesn’t train you to do anything particularly well.

I beg to differ. Philosophy, perhaps, doesn’t yield many surface-level benefits, but don’t let that fool you.

According to this article by Zat Rana, “the most important skill in your life” is knowing how to think.

On the risk of sounding paternalizing, that is exactly the core business of philosophy.

Why is thinking well so important? According to Rana,

“The choices you make are influenced by the thinking patterns that guide your attention when you’re deeply lost in thought. The skills you learn are influenced at their core by what you currently understand about the world and how you reason with it. Every idea, ambition, and possibility in your life is directly connected to your ability to adequately make sense of your interactions with reality.”

To paraphrase: how well you think determines the limits of your potential.

That sounds like it’s important.

What does philosophy have to do with this?

Philosophy questions received wisdom and unclear thinking, uses critical reasoning, and draws on its rich history to help us think more accurately. It can help us better understand what we’re striving for, and why.

These are not just words. For example, Robert Rubin, secretary of the US Treasury from 1995 to 1999, wrote that “Plato and existentialism” helped him more than any other object of study in preparing him for a career in finance and government. Similarly, billionaire technology-entrepreneur Mark Cuban recently predicted that a degree in philosophy will be worth more than a programming degree.

Why does he think that?

Because, Cuban reasons, philosophy teaches you to “think critically and assess things from a global perspective”.

What philosophy is

On our annual family day, all my uncles and aunts ask me the same question: “So, Maarten, what are you going to become when you’re done with studying philosophy?”.

My answer: you don’t study philosophy to become something. Rather, studying philosophy is more about who you become.

By studying philosophy, you can become the kind of person who understands that you’re asking the wrong question when you ask what you become by doing something.

Philosophy teaches the skill to take an investigative stand — the skill to sense when one should be suspicious of what appears to be self-explanatory.

Philosophy, then, is about spotting the questions that should be asked.

Consider this one: what do human rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., Pope Benedictus XVI, billionaire-philanthropist (and founder of the Central European University) George Soros, comedian Ricky Gervais, WaitButWhy-writer Tim Urban and School of Life-founder Alain de Botton have in common?

Surprise surprise: they all studied philosophy.

Perhaps their training in philosophy helped them to develop an above-average sensitivity to what justice, universal human needs, a gap in the market, humor, worthwhile long-form writing and a life well-lived in an achievement-centered society could be.

Arguably, their philosophical inquiries did not cause them to go on useless pursuits but improved the interests that they had.

Also, note their diversity. Even though they all did philosophy, they went on to excel in massively different areas of society. To me, that shows that philosophy is not a fixed set of skills that we possess or lack, but is more like an attitude that we all have inside of us.

As Oshan Jarow writes in yet another discussion of academic philosophy on Medium, “one of the primary misconceptions to dispel is that philosophy is only relevant to those explicitly interested in it. Anybody who thinks about how to live is a philosopher”.

He quotes the writer and musician Sharon Lebell, who in her book The Art of Living clarifies the core business of philosophy:

“Philosophy’s purpose is to illuminate the ways our soul has been infected by unsound beliefs, untrained tumultuous desires, and dubious life choices and preferences that are unworthy of us.”

Being valuable versus being profitable

One would be forgiven for thinking that this picture is a far cry from the harsh reality of academic philosophy as sketched by its critics. Partly, that’s true.

However, the root of the issues of academic philosophy lies in the broader academic system, not in the philosophy-part.

The biggest problem of academic philosophy is that it’s part of an academic structure that is built around market forces. According to the current arrangement, academic disciplines don’t deserve money because they are valuable but are only valuable to the extent that, and because, they make money.

We live in age where universities have become degree-factories, producing as many graduates as possible to satisfy the government and secure funding. Students likewise bring an economical attitude to bear, choosing their degree based on expected salaries and job-market perspectives.

Whether you learn something is beside the point if you can become something with it.

To survive, universities are forced to focus on money and on prestige.

That means: CODE RED.

For an important part, academic philosophy has the suboptimal form it has because it is embedded in an academic system that has reduced value to financial profit.

It is a deep, deep mistake to treat universities as institutions that should make money and to judge the value of fields of study on similarly monetary grounds.

That needs to change.

It is my deepest desire to, at some point in my life, contribute to a transformation of our educational system.

I wholeheartedly belief that my philosophy education will help me to do so.

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