Is Philosophy useless?

Whenever I tell someone that I have studied Philosophy, the first question is always the same: „Why would you do that?“ 

Because it’s incredibly useful! Philosophy is a highly practical craft—the craft of thinking.

Here are five useful things that I have learned from studying Philosophy:

1. We often use words that we don’t understand

After I attended my first lecture on philosophy of language I left the lecture hall with a feeling of enthusiastic delight—and soon it dawned on me why. The professor practiced what he taught. He took the audience on a joy ride of crystal clear thinking. How did he do it? He chose every word of every sentence with utmost care.

The use of correct words has the power to connect minds. We can only think as one if we know what we are talking about and thus—talk about the same thing. It sounds so obvious. But all too often I use words without knowing what they actually mean. And this has led to a good share of pointless and boring conversations.

Practical application:

As a consequence I have made it a habit to look up even deceptively simple words. The purpose of this habit is not so much to be right but to establish common ground for a good conversation.

And it makes all the difference. Discussions improve dramatically and lead to fresh ideas instead of exhausted headaches.

The dark side:
Some analytic philosophers argue that insights can only be gained from a rigorous analysis of words. As a visual person I find this claim odd. After all, we call them “insights”, not “inreads”—right?

2. Arguments are better than opinions.

The problem with opinions is that they cannot be verified. They are usually based on unquestioned beliefs. An argument on the other hand can be verified for two reasons: It is based on knowledge and logic.

Just like an opinion, an argument can be wrong. But there is an important difference: It is open for correction. We can always go back and double-check the facts on which we build our argument. And we can reassess whether our reasoning is logically sound. This is why arguments are such a powerful tool to improve our thoughts about the world.

Because mere opinions lack this mechanism they are useless at best, harmful at worst. They can stifle the exchange of ideas. Philosophers are mindful about the plentitude of opinionated fallacies, and they make painstaking efforts to identify and avoid them.

Practical application:

Whenever I start a sentence with the phrase „I believe…“, I remind myself to stop and think. Is my argument based on facts? Is my reasoning rational and solid? If it isn’t, that’s good news, because I can go back, adjust my point of view and learn something new.

The dark side:
We can obsess with logical arguments and get stuck in the conviction that everything can be explained rationally. Let’s make sure that there is also room for cultivated irrational thinking, like poetry or humour.

3. Sometimes words must be complicated

It can be frustrating to read philosophical books. In my first semester you could find me crying in desperation: “Why did these people write such incomprehensible jargon?” I think I know the answer by now: Because the world is a complicated place.

So sometimes we even need strange words like „logos“, „a priori“, or „dasein“, because we don’t have ordinary equivalents in our everyday language. And we stay blind to these things unless we have words for them. We must stretch our vocabulary to make room for a richer experience of the world.

Fortunately there are simple summaries of complicated books that help us get a foot in the door. Yet, they come at a price: It is very hard – if not impossible – to simplify and at the same time not distort the original content.

This is why philosophy teachers will urge us to immerse ourselves in the strange language of the original texts. If we want to truly understand a philosophical concept we need to drink straight from the source.

Practical application:

Great thinkers can alternate between simple and complex language as needed. We can practise this skill with a classic exercise for philosophy students: the reconstruction of a complicated text. In this exercise we try to summarise its content in our own words as accurately as possible.

The dark side:
Of course some people use complicated words to intimidate, impress, and overwhelm. There is a real danger of writing incomprehensible texts that nobody reads or cares about. Such a habit can lead us straight into the abyss: a snobbish attitude, which assumes that everybody else is just too stupid to understand our gibberish. So yes, let us use complicated words—but only when necessary!

4. Our thoughts are rooted in those that came before us.

Words and ideas accumulate over the centuries as sediments of a long history of thinking. Every word we use in our daily conversations has its own history. Whenever we talk, we move between different layers of our conceptual heritage. We speak in the voices of our ancestors.

We must understand the thoughts of the past to understand ourselves today.

Practical application

It is fun to do a little detective work and trace back the historical origins of words and ideas. Quite often we discover that we weren’t the first to stumble across some insights we thought were our own. And what’s more: Our ancestors often articulated them better than we ever could. We can even trace back how those ideas played out, which helps us understand how we might benefit from them today.

The dark side:
When we read the works of great thinkers of the past it is hard not to feel humbled. After all, many of them were freak geniuses. For mere mortals like myself this can be quite daunting and choke every attempt to contribute my own thoughts. There is a temptation to hide in the shadows of the greats and resort to just reconstructing and quoting their ideas—to get stuck in historical preservation. Confronted with the masterpieces of the past we must learn how to balance our respect for the greats with the courage to think for ourselves.

5. Philosophical books are time machines.

Old books let us see the world through the eyes of someone from a different time and place. We get a glimpse of what life looked like from the perspective of a Roman emperor, an ancient Chinese politician, or a medieval French monk.

Seeing things from a distance

Quite often their way of thinking appears strange or even absurd. At the same time they also show us the absurdity of our own thinking, and how it is shaped by the views and circumstances of our time. Just like travelling to a foreign country they distance us from what we are used to and lets us reexamine what we find normal in a fresh light.

Practical application:

Reading the views of different times and cultures can be difficult, even upsetting. To accept different perspectives requires mental flexibility. It stretches the mind, which can be uncomfortable, even painful at times. But just like stretching our muscles makes them more flexible, being exposed to completely different perspectives makes our minds more elastic. In times of rapid change like ours, such a flexible mind finds it easier to cope with new and unfamiliar ideas.

The dark side:
There is a danger to read things into historical texts that aren’t there—maybe in an attempt to compare our current situation to those of the past. Our first step must always be to understand their historical context. Seeing the context does not mean that we have to approve. But it is vital to refrain from interpreting old ideas by today’s standards. We must understand them on the terms of their time.

These were just five out of many lessons that I learned from studying Philosophy. Here is why I find them so important:

Philosophy is useful 

We live in a building made of our thoughts. These thoughts are our home, they shape how we experience the world. Opinions and beliefs are shabby building material for such a home. If we build ourselves a palace made of solid arguments and beautiful ideas, then others will love to come visit.

Philosophy is the craft of building such a place. It can help us to think clearer and make better decisions. It can also help us communicate and think together. So yes, and yes again: Philosophy is useful.

But I would go even further.

Philosophy MUST be useful

With all its benefits, pure academic philosophy comes with its share of pitfalls. I have pointed out some of them as dark sides. Philosophical efforts can degenerate into pure scholarship—or worse. We risk to get lost in ideas that are completely detached from our everyday lives and other people. Much like a greenhouse, the isolation of a University can protect and foster the early development of ideas. But it can also stifle the maturation of these ideas, if they don’t have to prove themselves out in the open.

Like every noble craft Philosophy needs feedback from reality. We have to test the utility of our ideas in the open waters of everyday life—and risk to be wrong.

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