Is Philosophy Useless?

A common misconception about philosophy is that it is useless. It is often assumed that philosophy is useless. Philosophers often help fuel this misconception by creating the impression that they simply split hairs and debate endlessly about meaningless problems. These charges do have some merit-philosophers, like all academics, often get lost in their ivory towers and become needlessly isolated from the world. Because of this, it is not unfair to conclude that at least some of what philosophers do is quite useless. However, it is a mistake to assume that philosophy is useless.

This misconception often rests on how people define “useful.” People who have this misconception often define usefulness in a very narrow and very concrete way such as making money, baking bread, or killing lots of people. Even under these narrow and concrete definitions, philosophy is still useful. As will be shown, philosophers have made many useful contributions. In addition, there are broader definitions of “useful” that seem quite plausible. Under very limited definitions of “useful” most of the sciences would not be useful either, which seems to be an implausible view. In order to make good on these claims it must be shown that philosophers have (as philosophers) made useful contributions. This is easily done.

One major contribution made by philosophy is science. Science originated in philosophy and philosophers were also scientists-in fact, in the past little distinction was made between the two. Science is based on and utilizes philosophical methods. In the past, some types of science were often called “natural philosophy” and even now doctorates in the sciences are still called “philosophy doctorates.” Famous philosopher-scientists include Thales, Descartes, Bacon, Newton.

A second major area of contributions is in the realm of logic and mathematics. Mathematics and logic were developed by philosophers such as Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, and Pascal. Science, technology, and engineering depend on mathematics and logic. Logic is the basis of computers-ranging from PCs to car chips to digital phones to hand held game systems. In is no exaggeration to say that without philosophy, the modern information economy and technology it is based on would simply not exist. Critical thinking was developed by philosophers and this is quite a useful thing.

A third major area where philosophers made great contributions is in society. Philosophers have laid the foundation for rights, reform and revolution. Aristotle developed political science. Hobbes developed the theoretical justification for the modern state. Locke developed the notion of God-given human rights. Adam Smith laid the theoretical foundations for capitalism. Henry David Thoreau created the concept of civil disobedience. Marx and Engels developed the theory of Marxism. Martin Luther King, Jr. refined and applied the concept of civil disobedience. These are but a few examples. It is quite clear that society has been shaped and influenced in many ways by philosophers.

A final major area is the realm of ethics. Philosophers developed the notion of formal ethics and ethical reasoning is philosophical. Ethics and ethical debates are a critical and unavoidable aspect of life.

Thus, philosophy hardly seems useless. Of course, most of these contributions lie in the past and thus one might ask “what has philosophy done for me lately?” and “what will I get from studying philosophy?” Fortunately, philosophy still has much to offer.

First, the study and practice of philosophy develops essential skills. These include critical thinking, logical thought, problem solving and writing skills.

Second, the study and practice of philosophy broadens the mind. It enables a better understanding and appreciation of your own views. It enables a better understanding and appreciation of other views. It encourages intellectual tolerance. It encourages the development of intellectual imagination.

Of course, studying philosophy is not without risks or side effects. Philosophy can result in some confusion, doubt and distress. These can be natural side effects of thinking and questioning previously held beliefs.

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