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What is Philosophy and What is it Good For?

Updated on December 12, 2013


In a purely etymological sense philosophy breaks down into the two Latin roots philo- and -sophy. Philo- translates to, "love of," and -sophy to, "wisdom." And so to call philosophy a study of wisdom is not a bad place to begin to answer this question.

The academic qualification, "Ph.D." is an abbreviation of Doctor of Natural Philosophy. Natural Philosophers, in eras now past, were what we would con temporarily call scientists. The divide between physical sciences and philosophy has been a slow one characterized by a central point of departure in methodology. While the physical scientist came to differentiate himself by the use of experimental design and observation, the Philosopher took the epistemological stance that discoveries could be made simply upon reflection, logic, and the tools of induction and deduction.

One of the most famous examples that shows the failing of this latter position is Aristotle's assumption that heavier objects will fall faster than lighter objects. It required Galileo actually taking the time to run an experiment to determine that Aristotle's supposition was wrong.

And so given that we have reached an epoch of such scientific specialization dependent upon rigorous experimentation what is the role of today's Philosopher?

Value in Means Rather than Ends

Philosophy's first use is in thinking outside of the proverbial box. We all operate on philosophical decision-making on a daily base, though we rarely take the time to notice. The very way in which we navigate the world and the problems with which it presents us in dependent upon a personal schema of the world, of the people in it, of ourselves, and on what we believe is to come.

This may very aptly be called a personal Philosophy and it is the coalescence of a personal interpretation of all the things an individual has ever experienced or learned. A good introductory Philosophy class will not teach you anything knew in the domain of what we call, "knowledge," but will rather help you to assimilate the knowledge with which you are already equipped into an intellectually honest and moral consistent approach to the world. If this approach is already operational then the class might help you to discover how you tacitly and perhaps subconsciously arrived at your present orientation. In fact an entire subbranch of Philosophy is devoted to the cognitive decision making processes we engage in and build upon to form a coherent monolith of our knowledge of the world (Epistemology). And, another branch examines the moral precepts which we hold dear and how they relate to a particular time and place (Ethics).

"Apart from it's utility in showing unsuspected possibilities, philosophy has a value-perhaps it's chief value-through the greatness of the objects which it contemplates..."
-Bertrand Russell The Problems of Philosophy

With personal interest driving the activities of most men on a daily basis, the objects of contemplation can be understandably banal. A navigation of daily concerns on subjects of limited scope being necessary for the flourishing of most people in most stations of life. The rut of menial assessment and contemplation can and does often become a stricture on the mind.

Our private musings and larger interest in issues that extend beyond our palpable and immediate world can become exceedingly terse as a result. Besieged as we our by the small-minded nature of thought imposed on us by society egress into issues beyond our immediate world becomes the only means of escaping a world of pressing yet ultimately menial concerns. A serenity is to be found in the freedom offered by Philosophy. This freedom is found in thought for thoughts' sake rather than for some other source of security, profit, or influence.

The enlarging of our mental horizons is best achieved when it is done non-purposefully and through a method of thought that does not seek immediate or tangible rewards. Philosophy, unlike many endeavors, necessitates the self to reduce it's ego and conform to the realities it finds without a predetermined goal or agenda. By such a process the Philosophers' world is enlarged against a backdrop of pecuniary and pragmatic concerns that constantly seek to shrink it. The goal of philosophy is to create an honest union between the world as we discover it and the not-self, rather than a compromise between the self and self-interest. In this way the self is quite unexpectedly enlarged.

Our thus, freed intellect, can freely find the universe and its contents and view them without the coloring of custom or the mark of self-interest but with a disinterestedness that is predicated only by a desire for knowledge. The Philosopher will be those that see beyond the distortion of our own perceptions and consequently be able to orient himself/herself to the universe in a stance lacking in solipsism.

This love of wisdom, once cultivated in the mind will find it's way into the manner by which one does approach the world. The Philosopher will see instead of only the fragmented parts presented by daily life the grander whole of which we are all apart. They will consider how individual actions affect that whole causing personal thought and action to expand to a circle of consideration quite outside of the immediate senses.

Philosophy is useful not for the answers it yields, since these answers can often only be provisional at best, but rather for the questions it asks. The contemplation of such questions often results in the rejection of divisive dogma, the fostering of imaginative thought, and the expansion of what is recognized as possible. The contemplation of the universe engenders the one contemplating it with some of that infinite wonder and internal cohesion it displays.

Is Philosophy a Useful Discipline?

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    • quicksand profile image

      quicksand 4 years ago

      Bertrand Russel explained Einstein's theory of relativity in a book entitled "The Universe And Dr Einstein." It was very impressive ... but Philosophy basically uses the versatility of language to confuse or convince. At times succeeds in achieving the former.

      Maybe I don't know the topic well enough to make a judgement as such. Please consider that statement as a mere observation on my part. Sorry if my views are contrary to yours. :)