This is a question I've been thinking about the last week or so, and this question on Meta SF got me itching to ask it somewhere. Oh, look! Philosophy SE!

What is the purpose of learning? By extension, what is the purpose of instruction?

A couple of notes to help put this question into the perspective I see it from:

I frequently see instructors (or SE answerers) who clearly have the sought-for knowledge, but who refuse to share that knowledge directly. In fact, simply giving someone the answer is widely regarded as a disservice to the recipient, though I am unaware of any actual scientific study to justify that supposition.

This perspective indicates that many people may regard the purpose of learning as a selfish endeavor (i.e. to accomplish a needed personal/family/work goal only); that knowledge is not obtained in order to be shared. There is also the implication that the knowledge itself is less important than the means by which the knowledge is obtained.

In the context of SF, I know most askers come to that site with a problem that needs to be solved, and once the problem is solved they have no more interest in the knowledge they came seeking. But in a broader context, such as secular education, religious instruction, personal interest studies, etc. there is rarely that immediate need to solve a problem, and therefore learning must serve some other purpose. I guess I just assumed that sharing the knowledge was part of that purpose.

  • 1
    Regarding "... widely regarded as a disservice to the recipient". This isn't the only reason. For sure it better to teach people to learn rather than spoon feed them. We don't tell people to do their research because we think they should practice doing, but because we don't want to let people "cheat" the rest of the community by offloading the effort of research onto other people (there's some game theory here, but I'll skip that). I think making the argument that we're doing them a disservice is a little disingenuous.
    – Lucas
    Apr 3, 2014 at 0:30
  • @Lucas Sorry, I didn't mean to imply anything against anyone by that comment. I only mean to point out that "spoonfeeding" someone is (and it is) widely regarded as a disservice to the person being spoon-fed. I.e. that learning for yourself by experience is somehow better than learning by instruction. It certainly is not the only reason for the rules and principles that govern SE, but it is one of them. Akin to the "axiom" regarding giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish - tho I question how accurate that "axiom" really is. Another question for another day.
    – Thomas
    Apr 3, 2014 at 3:01
  • You have nothing to apologise for. I didn't intend it to be a complaint, only to draw attention to the potential misuse of the spoonfeeding argument by someone who really means, "I suspect them of being lazy, and it pisses me off".
    – Lucas
    Apr 3, 2014 at 3:50
  • I think the issue can largely be boiled down to your axiom (paraphrased from Anne Isabella Ritchie). Ideally, you want to teach people how to learn, which sounds weird but is exactly right. Although it can be, the fact that some people don't want to share needn't be on idealistic grounds: Say person A had to work very hard to get knowledge X on their own, then person B asks person A to give them knowledge X. "I had to work for it, and so should you". This style of thinking is seen everywhere - e.g., why resident doctors are still forced to work 36hr shifts, even though it's bad for patients. Apr 6, 2014 at 19:03
  • @EleventyOne In Jane Addam's (a friend of educational philosopher Dewey) Democracy and Social Ethics, she criticises the "factory owner philanthropist" for thinking their status results from the personal qualities they value in themselves (specifically, hard work) and then making the unjustified leap of assuming that the status of the poor is a result of not having the same virtues that they see themselves having. The "factory owner philanthropist" sees the poor's difficulties as stemming from a lazy attitude and that they deserve condemnation rather than sympathy. Seems relevant.
    – Lucas
    Apr 7, 2014 at 0:06

7 Answers 7


I think the purpose of learning can be defined according to what kind of value we derive from it, and that this value can be of two kinds: intrinsic and instrumental value.

Instrumentally Valuable Learning

I learn X because it will accomplish Y (now or some time in the future).

This kind of learning has instrumental value because it is valuable only insofar as it will accomplish some end. For instance, a student who studies accounting may not enjoy the subject but he nevertheless studies it so that he can pass an exam.

In the context of SE, I know most askers come to that site with a problem that needs to be solved, and once the problem is solved they have no more interest in the knowledge they came seeking.

As you have mentioned, people on SE sites ask questions but often they will not pursue the answer to a question to learn but to quickly solve a problem. This is also an example of transactive memory where the burden of learning is relieved by an immediately applicable answer to some problem.

The "selfishness" you attribute to certain answerers on SE who answer and then leave is more to do with expediency than selfishness, I think. As an aside, there may be even extrinsic motivators at play here like accumulating SE reputation or enjoying acclaim from the community.

But in a broader context, such as secular education, religious instruction, personal interest studies, etc. there is rarely that immediate need to solve a problem, and therefore learning must serve some other purpose.

The above statement can be addressed by returning to our student example mentioned earlier: the same student who studies accounting may toil over his studies for years to pass all his exams, tests and assignments so that he can one day earn a degree making him employable after his studies. Learning can therefore have short and long term instrumental value.

Instrinsically Valuable Learning

I learn X because it is an end-in-itself; I simply enjoy learning X

This kind of learning has intrinsic value because the learner considers the subject he is learning as an end-itself. It is contrasted with the previous kind of learning.

It is possible that somebody learns something simply because they enjoy it or because they consider the learning the summum bonum of life. Philosophy is by definition, the love of wisdom, and its study is an example of this kind of learning.

I would say that this kind of learning is rare. In practical life there are few places where learning is considered intrinsically valuable. Employers and institutions care about how much you have learned only to the extent that you will produce more and/or better quality work for them. Even philosophers must treat their studies as a means to an end sometimes so that they can publish for money and put food on the table. So yes, I would "regard the purpose of learning as a [largely] selfish endeavor".

I hope this adequately addresses the points you have made in your question.

  • I had forgotten that I'd left this question without an accepted answer for so long. I think your answer encapsulates the other good answers but in a more general framework that can be applied (at least somewhat) universally.
    – Thomas
    Aug 21, 2020 at 16:35

The purpose of learning is, minimally, to survive. The world is so complex that we as individuals cannot be specified de novo to operate in it. Rather, even during development there are massive amounts of learning that shape who and what we are. (For example, refinement of visual cortex.)

The fundamental point of learning--to be able to deal better with the complexities present in the world--never really changes, even if it no longer becomes a matter of life and death once you've learned enough. (Even so, if you don't ever remember (i.e. learn) where you parked your car, you could have some trouble.)

Social animals tend to like social interactions. In humans (but not only), this includes teaching each other. It's also usually more efficient to learn something from someone else than to figure it out yourself from scratch, so given that we have finite amounts of time to learn useful things, it's a good strategy for all involved (at least in the pass-it-forward sense).

  • Wrong. To survive you need nothing but environment, animals learn nothing and they will out survive audience of the internet. AND, learning is already ability to deal with complexities. From start. Its clearly visible in children. Why people forget good old debate of Tabula rasa i don't get. Fundamental point of learning is LIFE, it is the way of existence. Nothing more (hardly there can be more) and nothing less. And to answer what is point of learning we need to answer what is point of LIFE?
    – Asphir Dom
    Apr 6, 2014 at 19:53
  • @AsphirDom - Animals learn nothing?! What definition of "learn" are you using?
    – Rex Kerr
    Apr 7, 2014 at 2:19

Great question. Something I think about often.

I would start by saying that in every particular case the point of learning something is to know it. Thus in general, the point of learning is to know.

The next question I would ask: what is the point of knowing?

  • I would define learning as "the obtaining of knowledge" and thus, by extension, my question is "what is the purpose of knowing?" I suppose I should have made that more obvious.
    – Thomas
    Apr 3, 2014 at 14:08

I would differentiate knowledge from learning. They may even almost appear opposed at first. Knowledge here as closed schema, static hierarchies, systematized distances -- pre-formatted affects, percepts, concepts. At the limit knowledge is "what everyone knows", or the common-superficial image of thinking. Whereas learning is open, dynamic, horizontal, et cetera.

The general system of knowledge is an assemblage -- it is rooted or at least hierarchical, as though flowing from principles, and permits us to believe in its universality and naturalness (the certainty that good will is sufficient to discover the truth.)

Learning is an encounter, a series of critical events distributed around a singular process of assembly with an outside. It exposes us to chance, new responses. It does not reproduce a structure, but passively permits one to emerge through modulation, developing and organizing it as the phase-space engendered by the phenomena is navigated.

Experimental or empirical knowledge as opposed to rational or pure knowledge is one way to render this. But perhaps the trick comes in seeing one from the perspective of the other; sickness from the perspective of health. Not a relativity of truth but rather a more subtle truth of relativity. Struggle versus memory, differential repetition versus direct reproduction: there are different kinds of truth, noble truths and vulgar truths; with the different ways of feeling and the different images of thought that they deserve.

We have the opinions we deserve; but I am tempted to emphasize here our feelings, our capacity to be affected and become-sensitive to different signs or phenomena, to new distributions of the intolerable and tolerable, the remarkable and the uninteresting -- our capacity to create new senses, new problems, be affected by different things, feel differently, and finally think differently.

The transition between phases of a life or points of view (that makes us 'idiots') also brings new opportunities for development and organization, even new conceptual and perceptual potentials -- being affected by new signs, forced by them to a new labor of decoding, the work of thinking (which never exhausts or perhaps even touches what it 'thinks it thinks'...)

  • Further things to explore here might be models of pedagogy (developing innate abilities versus 'downloading' knowledge)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Apr 3, 2014 at 2:07

There is no universal purpose for learning which applies to everyone. Just as there is no one reason why someone becomes a Doctor. Some become Doctors to help people, Some for social status, some for the money...

The purpose of learning for many people is a means to an end. So it is easy to see why many people prefer a spoon fed answer when asking a question.

Sometimes the purpose of learning is for the satisfaction of gaining knowledge and better understanding for no other reason then to"know". Myself for example consider learning a hobby and enjoy it for its own sake.

The best way to answer a question or pass on your knowledge to another is to empathize with the goal of that specific individual. If they want a quick answer then give them one. If they want deep understanding then take the time to help them understand.


Compare someone who reads a lot and knows a lot with someone who doesn't. The value will be readily apparent. Classically, learning and especially liberal learning increases our freedom. It increases possibilities for us and our decisions. Finally, learning positivily changes the quality of our mind, our most valuable asset. A well conditioned mind can understand and assess new concepts and ideas with ease.


The purpose of instruction is to know the end goal and help the apprentice by guiding him.

The purpose of learning is to get familiar with the current state of reality and how to cope with it.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.