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I am new to the study of philosophy.

I wonder if there is an overarching purpose or aim to philosophy?

I have explored the idea that all the thematic areas of philosophy point to an aim of something like 'improving quality of life'.

(As I've read these first replies they have prompted me to believe that if the study of philosophy or simply philosophising doesn't help me to improve my life and the lives of those with whom I share this world then it has little relevance to me.

Or maybe I have discovered MY purpose in reading philosophy?)

Any thoughts?

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    Does this answer your question? Why should I read about philosophy? Apr 11 at 20:22
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    The point of philosophy, roughly speaking, is to increase and refine our understanding of reality.
    – NotThatGuy
    Apr 11 at 20:56
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    nice to know nice stuff
    – andrós
    Apr 11 at 21:32
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    Are you wondering what is the purpose of purpose?
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 12 at 0:08
  • 3
    The aim of Philosophy is to get better at Philosophy. You have to decide if that helps you.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 12 at 10:43

10 Answers 10

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The problem--as with everything in the philosophical world--is that you'll get very different answers from different philosophers. For Plato, it's a path to deeper truth. For Hume, it's just entertainment. For Descartes, it's a foundation for knowledge. For many of the empiricists, it's a language to talk about science. For Wittgenstein, it was a set of linguistic puzzles.

My own answer is that it's a way to explore questions beyond the realm of established, consensus beliefs and processes. It's useful because it expands the reach of the human mind. If science is a light that illuminates things within its beam, then the philosopher is the person who doesn't mind exploring in the darkness. If established beliefs and values are a ship on the ocean, then the philosopher is a lone swimmer seeking out new islands.

There's a concept known as the "perennial philosophy" (called that by Aldous Huxley) which claims that all philosophers throughout time have been engaged in the same basic project, which we can gloss as "uncovering the deeper patterns under the surface appearances of the world." I happen to believe that myself...but many philosophers would likely reject that claim.

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  • do those differences point to be there being no over-arching purpose or can you read e.g. plato looking for linguistic puzzles?
    – andrós
    Apr 11 at 21:39
  • @user66697 - I've added a paragraph. I have a lot of other views on the subject, but that shades over into original philosophizing, which is off-topic for this forum. Apr 11 at 22:04
  • that's really intersting, thanks! i read brave new world and tomorrow and the doorways a long time ago. maybe leave the middle paragraph for comments?
    – andrós
    Apr 11 at 22:11
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    @user66697 The fancy term for different opinions for philosophy is metaphilosophical theories.
    – J D
    Apr 12 at 12:29
  • Good answer. But I'd say that philosophy students are far more than mere "lone swimmers seeking out new islands" compared to the "ships" of orthodox thought in the ocean. They are trained to seek coherency, consistency (both self-consistency and empirical observations), contrast and substance in whatever views are propounded on life questions. Consequently philosophy students are keenly logical, rational and normally ethically-minded individuals in whatever field they pursue afterwards, e.g. law, medicine, management, accounting, etc.
    – Trunk
    Apr 12 at 16:14
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Using a big brush, an overarching purpose for philosophy is to explain the world. Science and Religion are also hard at work trying to explain the world.

Consequently, there are overlaps between religion, philosophy and science.

And determination of who is more successful at explaining the world would come down to personal preferences.

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    And, effectiveness. Existence always has veto power.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 12 at 10:28
  • @ScottRowe - they blocked me from asking questions on philosophy.stackexchange :( Apr 12 at 15:32
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    SE has veto power too.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 12 at 17:56
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Marilena Chauí has the following passage in her book "Convite à Filosofia" ['An invitation to philosophy', my translation in what follows]

Why Philosophy?

Many people ask another question: so, what's the point [or use] of Philosophy?

It's an interesting question. We don't see nor hear people asking, for example, what's the point of mathematics or physics? What's the point of geography or geology? [...] But everybody finds it very natural to ask: What's the point [use] of Philosophy?

In general, this question receives an ironic answer, well-known to philosophy students: "Philosophy is a science which with it or without it, the world remains as is". That is, Philosophy has no point [or use].

I tend to think of philosophy and philosophical problems as some of the most important stuff there is, because it's the sort of thing we'd still do even if all of the world's "practical" problems were solved: these are problems that wouldn't (can't!) be solved by practical means, of course, and they are very dear to us, and speak to our curiosity like very few other things do. Really, just look at history and see that once some greeks had nothing much to worry about in their daily lives, they went and 'invented' philosophy, mathematics and olympic sports! ;)

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    Modern people, on the other hand, invented social media.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 13 at 12:08
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    @ScottRowe it says a lot about the spirits of the times
    – ac15
    Apr 13 at 12:43
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    I'll drink to that!
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 13 at 12:58
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Alwyas a bit risky trying to demarcate subjects, but one way to approach it is to think why do we do Philosophy? What prompts someone to ask "What is the philosophy of X?" (where X can be practically anything!)

To ask about the philosophy of X is different than to ask about the contents of X. For example, take X to be "mathematics".

Content of Mathematics consists of axioms, theorems, proofs, definitions etc.

The philosophy of mathematics consists of foundational questions:

  1. What is a number?
  2. What is a successful proof?
  3. Is mathematics created or discovered?

The American Philosophical Association has a breakdown of the subfields of Philosophy. We can see that it can be broken down into three "buckets"

1. General philosophy: (let's call these "perspectives")

  • Logic: What is correct reasoning?
  • Metaphysics: How many categories of things fundamentally exist and what are their properties?
  • Ethics: How do we decide what we should do vs can do?
  • Epistemology: How do we know things?

2. History of Philosophy:

3. Special philosophy: General philosophy applied to a specific topic.

I like to think of Philosophy as a matrix. You have columns being the general philosophical perspectives and the rows being domains/topic of application.

One domain is "General" to capture, say, foundational metaphysics that applies overall. Then we have an ever-growing list of topics of application.

In each case, we want to know something about the what are the elements we are discussing, how do we gain knowledge of them, how do we reason about them, and what are any ethical considerations.

So to me that is the purpose of philosophy. If I ever need to understand how the four core "Philosophical perspectives" apply to something, I am engaging in philosophy (even if it is being done by a non-philosopher, which is probably where 99% of philosophy happens....poorly lol)

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  • i remember completing my undergraduate study and my last tutor ssaying "your grades have improved, why?" "i was not as good at philosopjhy" then hanging my head in shame and correcting msyelf "i am taking my medication"... these are different pursuits IMVHO
    – andrós
    Apr 11 at 22:48
  • +1 Risky? Rushing a machine gun nest is risky. I'm not sure petty squabbling over words counts. ; )
    – J D
    Apr 12 at 12:31
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    @JD that's what happens when you try to demarcate countries.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 13 at 12:02
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    @ScottRowe Thank you for emending my thinking. I guess the petty squabbling over words and lines in some contexts culminates in rushing machine gun nests. It's a shame the squabblers aren't the one's compelled to rush. ; )
    – J D
    Apr 13 at 12:17
  • @ScottRowe — as always thanks for the humorous take :-)
    – Annika
    Apr 13 at 13:26
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I like to think of philosophy, not so much as the study of / search for TRUTH, but as the study of what the best ways to find truths might be. Truth is still the centerpiece, but in a more meta-way.

How can we find out what's true? If this person says this is true, and that person says that is true, how can we tell who we should believe? Maybe this person has evidence - should we care about evidence? Why? Maybe that person can show that this other person's beliefs are internally inconsistent, contradictory - should we care about consistency? Should we care about contradictions? Why?

Why should we care about evidence, consistency, contradictions? Why should we care about parsimony and simplicity?

And how can we turn our tools of thought in on ourselves, and investigate the questions of our own biases?

I think these are some of the most important questions for Philosophy to answer - not What's True?, but instead, What are our tools to find and distinguish truth, and why should we trust them?

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    I think that people generally accept something as true on a social basis, if most everyone agrees. Philosophy could be thought of as a way to defend arguments that are new or not widely agreed to. Science often has one or a few people producing knowledge that overturns widely accepted ideas, so it is inherently unpopular and suspect. As individual scientists developed many new ideas over the past 500 years, there needed to be a better system for evaluating claims and assertions than a popularity contest. We have a better system, but it is not accepted and is unpopular. Oops.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 12 at 10:39
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Maybe I can provide an answer with a slightly different taste. At least it is the answer that resonated well with me after I found other answers, similar to ones also given here, a tad bit disappointing, even though each one is still correct in its own right.

A purpose for studying and doing philosophy is to be free of it.

I reached this answer simply by reusing the answer provided by Yuval Noah Harari to the question of why do we study history. "We study history to be free of it." (Probably not a completely accurate quote) It might be worthwhile to try to give your own best answer to the purpose of studying the history and compare with this one first.

Those who do not do philosophy can still be constrained and limited by it, or at least by some non-formal and minimally defined version of it. For example, almost everyone is capable of being logical, no matter the level of education. And there is a very high probability that the law of non-contradiction is implicitly accepted. But law of non-contradiction is not some unavoidable, definitely true and infallible truth. Accepting it is a philosophical stance. There are non-standard logic options to attest to this. Once this is learned, a constraint is removed in one's logic. If getting rid of law of non-contradiction is a bit too big of a pill to swallow, you can do the same thing with the law of the excluded middle, which is generally less divisive option and a good bulk of mathematics already relies on it.

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    We could say, "Those who do not learn from Philosophy are doomed to be defeated by it."
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 12 at 10:42
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I wonder if there is an overarching purpose or aim to philosophy?

Finally a chance to share some insight from mathematics.

Joel David Hamkins says,

There is a general pattern of inquiry in mathematics and the sciences by which an investigation begins in philosophy, using philosophical ideas that may be initially quite vague, but which become increasingly clear upon further philosophical analysis, in such a way that the ideas eventually mature and the investigation finds a home in its natural discipline, unmoored from the philosophical origin. The history of science is replete with instances of this philosophy-into-science phenomenon.

...

And user djechlin posted an answer in response to the question "Has philosophy ever clarified mathematics?"

...

So philosophy that elucidates mathematics is simply... mathematics. Most obviously Russell and the development of set theory. Modernly I don't know: I think the interesting stuff is happening at computer science/philosophy and physics/philosophy which trickles into mathematics. I'm posting this largely because I think the question is slightly broken because philosophy doesn't really work to clarify a field where it has already been clarified.

Secondly, remember that broadly the point of philosophy is to make things not philosophy. In extremely simplistic historical terms, once natural philosophy becomes rigorous it becomes science, once philosophy of language became rigorous it became linguistics, and today we're seeing philosophy of mind turn to neuroscience.

So to answer the original question, the purpose of philosophy is to help refine answers to perhaps vague questions, and with enough refinement perhaps graduate a particular study into its own scientific field.

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  • And Philosophy of Philosophy remains, stubbornly, Philosophy.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 13 at 11:58
  • While the transition of philosophical questions into specific scientific domains illustrates the utility of philosophy in advancing knowledge, how does engaging with philosophy directly contribute to one’s personal growth and well-being? In what ways can philosophical inquiry itself, rather than its scientific offshoots, improve our understanding of what constitutes a good life and guide us in achieving it?
    – IanG
    Apr 13 at 18:32
  • @IanG That sounds like some good followup questions you should post on the site.
    – BurnsBA
    Apr 13 at 23:54
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Yes, there is an overarching purpose to (the study of) philosophy.

It is to learn how to think imaginatively, rationally, sensibly, ethically and purposefully.

That these skills may be learned while considering the many questions of life - some mundane, some fascinating - is both a motivation and a bonus of philosophy in the same way as fitness and health are a bonus of participation in sport. But they are not the main thing.

The main thing is the honing of one's mind and senses, one's emotions and spirit that results from seeking a better acceptance, understanding, application and communication of the nature of Nature.

And that very significantly improves our capacity to play our own humble part in advancing humankind.

You may ask, could not other studies achieve much the same or arguably better outcome - like someone who studies science/engineering and is then able to ease mankind's everyday toils ?

The problem here is that the practical person's journey is frequently interrupted by considerations outside the scope of the immediate problem he/she is trying to solve, e.g. economic environment limits the range of solutions, human greed leads to strong competition, fashion and social affiliation lead to irrational consumer choice, interpersonal rivalries can be demoralising and so on. In time, every practical person acquires from experience the philosophical skills required to help achieve their main goals - but this can take decades of personal experience.

Students of philosophy will learn from thinkers of the past as well as from arguments in the seminar room the core principles of successful thinking.

And this helps them see far quicker than their non-philosophy peers what is likely to "work" in the totality of the real world.

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    Although convincing your peers remains just as difficult.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 13 at 11:54
  • @Scott Rowe In their 20s, most peers will baulk at the idea of a BPhil being on the same high-grade MBA course as say graduates of economics, business or even engineering. Come the end of the course, I am not so sure if the same peers haven't absorbed via human osmosis if not careful observation that whatever philosophy studies, it certainly teaches students how to think. Major professions and corporate employers seem to be convinced at any rate.
    – Trunk
    Apr 13 at 14:49
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    Could you elaborate on how the skills developed through philosophical study specifically contribute to practical outcomes in real-world scenarios, perhaps providing examples where these skills have clearly made a significant difference?
    – IanG
    Apr 13 at 18:28
  • It obvious enough, I think, that logical analysis skills would enhance performance in such fields as law, diagnostic/forensic medicine, software testing, financial analysis, management science, etc. Likewise the study of epistemology would serve well those involved in history, journalism and law. An appreciation of ethics would serve marketeers, lawyers, managers and public administrators. Aesthetics study would benefit artists, architects and other creative vocations. Political philosophy familiarity would surely benefit those involved in the management of organizations - public and private.
    – Trunk
    Apr 14 at 20:58
  • It's easy enough to find software testing engineers who majored in philosophy. Lawyers and judges too. Google them up. As to your request for specific examples where these skills made a significant difference - this will always be a matter of opinion to some extent but we should give due weight to the opinions of the practitioners themselves. I don't suggest that you Google too hard here as "essays" on the usefulness of philosophy tend to be published for their readability or entertainment value than their serious import. I'll have a look around for serious contributions and report back.
    – Trunk
    Apr 14 at 21:16
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Yes.

...

Oh, you wanted me to name the overarching purpose, not just say whether one exists? Darn.

As others have pointed out, the answer varies greatly from philosopher to philosopher. Personally I learned the most about philosophy from an entertainer, Alan Watts:

A philosopher is a sort of intellectual yokel. They go around gawking at all the things everyone else takes for granted!

I find a bit of levity is useful in such an otherwise serious discussion.

All amusement aside, I find a gem of truth in what Watts says. A philosopher strives to take as little for granted as possible. They take assumptions that everyone generally assumes to be true, such as "life has value," and boil it down as far as they can go, shedding as many assumptions as possible along the way. Often this resolves frustrating paradoxes or provides key insights along the way.

As an example, take a rather famous problem: the simulated universe. How do you prove you aren't just a simulated entity in a simulated universe being fed simulated stimuli? How can you be certain you are "real?" This can be a very disconcerting line of reasoning to go down, if one makes a lot of really natural assumptions about reality. Philosophers will strip this down, questioning what reality means in the first place, and what it means to exist. They don't always get to the same answers (rarely do they get to the same answers), but when they're done, they find a single thread of truth in the whole business. Maybe they argue like Plato that all of our senses are but shadows on a cave wall. Maybe they argue that simulated entities do exist and are real. Maybe they argue there are some aspects of human consciousness which are not simulatable.

What's the value in this? It might be hard to see. There's a reason I like Watt's definition of a philosopher. For the most part, we live our lives free from worrying about such paradoxes. Or, in some cases, we rely on a priesthood to tell us the correct answers about them. In such capacities, we need not philosophy. But if one wishes to explore what they really are, that requires diving into those questions others don't answer.

And doing so looks an awful lot like gawking at all the things everyone else takes for granted!

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Well, all these answers are indeed usefully and provide food for thought, but the objective aim of philosophy ( beyond time and culture), is in fact one : to stop (or minimize) the pain.

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