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How is philosophy useful? Examinging its practical and real-life impact and the benefits of getting a degree in philosophy

Many people today are of the opinion that philosophy as a discipline is somewhat irrelevant, or worse.

Others, meanwhile, seem to have taken a stance more akin to Jonathan Barnes, who says:

I don't believe that professional philosophy has much to offer non-philosophers on non-philosophical matters. Why should it have?

Personally, philosophy and philosophical thinking have shaped my life greatly, and continue to do so. But when I consider participating in it as a formal discipline, I'm left wondering whether doing so can have any meaningful impact on the world. What is the present relationship of philosophy as an academic discipline to the world at large? Are there concrete, tangible ways that philosophy can be seen to impact people other than philosophers?

Some potential examples:

  • Do businesses or legal firms consult philosophers on matters of ethics?
  • What recent political movements find their basis in a particular philosophical school?
  • Could the current direction of one or more sciences be said to be influenced by a particular philosophical bent?
  • Are there are any signs that philosophy itself as a social movement is happening somewhere around the world to any sustainable degree?


The best answer will effectively summarise the "current state of affairs" across as many different aspects of society as possible.

  • What is wrong with this question that it has been closed? Commented Nov 1, 2011 at 15:11
  • It is basically a duplicate; if you give could us a bit more here maybe? @Rice It's just a little too open-ended and chatty to be particularly helpful here -- the question-line is basically a poll. The tone it adopts is also not particularly NPOV. The questioner could certainly enhance it by specifying his concern a bit more clearly -- maybe also unpacking the question to tell us about his context and motivations.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Nov 7, 2011 at 3:44

1 Answer 1


A straight answer is difficult as this is very open ended, I can give examples for one side (that philosophy matters in the 'real' world) and limited argument for the other (it doesn't matter).

For the relevance/impact of philosophy:

  • the study of ethics matters quite a bit. One source of jobs for a philosophy PhD grad (as limited as it might be) is direct employment by a hospital as a bio-ethicist (having relevant background of course.
  • philosophy of science directly affects the conduct of experiments.
  • the study of mind directly affects the treatment of psychiatric problems (what does it mean to have a piece of your brain injured?)
  • I claim that the undergraduate study of philosophy in general is a better preparation for study of law than other humanities (literature or history) because it directly exercises arguments.
  • I can't think of any particular recent philosophical theories of government (actually I can't think of any recent ones at all) that inform current political movements, but certainly all major revolutionary movements in Europe since... let's say the Glorious Revolution were informed by (OK maybe soon thereafter justified) philosophical movements. (this list can keep going)

Now for the other direction. Yes, you're right, philosophy really is pretty disconnected from the 'real' word, with its synthetic a priori and categorical imperative. Really, it is the height of ivory tower ethereality. Only academics read their publications. The great majority of words written is commentary on commentary, and the few original works are about made up problems. (this may sound sarcastic but it is as sincere as the first part).

Now rather than try to weigh these two sides, I'll deflect...consider other faculties of the modern university, say those mentioned before, literature and history. I think it is obvious that literature has less impact than philosophy. As to history, I feel the need to justify the same claim. How can study of the American Revolution possibly have an impact actions taken today? All you really need to study is the newspaper -now-; the news -now- is what makes an impact on next week.

It would be boringly self-supporting here to say that philosophy matters. And it's too easy a target to say philosophy is irrelevant; there're no facts there. Let's be philosophical and empty (they're almost the same!) and say the truth lies somewhere between the two.

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