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How to answer people who would claim that "philosophy is useless"?

My take:

"Philosophy, since it by def. considers fundamental matters, such as existence, cannot be rationally neglected, because the whole existence of the subject (you) is itself a philosophical issue. Thus the very moment of your current existence is questionable."

However, there could be counterarguments such as:

"I don't find this relevant."

"I don't understand it."

"Philosophy doesn't interest me."

...

What would one do then? Can philosophy be an activity only for "bright minds"? Who would understand that "I don't find this relevant." is a statement that's in itself questionable (what does relevant mean?").

Particularly, I think it's fruitful to understand that for linguistically developed humans, many language constructs contain philosophical problematics.

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    LOL - Ask them how they define "useless." – David Blomstrom Apr 1 at 18:28
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    Saying "I don't find this relevant" and saying "it's useless" are very different. Are you asking how to convince people that they should find philosophy relevant or how to argue that it's not useless? – Eliran Apr 1 at 18:33
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    Get personal: "No, YOU'RE useless." :) In all seriousness, the moment they begin discussing what they mean by "philosophy", "useless", and their reasons for why they think philosophy is useless, they're sort of doing philosophy and are probably even expressing sentiments of some philosophers towards some branches or schools within philosophy. "Oh you think speculative metaphysics is useless? So you're probably a naturalist then..." – Adam Sharpe Apr 1 at 18:47
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    How is this different from what people say about mathematics or string theory? "Philosophy doesn't interest me" is as perfectly fine as "mathematics doesn't interest me", to each their own. And that despite the fact that one can equally say "math is everywhere", or "string theory is the theory of everything", etc. – Conifold Apr 1 at 19:44
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    it is usless, imho, but then many of the best things are – another_name Apr 2 at 18:29

12 Answers 12

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The standard answer could be put in this way : " one does not ask, on the basis that he does not play any instrument, whether the conductor of the orchestra is useless." . Being " useful" ranks low on the scale of values. Philosophy is not there to serve, but to command or organize. It is the conductor of the orchestra of sciences.

This does not mean that scientists of all sorts should listen respectfully to the Philosopher, but that any scientist ( specialized scientist) is a philosopher when he asks himself the question of the usefulness of his own knowledge, that is the question to know to which extent his specialized knowledge serves the advancement of human wisdom.

Philosophy is not a discipline , a special knowledge, it is an attitude towards knowledge, it is the effort to make human knowledge itself useful , be this knowledge theoretical or even practical.

My answer is not a personal opinion, it is the standard answer in western philosophy ( Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Husserl, etc.)

Remark .- It is a great mistake to confuse philosophy with erudition. Nothing is more common amongst philosophers than a severe critique of " vain erudition" , "useless knowledge".

  • But it seems from the context of the question that the question is about philosophy as a discipline (or subject) i.e. what use is getting an education in philosophy. So saying "philosophy is not a discipline" doesn't really cut it in my opinion. – Cell Apr 2 at 0:36
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Here, for the word 'relevant', you could take the meaning "appropriate to the current time, period, or circumstances; of contemporary interest".

"I don't find this relevant."

"I don't understand it."

"Philosophy doesn't interest me."

When answering to these questions about a subject like Philosophy you should consider individual differences also. So, IMO, you had better ignore the last 2 responses. But if he sticks to the first one, you could convince him asking different questions according to his character and ability. If possible, you could show a few relevant questions appeared in SE philosophy regarding ethics. (Ethics is comparatively essential and directly related to life rather than other branches of philosophy.)

If still impossible, you could tell him about his real life experiences that strike his mind:

E.g.: Don't you kiss your daughter...? Your mother, wife and daughter...they are all females, aren't they? But do you kiss them alike; with the same feeling...? What makes you control your feelings towards different people? Was it deliberately or unknowingly...? If you were in an uncultured society how would you behave...? Actually, we, humans follow many rules for our better peaceful life and these rules are developed through philosophy. We usually don't feel or think about the discipline dealing these types of issues.

If still impossible, you just leave him...his own life-experiences would teach him and make him think of the ideas in some branches of philosophy. But before leaving you may leave this idea for his thought: "If philosophy is a theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behavior, what you used now to argue for your ideas is according to your philosophy and it is your Philosophy."

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Turning the objection against itself

It's a nice twist that philosophy gave us utilitarianism, which is the basis of your question. And even if it hadn't, the question whether an activity or inquiry is answerable to 'usefulness' and only to usefulness is itself a philosophical question. (What other type of question could it be ?)

Some suppose that philosophy has practical relevance in delivering or vindicating moral principles or in providing political prescriptions. Or in helping us to get analytically clear(er) about the dilemmas that beset ethics committees in their all too practical decision-making. Well, it may be so.

But I feel safer on different ground. It strikes me that whatever activities or inquiries one is engaged in, questions naturally arise that are philosophical. A historian will find it hard not to ask herself at some point in what sense if any the past, which she ostensibly examines, exists. The present might exist, the future doesn't - does the past? And if the past doesn't exist, it can't be known by the historian. Or if it can be known, then in just what sense does it exist and what kind of knowledge is involved.? Not knowledge by acquaintance, for sure. A historian may spend much or little time on such questions but they they will insinuate themselves as puzzles or paradoxes into her thinking, almost certainly, at some stage. Their 'usefulness' is irrelevant. They are presupposed to what she is doing and they will strike a reflective mind at some juncture.

In the law and in everyday practical matters we hold ourselves and others 'responsible' for what we are doing or have done. There are criteria of responsibility in various jurisdictions and societal norms determine, usually less than rigorously and consistently, who's responsible for what in the ordinary way of things. It doesn't take much reflection for questions to obtrude themselves : responsibility involves causality but what concept of causality is in play ? Does it involve determinism and exclude free will ? What is it or would it be for someone to have free will ? And so on and on. These questions might or might not have practical utility but they are philosophical questions that break in on, I'd say, any mind that thinks and ponders - natural dispositions for some or many of us whatever their usefulness or lack of it.

History, law, the ordinary business of life. My few examples can be multiplied indefinitely.

Countering the counterarguments

How to answer people who would claim that "philosophy is useless"?

My take:

"Philosophy, since it by def. considers fundamental matters, such as existence, cannot be rationally neglected, because the whole existence of the subject (you) is itself a philosophical issue. Thus the very moment of your current existence is questionable."

However, there could be counterarguments such as:

"I don't find this relevant."

"I don't understand it."

"Philosophy doesn't interest me."

If you take my approach, these counterarguments don't work. They are fine against people who try to press philosophy on you as something in which you should be interested. But on my approach, philosophical questions arise within one's own activities and inquiries. If, say, a historian, reflecting on her activity or inquiry, is struck by puzzles about the past - e.g. (and crudely) 'how can I know the past when it doesn't exist ?', the counterpoints 'I don't find this relevant' (but it has arisen as relevant to her), 'I don't understand it' (she don't understand her own question ? interesting). 'Philosophy doesn't interest me' is self-refuting since she has started doing philosophy in posing her question about the past.

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The main problem with arguing for the relevance or utility of philosophy is that the arguments against are pretty good. In other words, a lot of modern philosophy has very little utility and next to no relevance for the vast majority of people.

For example, you may state that one cannot rationally neglect the study of ontology but the evidence against you is overwhelming. A very large number of people have, very successfully, rationally neglected it. There's even been a fair amount of success irrationally neglecting it.

It also doesn't help that there is a tendency for amateur philosophers to believe that saying "ah, but what do you mean by..." is somewhat deeper than it actually is. It's also pretty irritating as a receiver of such profundity.

Accepting the above (which you aren't required to do, of course), I've had some success by, well, accepting the above i.e. agreeing that some philosophy has been pretty useless.

But there's a catch. Where philosophy has become grounded in utility, it is usually spun off as its own subject. Natural philosophy became the sciences, political philosophy became politics. Economic philosophy became, well, you get the idea. Very few people would argue that these fields lack relevance and utility.

So I argue that what's left in academic philosophy are the fields where, explicitly, we haven't nailed the utility yet. That's not to say that we necessarily ever will. Personally, I can't see ontology ever being more than an intellectual parlour game.

But some fields are much more pressing. And the stand out one today is consciousness. It is absolutely imperative that we gain a better conceptual understanding of consciousness and our moral and legal relationship to it. The reason, of course, is the rapid progress in Artificial Intelligence. That progress may stall but it would be horribly remiss for us to rely on that happening.

This is a hugely relevant topic, slap bang in the remit of philosophy, that must reach utility in the next decade or we could be in a lot of trouble.

So that's the approach I take: accept some of the criticism with good grace and point out the successes and the challenges. If my protagonist is still uninterested then that's fine too.

Oh, and one final point. Please please don't argue that philosophy is for "bright minds". It comes across as extremely arrogant and, unfortunately, isn't always true.

  • As you stated, unfortunately it became very hard to explain most people the value of philosophy. Even today, to increase the speed of human and technology development, as experimental methods and calculations are becoming very complex, we need to improve scientific methods and metascience. However due to the mindset of today's politicians philosophers are not seen as productive and funding is limited (even worse than scientists). I think it is very important to cope against this problem. – Adhamzhon Shukurov Apr 2 at 13:35
  • I am an engineer, but I think the future depends more on professional philosophers than us. – Adhamzhon Shukurov Apr 2 at 13:36
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It is interesting to examine the answers here. There is no defense for university philosophy against the charge of uselessness. It is useless.

The current Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics clearly states that philosophy is useless. Departments are closing and professors are losing their jobs. It is a hot topic of debate in the profession and nobody knows what to do about it.

The solution would be to do philosophy properly and abandon the usual parochial and traditional approach, but as things stand it is possible to become a professional philosopher while having no acquaintance with vast areas of the field.

I could rant all day about this problem and sometimes do. Philosophy in our universities is dead and rigour mortis set in about a century ago, with the death of the quantum pioneers. I would advise budding philosophers to stay well away from American and European universities. Courses are the kiss of death for any chance of understanding the topic.

I'm amazed that students put up with the nonsense taught by their professors. It is surely obvious that they don't understand philosophy. It is even obvious that they cannot defend themselves from the charge of uselessness. I followed the debate for a year or so, largely thanks to a professional website called 'Daily Nous', and the ideas proposed for saving the department and proving philosophy is useful were pathetic. Not one person besides myself suggested improving the way we do philosophy.

This is a major global academic scandal. Philosophy must be the most badly taught subject in the university. Prior to the internet there were understandable reasons for this failure, but nowadays there are none and no excuses.

It is my hope that websites like this one will help to bring about change.

  • Here's an answer to your question, but you will need to read a short document to get the gist of what the author actually put forward. In his 'On the Improvement of the Understanding" and by asking the very philosophical question; 'What can the human mind entertain with actual certainty?' Spinoza upon years of reflection recognized that we know things in three ways; 1-Hearsay, 2-Rationally, 3- Through; Intuitive Understanding. Once we grasp the significance of this the practicality involved in truly 'seeing' what one cannot possibly know, saves a lot of otherwise wasted time? Check it out! 43p – Charles M Saunders Apr 3 at 20:13
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    @CharlesMSaunders - I would be very disappointed not to have a better grasp of the issues than Spinoza. . – PeterJ Apr 4 at 12:01
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Ask what the claimer (C) finds useful.

Assuming C finds something (Let it be 'A') very useful in life, ask C why finds 'A' very useful. After you get the answer ask how the claimer came to idea of 'A' being very useful. Then ask how useful it was to know 'A' was useful. How would C's life have changed if C didn't know the importance of 'A'. Then ask how important it was to be able to know what is useful and what is useless. Continue in this manner, eventually the claimer will find self deep in the ocean of philosophy to defend the idea of 'A' being useful.

Hopefully, it will be much easier to explain the importance, after C knows how it is like to be deep in the ocean of philosophy and realizes how important it is to make some individual logical decisions based on real life and imaginary events to understand meaning of life and be more prepared and calm when unwanted and/or unfortunate event occurs in the future.

And likely C will later notice that to increase the ability to make better decision it is necessary to make more decisions. To make more decisions, one needs more events that require making a logical decision. Some events that require making decision are risky and/or dangerous. Some might have never happened, but possibly will happen in the future. To make more decisions one does not need events to occur in real life, imagination can also help to improve our decision making. We can never know what would happen in the future, but we can still decide what we would do if some particular events occur in the future, thanks to our imagination, ability to think, ability to question, to plan,...

Yes, we can have partial solution to a problem that has never occurred in the past. We can have meaningful life without having enough resources. We can still be calm and happy when we are under pressure and/or having many problems in our lives. We can even have very happy and meaningful life in a prison with isolated prisoners.

Scientific methods, technology, verbal communication, and everything we have now has evolved due to our curiosity, questioning, thinking, imagining, having distinct logic and opinion, creativity and learning. Mind and backbone of any knowledge we have now is philosophy.

If C understands value of these things, hopefully will understand how useful philosophy is.

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The question „Is philosophy useless?“ has been discussed already in the early days of European philosophy: In his dialogue „Gorgias“ Plato simulates a discussion between the two persons S. and Ch. Person Ch. claims:

Even if a man has good parts, still, if he carries philosophy into later life, he is necessarily ignorant of all those things which a gentleman and a person of honour ought to know; he is inexperienced in the laws of the State,and in the language which ought to be used in the dealings of man with man, whether private or public, and utterly ignorant of the pleasures and desires of mankind and of human character in general.(484c,d) […] Philosophy, as a part of education, is an excellent thing, and there is no disgrace to a man while he is young in pursuing such a study (485a)

His opponent S. is an elder man who names himself a "lover of philosophy" (482a).

Both persons are fictitious. On one hand, Plato figures Socrates as person „S.“ – but it is debated, how much of his thoughts are due to the historical Socates and how much is due to Plato. Socrates in his apology (36c) describes the role of philosophy in his life as the ongoing task to improve the character and the knowledge of his fellow men. On the other hand, person „Ch.“ is the rhetorician Challicles – but it is debated whether he is a historical person and whether he is representative for the profession of rhetoricians.

To find out whether „philosophy is useful or useless for oneself“ one may ask oneself questions like:

  • If I‘m a faithful Christian: Do Plato’s arguments in favour of the immortality of the soul actually confirm my believe in an afterlife in heaven?
  • Is my attitude concerning causation and indetermism influenced by Aristotle’s theory of the four causes?
  • How much does Hume’s claim mean to me that causality reduces to habituation?
  • How often in my life did I reach a moral decision after considering the problem in the light of Kant’s categorical imperative?
  • etc.

If I actually find some insights from philosophy, which I could not get by reflecting my own life experience, then philosophy was useful for me.

Anyhow, if I enjoy rethinking and questioning the thoughts of philosophers, why not doing philosophy as a hobby?

Of course, not every person has the same hobby and not every hobby fits to everybody.

  • (A Christ, or a christian?) – Joachim Apr 26 at 9:30
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I'm new here...not too late for the party, I hope.

This has been a fascinating discussion to me, because I'm a wannabe author who's facing this difficulty in selling my work. I've been working on this particular issue since 2003 when I started my doctoral program in education. Like most busy professionals, relatively few education professors relate to philosophical theories, and ethics (in the department where I worked) referred to one operational function - that of the committee which approved all research on human subjects! That subject had no presence in the preservice teacher course curricula...it's no wonder that few non-professionals, and not all professionals, have much interest in discussing morality.

As for the principles of coherency and justification - don't they seem to be too abstract for most people?

I approach the question from an ethical perspective. Are people wrong to engage in the difficult cognitive work of figuring out how deep questions about values, motives, cognition and emotionality relate to what they already know? It takes experts decades to manipulate high level abstractions coherently, and most people never spend that much time on learning any subject very deeply. Are we to expect people to understand how those topics apply to what they know and what they do? Are they mistaken to believe that they can't learn to understand them without spending a great deal of time and effort? Should we expect them to put their lives' priorities aside to do that?

If we belittle people for their disinterest, are we adopting a mistaken, pernicious, or arrogant attitude? If we believe that we’re superior people because we studied stuff and we understand things that some people can’t imagine, are we correct to use our opinions (objective as we might believe them to be) to justify our supposed glory?

Ok, clearly I prefer questions to answers, so I’ll summarize what I hope I’ve implied clearly enough. People aren’t wrong to have opinions, and opinions about what complex ideas mean can’t be absolutely true, and we can’t prove our opinions or our beliefs to anyone - let alone someone isn’t interested. People's opinions and priorities aren't necessarily fodder for our judge-mental mechanisms.

Instead of dealing with recalcitrant attitudes, we should target the children; they’ll learn whatever they’re told!

I believe that: If the basic principles of higher order thinking (critical thinking, morality and social consciousness) were somehow incorporated in the curricula of most educational institutions, then future generations of students could learn to deal with uncertainty, human nature and social issues in more effective ways. That’s the thrust of the project I’ve been developing for the past nineteen years.

I welcome any support for my project or discussion of my work.

  • I agree with your general point that all children should be taught philosophy, but until the profession has shown that professional academic philosophy is not useless I'd want to be in charge of choosing the teachers. No point in teaching children to be as confused as the profession. Your project is admirable, but it isn't going to get far while children can justifiably ask whether the philosophy they're learning is useless. . – PeterJ Apr 7 at 11:53
  • Thanks, Peter. Academic philosophy is useful to academics if they're happy with talking to other philosophers. I'm working on distilling key insights from educational philosophy and ed psych, translating them into language that student teachers can comprehend, and supporting them in applying critical thinking in their lives and applying critical pedagogy in the classroom. If that would happen then perhaps the teachers would be equipped to spend their lives thinking and learning deeply, and to spend class time demonstrating how that's done for their students. – Rortian Apr 7 at 14:37
  • If the professionals did it better then the school-teachers could teach something more useful. As it is the methods of philosophy can be usefully taught but the pupils are left to fend for themselves when it comes to making sense of the subject, and usually they are taught it would be impossible to do so. . . – PeterJ Apr 8 at 9:50
  • "usually they are taught it would be impossible to do so" In practice I would agree, but that's because there's no institutional support...which seems necessary. That just means that there's work to do, not that it's impossible. – Rortian Apr 8 at 18:12
  • I'm not suggesting it's impossible to make sense of it, I believe quite the opposite, but that it's impossible is the common view in the profession. Otherwise there's be no excuse for failing. . . . – PeterJ Apr 9 at 8:18
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The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.

Emphasis mine.

So, show its relevance, as the quote and its emphasis says.

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Philosophy is useful because it makes it easier to solve problems.

Anything that improves your analytical skill is useful, the question is to what extent and how efficiently.

Life is a series of decisions to be made on limited information. Making those decisions correctly decreases the amount of pain you feel in life. Studying philosophy can be argued to improve your analytical skill, thus making it easier to make those decisions.

It is certainly possible to have more pressing responsibilities than philosophy. It could be argued that philosophy is "useless" to man who is near starvation. To contrast, formal logic would be extremely useful to someone studying computer science as it enhances one's analytical skill and thus the ability to earn a living through writing software.

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Useful Is The Wrong Word

I don't know about "useful" since the meaning of that word is way too broad to allow for much clarification. Philosophy has definitely had a major cultural influence in the western world, though, especially in both the academic and general cultural environments. It is this. We now live in a society and culture where a basic materialistic perspective is more or less accepted as the norm. (Even, I would argue, unconsciously by those who consider themselves of a fundamentalist religious persuasion.) In the form of physicalism and/or scientism, it is certainly pervasive in academia and this is largely the result of philosophical developments over the past century or so, especially the rise of analytic philosophy and its general support of a physicalist perspective. This influence has been, as I say, subtle enough that people with no familiarity with the subject still have the stereotype of the "ivory tower" academic perched somewhere way beyond the concerns of ordinary life. But this is far, far from the truth. Science is the "new religion" largely as the result of philosophy's getting involved in pushing it as the new orthodoxy of belief in the form of "scientism"....

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People claim uselessness for various things. Mathematics could be useless. Art could be useless. The hairdressing skill could be useless if you are not a hairdresser. Just show them philosophy is required or preferred for some jobs.

But teaching someone philosophy would be a different thing. Many people could develop their own philosophy if they had to deal with difficult enough things that potentially involve a lot of different parties. They may also get something in essence philosophy from news, daily conversations and fictional stories. They may say your philosophy is useless, not all philosophy, especially if your ideas involve a lot of history.

In your listed counterarguments, they should mean something else: You likely defined more terms, or set more rules (or we call both of them axioms), than the points in the conclusions. There are no perceived predictiveness in such communications. There isn't much could be done. If you are well respected, just let them know enough of your arguments on different things until they find some useful patterns, that they couldn't replicate without philosophy. If not, they may think you are a loser for everything, even in philosophy. This is not much of a problem for an educator because you are supposedly well respected, and have the chance to let them hear a lot.

If you don't mind teaching them wrong things, also notice that such people are more likely vulnerable to ideas like "(famous people) said that", "it should be like this because it is a (concept unknown to them)". You may take advantage from this. But overusing it would make you more difficult to communicate actual philosophy.

The problem is, the most easily observable parts usually fall under other names, such as "logic". If you have a way to prove its usefulness quickly, there would be a specific domain for it.

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