Academics treat philosophy like more of a discipline one does simply because one can. If you were to ask an academic what the purpose of philosophy is, they're likely to be confused by the question.

In contrast, the ancient Greeks, the Romans, and the Scholastics, believed that philosophy is an indispensable component of human life.

Thus after Scholasticism (1700 AD), and before today, something changed. But what? And when?

(Hat tip: Lucretius)

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    I know of no academic philosopher who believes their profession is "not useful". Wherever did you get that idea? Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 17:39
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    @GuyInchbald most recently from philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/2220/48008 (but please don't make this about Rand because I don't care about her, for this question). This was also my experience talking with every-many philosophy undergrads, when I was an undergrad. Further, Alain de Botton has positioned himself in such a way which suggests he believes academic philosophers have abandoned the goal of usefulness. Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 18:44
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    Well all I can say is that if those undergrads didn't know what they were doing there, it must have been a lousy course. We all knew perfectly well. I took degrees in three subjects at three unis and my time doing philosophy was way the most intellectually and personally productive. Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 19:03
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    Math undegrads often express the same sentiment, as do practically oriented mathematicians about large parts of their subject, but that does not make it "the mathematicians" deciding so. Neither did "the philosophers", so the answer to the title question is never. And the opinion that the faith directs one's life the best without any philosophical clamor was quite common during the middle ages, so the answer to the last question in the post is nothing. The golden age is always in the past because anecdotes of the present are more familiar than anecdotes of the past.
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 8:53
  • Ethics is arguably useful for societies both to design their institutions (voting and governance systems) and to determine a stance on particular questions of importance (stem cell research). Epistemology continues to be important for distinguishing (to put it simply) good from bad science. If academics believe that they do not need philosophy, then only because many of their established practices emerged from philosophy. This does not mean that philosophy does not continue to shape these practices, though in a less dramatic way.
    – HRSE
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 3:22

6 Answers 6


There's two sides to this issue. First, the Hellenistic period (and honestly, most Western philosophy up until the Enlightenment) was steeped in virtue ethics, and virtue ethics focuses on the development of proper (idealized) human character. Virtue ethics is inseparable from daily life, because daily life is the context in which virtue is both developed and expressed. When consequentialism and deontology entered the scene as competing theories, philosophical thought became more detached and abstract. Philosophers became less concerned with trying to 'live' the moment correctly, and instead sat back to mentally work out consequences, or devise systematic rules that could be applied across a range of situations. These more 'cerebral' schools took on prominence in academic settings, because academics settings naturally lean towards detached, abstract reflection. Note that there was a prominent philosophical rebellion against this — through Kierkegaard and Nietzsche into phenomenology, existentialism, and associated movements, where the focus is on the primacy of 'experience' — but all of these movements found a much better home in social and critical theory than in philosophy proper. Academic philosophers kept to a detached, analytical, almost 'clinical' perspective, while those who wanted to 'live' philosophy went into more active, socially-oriented fields.

Second, there's a distinction between 'knowing' and 'understanding' that cannot be understated. One can understand something well without much knowledge, and one can have a tremendous amount of knowledge without understanding anything at all, but in general the accumulation of knowledge (theories, facts, and information) becomes a tool for developing understanding (practical, living wisdom). Given the amount of raw theory and information in the modern world, it's good and useful to have people who focus on gathering and organizing knowledge, without expecting them to be practitioners as well. I mean, we expect a gynecologist to know a tremendous amount about human reproduction without expecting him or her to be constantly engaged in the act of human reproduction. Such acumen is useful to us when we reproduce; it doesn't need to be founded in the gynecologist's own life experience. Likewise, academic philosophers can tell us a lot of useful material without necessarily living it on their own. The mere act of presenting what we collectively know in a (comparatively) accessible form has value.


I will enlarge upon Nuclear Wang's reply by turning the question around a bit, as follows.

When did natural philosophers (also known as scientists) decide that philosophy was not useful, and why?

I believe this change in thinking about the natural world occurred along with the development of the scientific method, when its practitioners grasped the idea that simply because we might think or philosophize that the world should behave in a certain manner, based on logic or pure reason and our intuition (and hence not requiring experimental verification), it did not mean that the natural world will behave in that manner. There was when the split between science (as "natural philosophy") and what remained, which we might call "philosophy", first started.

This split has widened over the centuries as more and more parts of philosophy were discovered to have sufficiently strong scientific underpinnings that they stopped being issues for philosophers to debate and instead became topics of scientific research.

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    Easy - when natural sciences/math/medicine started to seriously deliver results and insights. Todays philosophy has been stuck with discussing historical positions, and (seldom) adding some new views... but for the most part, either with no intersubjective validity, or with no real applicability. And opposed to philosophical theories, one can't argue a steam engine or a semiconductor in fact do work, regardless of personal convictions or any deontic implications.
    – jvb
    Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 7:46
  • @jvb, you are exactly right. why not post this as an answer? Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 15:53
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    because my comment above was actually written in anger. I studied both in parallel (a STEM discipline and philosophy), but didn't complete my philosophy degree because of the prevalence of rumination in teaching ("no, just tell me what famous person X was thinking, I'm not interested in your opinion" - in advanced studies!). So I'm too biased to make an unemotional contribution to this question. Philosophy probably isn't dead (attributed to S. Hawking), but p. teaching unfortunately is (at least where I made my attempt).
    – jvb
    Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 19:13
  • I'd take this answer a step further and assert that there were specific unsolved problems in epistemology, specifically relating to taxonomic classification and application of logical reasoning over composite concepts; and this is what drove the need for that change in thinking (c.f. the discovery, loss and re-discovery of propositional calculus).
    – Parker
    Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 20:15
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    philosophy is a "subject of the gaps"?
    – benxyzzy
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 5:44

Philosophy became more limited in scope during the 19th century. In the time of the ancient Greeks, philosophy encompassed all forms of knowledge, but specialized subfields of physics, medicine, astronomy, and so on later emerged and became distinct from philosophy. In the past, philosophy encompassed pretty much all knowledge, but today, it's a much more limited field. I don't think anyone has ever declared that philosophy is "not useful", but it stands to reason that a limited subfield is less useful than a field that encompasses it. Algebra is not as useful as mathematics as a whole, classical mechanics is not as useful as physics, and botany is not as useful as biology. In this sense, modern philosophy only encompasses a small portion of classical philosophy, and could be argued to be not as useful. Philosophical questions have become more limited in scope, but not necessarily importance.

  • I largely agree although influential figures such as Stephen Hawking already declared "Philosophy is largely done for. That is a bit of a stretch and was put bluntly if not offensively, but he has got a point.
    – dezdichado
    Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 22:24
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    Further to @dezdichado's example, logical positivists/Vienna circle members either considered philosophy useless or narrowed its utility to something very narrow, e.g. clearing up semantic disagreements (although more than one such person lived long enough to change position on this).
    – J.G.
    Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 20:36

In the old joke, a college president complains to his physics professors that they are always asking for expensive equipment. All the mathematics teachers need is pencil, paper, a wastebasket, he says, and the philosophers don't even need the wastebasket.

There has always been a feeling among many that philosophy is useless or worse, and one can find this sentiment expressed not only by Aristophanes, for example, but by several interlocutors in the Platonic dialogues. In "Thesis on Feuerbach," Marx famously complained that heretofore philosophy has only described the world, when the point is to change it.

Philosophy, after all, does not put food on the table, win battles, or construct machines. As others here have noted, philosophy did engender many academic disciplines, from physics and psychology to sociology, computer science, and modern economics.

But once these fields became mathematically formalized for control and prediction, in other words "useful," they were no longer part of "philosophy." Of course, the very idea that "physics is more useful than philosophy" is itself a philosophical assertion, not something you can prove within physics.

There is something about philosophy that is inimical to practical applications. One could think of it like art as an end in itself not a means. Once the argument becomes a "means to an end" it is no longer philosophy. Science, for example, is means to the end of understanding causes for purposes of prediction. But it is engineering that turns this into "useful" things, not the science per se.

Since philosophy considers all assumptions to be fair game for critique, it cannot arrive at the sorts of axioms that make science "work" and its findings transformable into technologies. That conditional "suspension of falsification" in the "working theory" defines a "cause" but not the cause of the cause, the infinite regress of "because" that compels philosophy.

Since Socrates, philosophy has been a kind of via negativa revealing what we don't know. Yet, this is useful, many would argue! It is a method of revealing our false assumptions and vast complexes or shaky beliefs. As Mary Midgley notes, philosophy is everywhere and a bit like plumbing. You just don't notice it or think you need it... until the assumptions start to break down.


The purpose of philosophy was and is to set the limits and consequences of religion

There are three ways to know something: by observation; by inductive reasoning; and by revealed wisdom from a divine entity. (Even this distinction requires relatively sophisticated philosophy, of course.)

The key point of philosophy is that a reasoned argument can proceed from some basis (which may be observations, revealed religious truth, or hypothetical what-if scenarios) to the consequences. The basis for argument may have errors, but the chain of reasoning can be made without error.

Initially, the key point was to work out the corners of religion. If your god or gods gave you rules, how do conflicting rules work? What happens in exceptional cases? If following the rules properly affects your treatment in the afterlife, this is important. This is the purpose which rabbis and Jesuits, amongst others, would value religion for. And also, importantly, you can find what things you can do without your god or gods caring about it. When your king may want to levy taxes, start wars or whatever, this sets what might be within the king's authority and what is set by religion.

The Greeks weren't too dogmatic about religion though, and that set the scene for observing the world and working out the consequences of those observations. Other people such as the Babylonians had rules about what had to happen at equinoxes or other similar events, requiring them to observe the world to work out how to best follow their religion. That's where natural philosophy comes in.

Religions being what they are, sometimes they conflict with observed reality. They then have two options: either acknowledge the conflict and work out how to deal with it (generally by regarding the text as parable instead of truth, such as the Catholic Church accepting evolution); or by believing that this observation is a test of faith and we cannot believe what we see (such as the evangelical view of evolution). Either way, it tells you those limits.

And moving forward, atheism and agnosticism are relatively modern concepts. From the idea that there may not be any god, humanist philosophy has given us morality from first principles without needing any religious text. This is now the basis for law in most of the world - and where is isn't yet, it's generally on the way. This makes it still highly valuable. Medical ethics is one very visible application of this.

So in short, no-one has decided philosophy isn't important - because it still is.


Obviously one can challenge the premise a bit, but I think there an (excessive in my view) humility at times in contemporary philosophy. (Though there are plenty of counterexamples!)

I don't know precisely when this became the case, but in Anglo-American philosophy I think it arises from - epistemic deference to the natural sciences and empirical methods generally, and a soft form of cultural relativism which makes people nervous about absolute ethical or aesthetic claims.

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