This may be more of a sociology or psychology question as I do not mean "What is the point of philosophy today?" (You can find many related questions at my favorites.)

Then what I mean is, how does one go about helping "non-philosophers" understand philosophy?

  • Lecturing about philosophical systems, no.
  • Telling allegories, such as The Cave or The Drowning Child, does not help.
  • Giving good books, maybe. What books do you recommend? besides books that a "prospective philosopher" wants to read (such as one, two or three)?

Although, there were a few that came from these links:

Then again, these books seem to make philosophy a plaything, something used an infotainment toy or a way to be pretentious.

The real question depends on its audience. One may take well to The Allegory of the Cave when they are young, but most adults are different. Or are they not? Furthermore, younger people may want to know more about philosophy from something such as this illustrated book, but not adults.

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    As you already pointed out, this might rather be a sociology or psychology question. Why did you decide to post it, nonetheless?
    – iphigenie
    Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 13:38
  • John Dewey mentions how formal academic language alludes the masses of people, just from philosophers using seemingly technical language used. On a similar note (and With the above mixed in), a potential case is when non-philosophers see only "historical philosophy," such as people and movements.
    – adamaero
    Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 13:49
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    This may be a reason, thinking of philosophy as an addition to history: "I believe that philosophy in America will be lost between chewing a historic cud long since reduced to woody fiber, or an apologetics for lost causes (lost to natural science), or a scholastic, schematic formalism, unless it can somehow bring into consciousness America's own [self-interest] needs [incentives] and its own implicit principle of successful action."--John Dewey
    – adamaero
    Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 13:49
  • McDermoott in "The Philosophy of John Dewey Vol 1. The Structure of Experience," continues this thought with how, "[Dewey] insisted that the meaning of life was to be found in 'growth'--that is an embodied process--rather than a state of being, such as happiness or success." Therefore, another, more fundamental, potential case is the underlying assumption that telos always comes down to some form of happiness.
    – adamaero
    Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 13:50
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    +1; it seems like it would be valuable to have a Phil.SE question on this to refer folks to. I'd also wager that folks here have more of an idea why than sociologists or psychologists.
    – labreuer
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 18:12

5 Answers 5


In light of the edits made since I actually composed this reply, I will answer your question first and address your further requests regarding assisting laypeople in understanding philosophy later.

The problem is not that philosophy has no value in today's society, which would rather pertain to a different discussion altogether; the problem is that philosophy has so many branches that seem to be alien to one another, and that philosophy itself is not a science that can be neatly ordered into categories. Philosophy is also not universally underpinned by mathematics, and remains qualitative.

What does this mean? Allow me to explain step by step. The value of a subject has no influence on how necessary it seems to people. It is no challenge to explain sociology, psychology, number theory or English literature to laypeople, and yet these subjects are still viewed by many as dubious for their respective reasons—all of which apply to philosophy. Sociology and psychology might be treated with a degree of scepticism because they are not scientific, that is, quantitative in practice or underpinned by mathematics in theory. The subjects are also very accessible in a pseudoscientific way to pretty much anybody who is aware of a vague definition of the terms. Plenty of streetwise people will be very good at first-hand psychology for having met and interacted with so many people and having so much experience, though they would perhaps struggle to write an academic paper on behavioural trends they identify in people. Sociology and psychology also have a reputation for being 'soft sciences' because of their relative ease and accessibility compared to physics or chemistry—primarily because not a lot of mathematics or scientific method is involved in general practice. It is true that fairly advanced statistical mathematics can be involved in both subjects at an academic or 'research' level but when a subject's credibility is constrained to academia, this only serves to reinforce the scepticism of the layman, who is reminded of the practical applications and generalised, quantitative character of mathematics or physics every time he sits down to do some personal bookkeeping or talk about cars.

Despite the appreciation mathematics gets from laypeople, however, branches such as number theory or set theory which deal with very abstract concepts are also treated with suspicion and are difficult to explain or justify to laypeople because of the lack of obvious application in real life. It is true that one would rarely find themselves needing to derive the natural numbers from the cardinality of sets proceeding from the empty set, but such abstract investigation provides the foundation for everything that sits above in calculus, physics, chemistry, statistics and so on. This abstract character of pure mathematics precludes it from being accessible to the layperson.

English literature is likewise taken with a pinch of salt by the layperson because the acts of reading and interpreting The Odyssey or Don Quixote do not prove really useful in jobs that laypeople admire. It is true that while degrees like English literature are these days advertised as providing 'transferable' skills to the plucky graduate, no law firm is going to pass up a law graduate for an English literature graduate because no relevant knowledge will have been acquired during the latter's degree. While laypeople may concede that interpreting and understanding metaphors in classical literature, discerning the subtleties of social commentary in modern literature and deciphering the true meanings of obscure poems does require a talent they may not possess, they will not see much justification for a subject that exists for its own sake and does not really provide knowledge about practical things.

Each of these reasons why laypeople are bemused by certain subjects apply to philosophy: philosophy is a 'soft' subject to a layperson that requires little in the way of mathematical talent; philosophy deals with some thoroughly abstract concepts that cannot be easily explained ot discussed with laypeople (try talking about Dasein in a bar); and philosophy seems quite closed off and self-serving as an academic discipline, not offering much in the way of transferable skills or knowledge (do any science degree and it will be presumed that you have a better grasp of mathematics and logic than a student of the humanities).

These reasons share a common derivative: an emphasis on what is necessary to get a job with a decent salary. The focus on finding a job through academic study is simply a sign of the times. Gone are the days when university was a privilege reserved for those who displayed true talent; basically everybody now has a right to attend a university and as a result, the job market can pick from thousands of graduates who have years of experience working with computers and reading books. Degrees are fast becoming a minimum requirement for low level jobs where they would once have granted you access to top level jobs in research, teaching or in companies. The capitalistic society in which we live has mutated into a culture that does not value academics outside of academia, and academia has a limited number of positions available. Thus everybody is encouraged to take a practical degree like mathematics, physics, chemistry, statistics, business studies, law and so on, not simply because the best salaries lie outside of academia, but because the best chances of being employed at all lie outside of academia.

It is true that philosophy can be all but impossible to translate into simple English, especially when much of philosophy is barely translated into academic English without mistakes and vagueness. Philosophy itself even concerns itself with its abstruse nature and the difficulty or even potential impossibility of translating concepts between different languages without a good degree of abstraction and personal translation from the student.

tl;dr a simple analogy. Imagine computer programming languages. You have various kinds of programming languages and the high level languages as well as scripting languages tend to create a route to a high salary or good business opportunities. Certified competence in C++ or Java will net you a well-paid code monkey job quite easily; same goes for javascript in web development. Being comfortable with Go, Erlang, Clojure, Node.js, etc. would give you a great footing from which to create a website or application that could net you some money as a business venture if you have a good idea as well. No one really thinks about the low level side. You do not really see job advertisements for assembly language experts, or people who specialise in fundamental algorithms (even in spite of the fact that a good mathematical understanding is required to grasp fundamental algorithms, optimisation and computational complexity). Yet without people who could originally program in machine code, or those who developed the first single-function computers, and without computer scientists developing the first high level languages and platforms from the low level computation, none of it would exist. Same goes for philosophy. Philosophers do not get any credit for laying the foundations for the sciences and asking the questions that came to inspire some of the greatest pieces of literature. Philosophers are these days treated with a degree of disrespect even within their own sphere, mocked for how wrong they turned out to be or how silly their thinking now seems, yet this only indicates that the critical thinking that once was is now long gone. Science has won the battle and supplanted philosophy as our conceptual framework. And why not? Philosophy was originally around to logically and systematically explain the phenomena we now understand mathematically, physically and programmatically.

The great pity is that philosophy left room for art, whereas the mechanical framework that surrounds today's society leaves room only for producing things that sell. We as a society truly do know the price of everything and the value of nothing, and this is especially true of laypeople when they judge academic subjects. As we can see from the above examples, academic subjects are judged by the money that can be made and the probability of money-making, not by the value of the subjects. Philosophy is not the only victim though. Art is now based on what sells or shocks (and therefore sells) rather than encrypting and aesthetically presenting an idea or a feeling. Art has deferred to design and trendiness, while philosophy has deferred to science in the West (following the Analytic tradition) and where the continental tradition prevails, it is sorely misunderstood and barely valued by the current generation, who mostly use philosophical works for the sake of blog posts or to enshroud their personality in a haze of obscurantism.

How does one help non-philosophers access and understand philosophy? Do what current lecturers should be doing: scrap the classical thinkers in the beginning, and skip the Enlightenment entirely. Skip utterly unphilosophical questions about deities and abortion. Begin with the few things that are not in the domain of science. And remember: the Socratic method is the best way to teach everything, especially philosophy.

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    Three things: It's a nice rant, but you don't really make a case for why philosophy should be pushed to the layman at all. / What are these relevant topic which are not in the domain of science? / To me, philosophy people are mainly good at dialectics and not letting you off the hook. I don't quite know if there is proper "philosophical content and insight" in any objective sense, since every person has different opinions, and students of philosophy even more so (in the sense that they are hard to convince of another paradigm - probably because they though about the options a lot already)
    – Nikolaj-K
    Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 23:10

It seems to me that the other answers are terribly wrong.

1.They state that philosophy is no use, because you cannot build cars with it.

2.They state that there is no great philosopher nowadays.

3.They state that philosophy is a game for rich kids which the common man does not understand.

Reply to 1: It is probably not even true that there would be cars without philosophy. Because science emerged out of philosophy and still needs it. To take another example: Without the work of Gottlob Frege we could not have built computers, for without his work computer-science is impossible. And lastly, washing machines make use of fuzzy logic, which again is a branch of philosophy.

Also, look at the declaration of human rights, the declaration of independence; all those stuff is heavily influenced by philosophy/philosophers.

And yet again, philosophy can, or is, an end in itself. For whatever reason, it interests people to engage in philosophical thoughts. After all, why go to work if life has no sense?

And just one more, which I just copy from another answer to another question. You need philosophy, to argue that philosophy is crap.

Reply to 2:

I think there are great philosophers nowadays. I could just type down a list, but I'm not sure what criteria a great philosopher needs to satisfy. Surely, those engaged in political philosophy have a great impact on the debated of today and tommorow. Peter Singer has converted a lot of people into vegetarians. Karl Popper has shaped the methods of politics and the sciences.

Reply to 3:

I think the first bit of the answer is just stupid. Look at the faculties. No rich kids there. They study law and/or business.

However, the second bit, for me, is on the right track. (Real) academic philosophy is hard. Philosophy in the schools is too weak. They don't learn the needed vocabulary. They don't learn the needed tools. They don't learn logic. Now, if a professor of philosophy were to write an article in a newspaper about his new work, it is impossible for him to do so, because noone will understand it. The common man did not learn to do/to read philosophy in schools, he just talked a bit about platos cave and that freedom is quite a cool thing maybe.

To answer your question directly: The common man, whoever that is, views philosophy as unnecessary, because he never learned to understand it. He misses the necessary tools, the necessary background, to understand arguments, which are central to philosophy.

  • 1
    While I might totally agree with everything you said to defend philosophy, most of your text is not a direct answer to the question. Your real answer is a sentence full of claims you can't back. This is why I was sceptical about the question in the first place. What are we supposed to say that's philosophical in nature, and whom are we to quote on that? Vote to close question for now.
    – iphigenie
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 21:35
  • Your right, but I thought an answer should at least contain some kind of an answer. To support my bits we could look at our own experiences with school-philosophy and the curricula for school-philosophy. Also, even in newspapers and the like there are hardly any good arguments, if there are arguments at all.
    – Lukas
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 22:09

I believe it is because to the common man, philosophy solves none of the pressing problems at hand. Now the common man hardly reads philosophy, so there must be something else.

There is. If philosophy had answered them (he argues to himself), then the philosopher would have gotten off their arse and implemented their solutions already.

The real question then, is not why the common man isn't interested in philosophy, it's why philosophers aren't interested in applying their philosophies to the world's problems -- because they have philosophies about all of them.

Alas, there seems to be one answer left: they must either be cowards or lazy turds. And that view of philosophers paints and taints philosophy itself.

  • That's not true. I'm afraid you did not say that.
    – adamaero
    Commented Mar 5, 2017 at 19:53

Is philosophy viewed as unnecessary by the average, ordinary or common person? I don't presume that it is. Pretensions of philosophical authority and solicitations to agreement with overly sophisticated arguments with lots of technical jargon certainly are, but honest-to-john philosophy? No.

Philosophy is simply respect for obtaining knowledge. All the rest is balderdash. The sophist or jejune misnomer of philosophy as "a way of looking at things" or weltanschauung is as much at fault for making the tools of reason, logic and rhetoric waste into hermeneutic tail-chasing instead of explicit heuristic and the means to advance and articulate knowledge claims.

Where there is resistance to respect for obtaining knowledge, simply apply an instrumentalist ethos: tell any would-be philosopher that if after utterance you cannot be assured of knowing something that you did not know before, or, failing that, that you cannot at least be able to assess whether what has been uttered can eventually lead to something you did not know before, simply tell them they have not uttered philosophy.


Philosophy is currently in a lull period because there seemingly aren't any great philosophers at work. This isn't necessarily unusual --great philosophers are relatively rare in history.

That said, the times are particularly ripe for the emergence of a vital new philosophy. When that new thinker arises who can make sense of the conditions and crises of the modern world, everyone will sit up and take notice.

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