Philosophy: Who needs it, anyway?

Spring 2001

(I wrote this before I had taken even an introductory class in philosophy. Sixteen years later, I have a degree in the subject, and I've posted a followup essay here.)

The popular notion that philosophy is either a waste of time or beyond Everyman's comprehension should surprise no one, least of all philosophers themselves. They have gone through a lot of ink discussing ideas that are clearly of no consequence to anything that most people spend most of their lives doing. Furthermore, those discussions seem to be conducted in a language that takes years of study to become fluent in. It does, after all, typically take eight years at a university to earn a doctor of philosophy degree.

Nor is it helpful that, once they have earned those degrees, philosophers cannot agree among themselves on what philosophy even is. Here are some recent attempts. (Update: Most links are no longer active.)

Is there any idea on which these all converge? I think so. Philosophy is about answering questions.

One reason for the apparent disconnect between philosophy and ordinary life is that philosophers seem to spend a lot of time answering questions that it never occurs to anyone else to ask — like the college student in the Bill Cosby routine who wondered "Why is there air?" Now, philosophers, even college philosophy students, are as able as the rest of us to see the obvious. You don't have to be a philosopher, though, to realize that you can miss a lot of good stuff by looking only at what is obvious.

Philosophy is not about answering esoteric questions. It is about answering all questions. If you tell me where you look for answers when you have a question, you are telling me something about your philosophy. If you tell me how, or whether, you check those answers, you are telling me something about your philosophy.

And yes, you do have a philosophy. Let's look again at some of those definitions.

A system of beliefs about reality.

Everybody has one of those.

The attempt to understand the world . .  . an attempt to understand one's life and one's place in the universe.

Everybody makes that attempt.

The other definitions do not define philosophy so much as they distinguish professional or academic philosophy from the kind the rest of us do.

Careful thought about the fundamental nature of the world, the grounds for human knowledge, and the evaluation of human conduct.

Everybody has some thoughts about those things. Not everybody thinks about them carefully.

Only the last two seem to exclude the ordinary Joe.

The critical examination of the grounds for fundamental beliefs and an analysis of the basic concepts employed in the expression of such beliefs.

A wide variety of intellectual undertakings all of which combine a high degree of generality with more or less exclusive reliance on reasoning rather than observation and experience to justify their claims.

But what are these two definitions but a stricter formulation of the others? We are still talking about beliefs, understanding, knowledge, humanity's place in the universe — and what are we saying but that there are some things we all have questions about, and that we want some answers we can depend on? In a not quite trivial sense, we are all philosophers. We have beliefs and opinions. We try to understand the world and ourselves. We think carefully about at least some things. We evaluate our conduct and that of other people. Most of us, at least once in a while, undertake a critical examination of at least some of our beliefs.

A philosopher in the stricter sense, someone like Plato, Descartes, Kant, or Sartre, is one who has undertaken a deliberate and formal study of these things. The difference between Everyman’s philosophy and the work of a professional philosopher can be something like the difference between the cooking that most people do and the work of a gourmet chef.

Anybody can cook. Few can do it well enough to make a living at it. Similarly, anybody can play golf. Few can do it well enough to make a living at it.

Even those who have whatever native abilities are needed to excel at cooking usually must undergo some training to attain the proficiency expected of professionals. But while the training is necessary, it is not sufficient for everyone. Some people can never become gourmet chefs no matter how much time they spend in a culinary school. They can, however, become better cooks than if they had never gone to school.

But, for amateurs, formal schooling is not necessary, either. Anyone who wants to be a better cook can become one without having to pay any tuition. It takes only some effort. Whether any improvement is needed, or would justify the effort, is a judgment for the individual to make for himself or herself.

Not everyone needs to be able to analyze Sartre’s writings, or to critique Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Anyone can ask himself, though, why he believes something and see how well the answer would work for other questions. Philosophy is, in a large sense, about nothing more than how we answer questions or think they should be answered.

If you are hungry, you will feed yourself somehow, even if the way you do it does not deserve to be called cooking. If you have questions, you will find answers, even if the way you do it does not deserve to be called philosophy.

A meal that tastes good might be unhealthy, and some healthy meals might not taste good. It takes little more than basic cooking skills, however, to prepare food that you can reasonably expect to be both tasty and healthy.

So too with our questions, up to a point. The analogy is not perfect.

Let us say that a statement feels good if it affirms something I wish were so. Thus, the statement “I will win the lottery next month” feels good if I say it. And if I happen also to believe the statement, chances are that I will feel better than I will feel if I don’t believe it.

Obviously, a statement can feel good without being true. Also obviously, a statement can be true without feeling good. “The truth hurts” is an ancient cliché.

But the cliche is very often wrong. When my wife says she loves me, she speaks truly, and it does not hurt at all. It feels great.

Good philosophy cannot guarantee a coincidence of truth and comfort in the same way that good cooking can guarantee a coincidence of taste and nutrition. Philosophical prescriptions are not as dependable as food recipes in their capacity for reconciling wishes with reality.

Let us be willing, then, to accept as fact that we might not like the answers we get to some of our questions, that if we must choose, we will choose truth over comfort.

OK, but what is truth? Surely, philosophy has failed to answer that question to everyone's satisfaction, has it not?

It is true that no philosopher has suggested an answer that everybody accepts, but there is much we can accomplish without answering the question just yet. For all our human disagreements, we are in substantial agreement about a great deal that simply goes unnoticed.

I live near the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California. That is one answer I could give to the question “Where do you live?” and there is no doubt in my mind that it is a true answer. Neither would anyone else who saw where I live doubt that there are mountains near my residence. If I looked hard enough, I could probably find someone who would dispute it, but we will worry about them later. Let us say for the time being that the existence of those mountains is an undisputed truth.

There are other truths like it, starting with Descartes' "I think, therefore I am." Each of us thinks his own existence is an example of truth. We think so, too, of other people with whom we interact and of the physical world we observe around us. Nobody needs to check a dictionary, a philosophical treatise, or any sacred writings to know what people mean when they talk about the truth at that level.

In certain contexts, then, which all people experience, the answer to the question “What is truth?” is not disputed. We take it for granted that in those contexts “the truth” means the same thing to all of us, and our taking it for granted causes no problems.

This is not to suggest that something must be true if everybody says it is true. This is about one thing we can mean by "true" when we say something is true. We mean that it is consistent with certain experiences that seem to be universal to humanity. I am not attempting a rigorous definition here, but only an intuitive one. We'll try for rigor in another essay another time.

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(This page last updated April 4, 2017.)