Why philosophy matters

Through reasoning and understanding we can flourish as humans—something Aristotle grasped millennia ago

November 28, 2023
detail from the School of Athens fresco by Raphael. Image: Adam Eastland / Alamy
Plato and Aristotle—the central figures in Raphael's “School of Athens” fresco—lived lives of philosophical flourishing. Image: Adam Eastland/Alamy

When Unesco’s World Philosophy Day passed earlier this month, did you notice? National Homemade Bread Day, which fell on the subsequent day—the 17th—probably stirred more passion. This is, after all, a country where sourdough culture generates more interest than any intellectual variety. 

How much a society values something tends to be inversely proportional to the amount of energy its advocates devote to shouting that people should. That’s why there is a steady stream of books and articles arguing for the value of music education, public libraries, foreign languages and the other humanities, as Priyamvada Gopal did very eloquently in the latest edition of Prospect

Reading her essay prompted me to ask—where does philosophy fit in? People often assume that as someone who has spent his entire adult life working in philosophy, I would jump at any chance to champion its virtues. But philosophers are supposed to question everything, and that should include the value of their own discipline. A philosopher extolling the merits of philosophy should be treated as suspiciously as a butcher waxing lyrical about meat or a beautician praising the wonder of botox.

The best philosophers are often wary of being too evangelical for their subject. Wittgenstein tried to persuade his students to do almost anything but philosophise. For example, one of his students, Maurice Drury, applied for an academic job but lost out to Dorothy Emmet, who went on to have an especially distinguished career. So he ended up taking a job at a communal market garden for unemployed miners. Wittgenstein told him, “You owe a great debt to Miss Emmet. She saved you from becoming a professional philosopher.”

Three of the most common arguments for the value of philosophy would not be deemed valid or sound by any logician free from motivated thinking. One is that philosophy can make you happy. This claim is not generally made for dry academic specialisms like metaphysics or philosophy of language but tends to be reserved for the ancients, be they Greek, Chinese or Indian. Ever since Alain de Botton revived this version of philosophy in his best-selling The Consolations of Philosophy it has kept popping up in various iterations, the most recent mainly based on Stoicism. 

The irony is that a deep and wide reading of philosophy would lead most people to conclude that happiness is not the right goal of life in the first place. Even those philosophers who seem to be advocating it are usually saying something more nuanced. Aristotle, for example, is often believed to have said that the end toward which all human acts are directed is “happiness”. But the last word here in ancient Greek is eudaimonia, which is better translated as “flourishing”. The importance is different, as we’ll soon see.

Philosophers themselves are as varied as the rest of us in terms of their gaiety or melancholy. Hume was a generally cheerful fellow but as a young man he had a severe bout of what we would now call depression, brought on by trying too hard to follow the advice of the Stoics. Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein were famously tormented souls. 

Argument number two is that philosophy makes you a better person. Even if this is true, given that ethics is only one subfield of philosophy, this is hardly a vindication of the whole discipline. But even moral philosophers appear to be no better than the rest of us. I could (if I did not wish to avoid both libel cases and gossip) point you to lecherous lecturers, vengeful critics of the ethics of revenge, and carnivorous ethicists who are rationally convinced meat-eating is wrong but do it anyway. But don’t take my word for it: the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel has conducted a lot on empirical work which strongly suggests that ethicists do not behave any more ethically than other academics in different disciplines.

The third—and perhaps most prima facie plausible—argument is that philosophy teaches transferable thinking skills. Philosophy could do that, if you did it in the ideal way, and I have even written a whole book explaining what the subject has to teach us about reasoning. But as a matter of fact, many philosophers are not especially good at thinking about matters outside their own discipline. Indeed, being a philosopher can give a person an unwarranted confidence in their thinking skills that encourages them to pontificate on matters they know little about. For example, though Bertrand Russell is justly admired for his peace campaigning, his political analysis was strictly barroom level. In Has Man a Future?  he argued that “something like world government” is “the only way out for mankind,” the kind of utopian guff more in keeping with sixth-form debating societies than a senior common room.

All these defences of philosophy make a basic philosophical mistake. They all focus on instrumental rather than intrinsic values, arguing that philosophy is a means to the ends of happiness, moral virtue or thinking well. But a large part of philosophy is about identifying what we should pursue as ends in themselves. To cut to the chase, the best answer remains the kind offered by Aristotle. Our goal should be to flourish, which means to live in such ways that are most in keeping with our natures. This may make us happy but it might not. It doesn’t matter, so long as we live well.

Being a philosopher, Aristotle assumed that to flourish meant thinking a lot. There are many other ways for humans to flourish: farming, playing music, building, making people laugh. One is to make full use of our capacity to think, reason and understand. When we do that, we are arguably using the power of the mind in the purest way.

The value of philosophy is that it pushes us to make use of one of our most distinctive capacities in the best possible way that we can. It needs no other justification.