Why should anyone bother to read philosophy? Isn’t it a nit-picking discipline with no real benefits? I used to have a stock riposte to such views, which I thought presented a pretty good defence.
First, philosophy provides an excellent training in clear thinking. The abilities to reason, to distinguish sense from nonsense and to construct strong arguments can serve one well in many areas of life. There also seems to be something valuable about critically scrutinising the important questions that confront us-as in the famous phrase, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
This engagement with deep issues could even contribute to increased happiness. Thinking philosophically requires one to stand back from things and this puts matters which otherwise might seem urgent and substantial into perspective. As Bertrand Russell put it in the last, rousing chapter of his The Problems of Philosophy, a life without this perspective is “feverish and confined,” by comparison with which the philosophic life is “calm and free.”
On this account, philosophy can make you think better, feel better and is essential to an honest confrontation with the big issues of life. What better answer to the sceptics who think it is hot air?
But I now think this case is much weaker than I once thought. While none of the supposed advantages philosophy brings are illusory, neither are they as indispensable as they once seemed.
Although it is true that philosophy helps one to think better, if your goal is to learn to reason more effectively, there are more direct means of doing so than reading Kant. It would be much more efficient to read a few critical thinking texts. While many of these are informed by the techniques and skills of philosophers, there is nothing essentially philosophical about them. Critical thinking programmes such as that developed by psychologists Michael Shayer and Philip Adey at the Centre for the Advancement of Thinking at King’s College, London, have been shown to be effective in increasing examination performance across all subject areas. To study philosophy primarily to increase one’s critical thinking skills would be like training for a marathon by an intensive programme of swimming.
I’ve also come to see the “unexamined life” line as a lazy defence of philosophy. While it may sound noble to examine one’s own life, the idea that philosophy is the only, or even the best, means of doing so is…