This is a popular topic on many people’s lips at the moment. As someone who has studied philosophy and thinks it is one of the most rewarding pursuits one can follow in their life I have a slight bias when answering this question. My answer in short is: when did it ever not matter?
For many out there in the big bad world philosophy does not matter. This is due invariably from ignorance of what philosophy actually is and the general impression that philosophers are a bunch of know-it-all layabouts who add very little to society, if by society we mean the economy and if by the economy we narrowly mean farming and other narrow minded senses of what the economy actually is.
Those in government certainly think that philosophy does not matter. Funding across the board for philosophy departments is declining. On the other hand, investment in the sciences is increasing. By pointing this out I do not mean to imply that funding for sciences should not be increasing. Indeed far from it. If the government in their infinitely limited wisdom does not think philosophy is of any use though, then it is hardly surprising that we are discouraged from pursuing philosophy from within the funding structures of education.
Many people claim that philosophy does not add anything to society. This is best reflected in a recent quote by Marco Rubio, the US presidential candidate, who also recently had a major glitch in his computer programming and repeated the same speech three times in cringeworthily fashion. Marco claimed, to rapturous applause from the audience, that “we need less philosophy majors and more welders”. This idea that philosophy is of limited use is both pervasive and popular to say the least.
But how useful is philosophy really? A short but perhaps unsatisfying answer is, well, very useful. A longer answer is much more difficult to give, but one facet of it comes from pursuing philosophy yourself. It’s like heroin with none of the negative side effects. Don’t knock it till you have tried it. A passage in George Orwell’s ‘1984’ in a way sums up what I really mean. Towards the end of ‘1984’ Winston begins to read ‘The Book’ and as he finishes the first chapter he bothered to turn to he gets the feeling that the book has told him nothing that he already didn’t know but had arranged things in such a way that it all made sense now.
If you ever had this feeling then you will know what I am talking about. Philosophy is the activity that gives you this feeling about the really important questions in life that we all should think about at some point. And no, it isn’t what dress I should wear today, or which sports teams will win this weekend. Philosophy can give us the answers to: why are we here? What is life all about? Is God really real, or is there some doubt? With philosophy, you can try to sort it all out, and in one night, find the meaning of life.
The ancient philosopher Aristotle might answer the question, “what is the meaning of life?” by saying, well, to do what is in our nature, and it is in our nature as humans to think and rationalise and we do this best by doing philosophy.
Therefore, the meaning of life is to philosophise
Is that it though? Does philosophy have any real world application? “Can philosophy build a bridge or a road?” I can hear someone at the back clamouring. Well no, but neither can a lot of other things.
After answering some of the most profoundly personal questions, philosophy also gives us guidance about how we should behave with one another. Questions like, what is moral? And, my personal favourite: How should we organise our society?
Philosophy might not build a bridge, instead it builds society.
Those of us who live in the west are fortunate to live in nominal democracies. Even if we don’t like our governments in power we at least are guaranteed the right to express our dislike of those governments by throwing dildos at them or writing in a blog. This is a great freedom not enjoyed by millions of people around the world at present and is even rarer when we look back on the course of human history. We can thank philosophy in large part for this, and many other freedoms.
The extent to which we all want to live in wealthy and successful societies, is the extent to which philosophy matters today. Personally I do want to live in a wealthy and prosperous society so I am going to continue to pursue philosophy. Everyone should participate in philosophy. Martin Luther King had a dream, and so do I, mine is to see every child taught philosophy from a young age in order to create a society, across the board and at every level, that appreciates the process of questioning things.
In the Republic Plato says that only when kings become philosophers, or philosophers become kings will the world’s ills come to an end. Well, he doesn’t say that exactly, but that is the general gist of it anyway. A society where all of us pursue philosophy is one where the philosophers become kings, and we can solve for the first time in human history the world’s problems.
Goldstein Rebecca (2015), Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, Pantheon Books.
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