I think philosophy is important for two main reasons: (1) it can help improve critical thinking skills and (2) it’s a good way to know certain things. Even so, much more can be said—especially considering each specific thing philosophy can teach us. Many things it can teach us are important for various other reasons.
There are many people who question the importance of philosophy (such as Lawrence Krauss), and I suspect that the main reason that they are unconvinced is because they don’t think philosophy can make progress or provide us with knowledge. Consider that at one point Krauss said, “[Science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.”1
What is philosophy? It is the attempt to reason well about certain traditional domains of study: logic (the study of good reasoning), epistemology (the study of knowledge), metaphysics (the study of reality), and ethics (the study of morality). Just like science, some philosophy is better than others, and a lot of philosophy done by amateurs misses the mark so badly that it is often better described as something else entirely. When science is done very badly, it’s often appropriately called “pseudoscience;” and when philosophy is done very badly, it’s often appropriately called “sophistry.” (However, sophistry is generally thought to be deliberately manipulative rather than a sincere attempt to be reasonable.)
1. Philosophy can help improve critical thinking skills.
Most fields of study, such as physics, history, and economics, are mainly about providing us with knowledge of some sort. However, some fields of study are more practical, such as computer engineering, and they are mainly about providing us with skills. Practical fields are supposed to help improve our abilities, so that we can do something using them. Philosophy is not necessarily a primarily skill-oriented field of study, but it is the specialized field of study for critical thinking, and it can help us improve our critical thinking skills.
Some people have thought that philosophy automatically helps improve critical thinking skills as a byproduct, and no special attention is required for it to do so. There might be some truth to this, but non-critical-thinking-oriented philosophy classes don’t seem to be so much better than various other classes in the humanities. Perhaps writing argumentative essays in any field of study can help improve critical thinking skills. According to a meta-analysis by Claudia María Álvarez Ortiz, Does Philosophy Improve Critical Thinking Skills? (PDF), the most effective classes at improving critical thinking skills are those devoted to critical thinking, and the analytic philosophy tradition in particular is effective at teaching these classes.2
Critical thinking skills are highly related to logic (a philosophical domain), which is the study of proper reasoning. That shouldn’t be surprising because the main idea of critical thinking is to reason well. The critical thinking classes taught by philosophers teach students about logic in addition to providing practice problems that can improve their critical thinking skills.
Although philosophy can be used to improve critical thinking and most people want to reason properly, it’s a hard sell because people who know the least about logic think they know just as much as those who know quite a bit about it thanks to a cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect (PDF). How many people think they reason properly and understand logic? Very few seem to realize that they need to improve their understanding of these things and one relevant study showed that people who were tested in their competence in logic “overestimated their logical reasoning ability relative to their peers. On average, participants placed themselves in the 66th percentile among students from their class, which was significantly higher than the actual [average score] …it was participants in the bottom quartile… who overestimated their logical reasoning ability and test performance to the greatest extent.”3
You might think, “Okay, some people know less about logic than they think, but maybe people know all they need to know about logic anyway.” If you are optimistic, you might think people are automatically logical for the most part and don’t need to learn more about it. However, Tim Van Gelder has discussed some startling facts about critical thinking, such as the fact that “[a] majority of people cannot, even when prompted, reliably exhibit basic skills of general reasoning and argumentation.”4
2. Philosophy is a good way to know certain things.
Philosophers have a type of expertise—they know a lot about various philosophical issues, the history of various philosophical debates, and quite a bit about what it means to reason properly. They tend know more about these things than those who aren’t philosophers (and getting a degree is a step in the right direction to becoming a philosopher). For this reason we can learn a lot from philosophers concerning their various specializations, and we can sometimes learn a lot by doing philosophy on our own as well. We can all learn a little about what philosophy has to offer by actually doing some philosophy on our own. After all, philosophers didn’t attain their expertise just by twiddling their thumbs. It took a lot of hard work, and we can attain greater philosophical expertise for ourselves.
Not everyone thinks we have anything to learn from philosophers. What makes us think philosophers know more about logic, epistemology, metaphysics, or ethics than the rest of us? If anyone can know anything about these things, then it’s philosophers considering the rich history of ideas and the great deal of time they devote to studying various issues. Even so, I think everyone knows something about these issues. For example, everyone knows at least one thing about logic logic—the fact that it’s inappropriate to argue in the following way—“Rocks exist. Therefore, whales are not fish.” It is also indisputable that philosophers do know quite a bit about logic precisely due to the progress they have made. For example, there was a time before we knew what argument form was, but now we know quite a bit about it.5 Natural scientists agree that we can reason properly, that we can know something about proper and improper reasoning, and that logic as developed by philosophers restrains how natural science can be done. (For example, two observations that contradict one another can’t both describe reality properly.)
Moreover, we know that some people know more about logic than others (such as that shown by the Dunning-Kruger effect), and we know that logic as developed by philosophers is very helpful for improving critical thinking skills. According to the scientific studies examined by Tin Van Gelder, “The lesson from cognitive science is that if we want students to substantially improve their skills, we must at some point help them develop theoretical understanding as compliment to the crucial hands-on know-how.”6 The theoretical understanding he is talking about are logical concepts (and how they are to be properly applied), such as premise identification7, argument form, valid reasoning8, and informal errors in reasoning9.
One important question is what type of knowledge philosophy can offer us. For example, is it like the knowledge natural scientists can give us or is it mainly knowledge of concepts and logical implications? Or both? Let’s consider both of these options:
(a) Factual knowledge
Factual knowledge is the type of knowledge good natural science seems to give us: Knowledge about laws of nature, causal relations, and things that exist in the world. These are the kinds of things physicists, chemists, and biologists are interested in. However, it’s not entirely clear what entities science gives us factual knowledge about. There’s a debate over which scientific entities really exist (such as electrons), and philosophers debate over how we should answer this question. Those who think invisible theoretical entities, such as electrons, exist are “scientific realists” and those who don’t think so are “anti-realists.”
Moreover, some philosophers think that there’s also moral facts, facts about logic, or facts about mathematics. Philosophers are then thought to be able to help us decide if we should believe such facts exist (and therefore be realists of those things), and if so, what we should believe about them. These are not the type of facts scientists study, but philosophers might still help us attain factual knowledge about these things.
The view that there’s facts about logic and mathematics is especially promising because scientists often have to presuppose that there are certain logical and mathematical facts—that we can discover these facts and that scientific observation is mistaken when it contradicts these facts. For example, logicians almost unanimously agree with the principle of noncontradiction, which states that a statement can’t be true and false at the same time. If one statement is true, then all statements that contradict it are false. Sometimes we have an observation that contradicts a scientific theory we believe to be proven. At one point Mercury didn’t revolve around the Sun as Newton’s theory of physics predicted. We could say that our understanding of the observation is wrong or that the theory is wrong. There is a problem if someone says that both the observation and the theory is true, and there’s a problem if a scientist says that contradictory observations prove the principle of non-contradiction to be false.
Some people argue that philosophy is not meant to give us factual knowledge. It is often thought that philosophy is inherently unresolvable—that philosophers debate endlessly without ever expecting to give us a final answer. Sometimes it’s said that “there’s no right answer” (perhaps in the sense that there are multiple different answers that could be rationally defended). Of course, we might wonder if the same is really true of science. Perhaps science also will continue to make progress endlessly and the answers it provides will continue to be refined without ever giving us a “final answer.”
Although I am sympathetic to the view that philosophy can provide factual knowledge, I don’t think philosophy has to give us a final answer to make progress or be informative. A great deal of the factual knowledge philosophy seems to provide is knowledge about what’s not the case. We can sometimes eliminate a belief or philosophical theory similar to how scientists can often eliminate a failed hypothesis. For example, we can eliminate the belief that “all conclusions are true.”
(b) Conceptual knowledge
Some people who don’t think philosophy is meant to give us factual knowledge still agree that philosophy can be informative and that philosophers have a type of expertise, and they often say that philosophy is really about clarifying concepts and finding logical implications. For example, some philosophers are compatibilists who think we could have free will, even if the world is deterministic (which is the view that everything that happens has to happen exactly one way). They don’t think there’s a logical implication that would make a world with both of these things impossible based on their conceptions of free will and determinism. Compatibilism doesn’t state that we actually have free will or that the world is actually deterministic. It is a view about what could be the case in the world rather than what’s actually the case.
One important question is if conceptual knowledge is really so different from factual knowledge. Some people think philosophers can’t tell us anything about the world, but that they could help provide conceptual knowledge of the type described above.10 They don’t think conceptual knowledge is factual, and some people will hesitate to even call it “conceptual knowledge” because they don’t think philosophy is about generating knowledge. Even so, I think it is clear that even conceptual discussions can involve progress and they can be very informative, such as when we developed the concept of argument form. If it’s not knowledge, then calling it “conceptual understanding” might be more appropriate.
However, some people do think conceptual knowledge can be factual. For example, perhaps understanding certain moral concepts is enough to know that causing pain just for fun is wrong. (We can analyze what it means for actions to be morally wrong, the concept of pain, the concept of doing something just for fun, etc.)
One purpose of conceptual knowledge is to make clarifications and avoid sloppy thinking, but another purpose could be to help us know what beliefs should be rejected, which is quite similar to how I suggested philosophy could provide us with factual knowledge. For example, if compatibilism is true, then we should reject incompatibilism (the view that free will can never exist in a deterministic world).
Specific philosophical issues
Even if philosophy can be informative and give us some type of knowledge, we might wonder if philosophy is important in any sense. Some people criticize philosophers for doing research in an armchair or being in an “ivory tower” (with everyday life far from their mind’s eye). One possible answer is simply that knowledge has value—that it’s always better to be knowledgeable. Even if philosophy isn’t useful, it might still be worth doing. Mathematicians don’t always tell us what we can do with their results, but most of us seem to accept that it has some sort of a value anyway. However, there are many other answers as to why philosophy has value and I think philosophy can be of the utmost importance to making our lives better. The reason I think this is the case is because various philosophical issues have unique ways of helping people.
One philosophical domain in particular that I think we should all agree has practical importance for everyday life is critical thinking (and logic by extension). For example, consider the research that shows that people tend to lack in critical thinking skills, and the link between logic-oriented critical thinking education and critical thinking skills. Of course, someone might say they see no reason to think reasoning well is important. My reply would be that reasoning well helps us avoid deception (such as the deception used by advertisers, political pundits, quacks, etc.), make better decisions in general, and to increase the odds of persuading others to believe things that they should agree with.
Finally, the reasons that logic education is important can also be refined based on all the specific things it can teach us, such as logical form, logical validity, and informal fallacies. Each of these things have unique lessons to teach us, as was discussed in Why Logic is Important.
Although many people are unconvinced that that philosophy is important, I think there are good reasons to think it is important. Philosophy can not only help improve critical thinking skills, but it can help provide us with knowledge of logic that can greatly help improve critical thinking. Moreover, I do not find the view that philosophy makes no progress and provides us with no knowledge to be plausible based on the fact that it seems clear that everyone knows something about at least one philosophical domain (logic), and some people know more about that domain than others.
Note: This webpage used to have an entirely different piece. I wrote the newer piece on 8/22/13.
© James Wallace Gray 2013 (Updated last 10/28/13)
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Essay about The Importance of Philosophy
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The Importance of Philosophy
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