Value of Philosophy

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The Value of Philosophy

In the introductory lecture notes to this course I stated that we would start with a working definition of philosophy as being the “love of wisdom.” I have found, though, that just about every other definition attempted has many shortcomings. No one definition seems adequate to define what it means to engage in philosophy. Consequently, I think it is best to think of the philosopher in the somewhat imprecise term of a lover of wisdom. Someone who is continually in search of the truth. Though he/she might be ridiculed for pursuing the unobtainable, this search for truth/ knowledge can yield enormous benefits. It provides the tools to critically evaluate the world around us and the information we are given about that world. This ability to critically evaluate ideas is especially important given the role that such knowledge affects and shapes our lives—as we saw in the sections on B.F. Skinner, Positive Freedoms, and the Philosophy of Science. Furthermore, the changes in our society necessitate that we re-examine fundamental questions periodically. For example, advances in medical science have posed new ethical questions. Ethical judgments concerning genetic engineering (engineering certain characteristics into or out of our genetic make-up) calls into question fundamental ideas concerning freedom and individuality. Without some understanding of these subjects how can we frame answers to such questions? Even if we examine these questions, is our approach critical, authentic? Or do we choose to accept the answers given to us by society? Are we not then acting in a kind of Sartrean “Bad Faith?” How much of our humanity and freedom are we abdicating by not engaging in some kind of philosophical activity? Though we pride ourselves on being “rational” people, how rational are our thoughts and actions even if they are “proven?” Or, do we live up to Soren Kierkegaard’s remark in The Journals, “There are many people who reach their conclusion about life like schoolboys: they cheat their master by copying the answer out of a book without having worked the sum out for themselves.”

Many of the great philosophers have attempted to justify and extol the virtues of the study of philosophy. I have put together a series of quotes of what I think are some of the more important passages addressing philosophy’s role in education and our lives. As you read these quotes, consider whether or not philosophy practiced in this fashion and as it was studied throughout this course can actually lead one to be a lover of wisdom and help us—if not answer—at least understand some of the fundamental questions we have considered.

Philosophy’s Role in Education

Even the poor student studies and is taught only political economy, while that economy of living which is synonymous with philosophy is not even sincerely professed in our college. . . . Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at . . ..

While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. It has created palaces, but it was not so easy to create noblemen and kings.

Henry David Thoureau, Walden

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.

John Stuart Mill, “The Utilitarian Calculus of Pain and Pleasure”

You want to know my attitude towards liberal studies. Well, I have no respect for any study whatsoever if its end is the making of money. Such studies are to me unworthy ones. They involve the putting out of skills to hire, and are only of value in so far as they may develop the mind without occupying it for long....
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