Why Philosophy?
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Actually, there is no single answer; it depends on many things.

From time to time, students ask the question, "Why study Philosophy?" The answer, of course, is because Philosophy is very interesting. (I would say that it is far more interesting than anything else one could study, but that would just cause other academics to get all excited, and there are few things more unseemly than an excited, envious academic.)

There is, however, another question that one might reasonably intend to ask by the question, "Why study Philosophy?" That question is probably, "What reasons are there, beyond the fact that Philosophy is very interesting, for studying Philosophy?" One reason is that if you study Philosophy, then you increase your chances of getting a job like mine. I have a pleasant work environment, get to discuss interesting things with very intelligent people, and get paid to be a philosopher.

"But," you ask, rather impatiently, "beyond that and beyond the fact that it is very interesting--perhaps even more interesting than anything else, what reasons might there be for studying Philosophy?" In an effort to help you understand what some of those reasons might be--and it is worth noting that there are a great many, here are some links to web sites that address this very question:

Consider the following, from John Cleese: What is Philosophy good for?

As for the question, "What bread does Philosophy make?," the first thing to note is that bakers bake bread. Some philosophers bake bread--I've even baked bread and have enjoyed both the process and the product--but it's not the job of Philosophy to bake bread. Of course, the real question, is what, of practical value, does Philosophy produce? Good question.

It's a good question, for me at least, in part because it has a great answer. The answer is "plenty." All of natural science, I would argue, started with Philosophy. Anthropology, Political Science, Economics, Psychology, and Linguistics all owe much of their existence and shape to Philosophy. (It's difficult to say what similar "bread" is being baked by Philosophy today, but I suspect that it has always been difficult to say what of this sort Philosophy is baking.)

Logicians, philosophers who specialize in logic, have made contributions to Mathematics and the related area of Computer Science. (And, of course, you wouldn't be reading this as you are now, were it not for those contributions.) Philosophers of Mind play a crucial role in the ongoing development of Cognitive Science.

I am just getting started. Think of the lawyers and politicians who have majored in Philosophy. The American Constitution owes a great deal to the Philosophy of John Locke.

Philosophy produces people who can think clearly and systematically, read and process difficult prose, evaluate reasons given for conclusions, and state clearly their own reasons for their conclusions. Even the most "practical" areas have a crucial need for such people.

Bread is really just small potatoes compared to what Philosophy produces.

As for me--personally, I am sticking with my first answer. It has at least the advantage of explaining why, exactly, I study Philosophy.


From Appleton Post-Crescent Column:

Zach Fannin column: Studying philosophy opens whole new world

MAY 31, 2009

So, why study philosophy? Many of my peers are bewildered by what I've chosen to study, seeing it as something archaic and utterly useless in the real world. They believe the subject is intriguing, but will get me nowhere fast.

I'd like to argue that it's instead the most valuable subject to study at the undergraduate level.

I take philosophy classes because they actually make me think. Crazy, I know, but bear with me.

Many of my peers have taken philosophy classes, assuming they'll be an easy A. Not the case, as they quickly learn there's more to it than expressing your opinion.

Philosophy encourages students to justify their arguments, to defend their positions in light of their own beliefs. It requires the ability to think independently and not let a teacher immediately define the right answers for you.

Studying philosophy, especially at the undergraduate level, equips students with the intellectual tools necessary for life in general. A student will walk away with a greater capacity to analyze, criticize and evaluate, which is essential in any field of study: politics, law, medicine, journalism, teaching, the list goes on.

Philosophical reflection is also just a nice way to take a break and escape the real world. Philosophy does not look at things in an "us vs. them" framework; rather, it removes all biases, and looks at the world in its entirety.

Philosophers set no particular goals. Rather, they take value in the questions themselves, to shed light on the very limits of human knowledge.

The value of studying philosophy today lies in its breadth and depth. British philosopher Bertrand Russell said that "in all affairs, it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted."

The essence of philosophy is to ask questions, to look beyond the surface and find the substance behind our own convictions, to make them more than empty beliefs.

A person can philosophize on any worthy issue, and in so doing, he or she will quickly find that there is much more to the issue than initially presumed.

Philosophy is the one subject in which students are taught how to learn how to take a more critical look at things to attain greater awareness of the world around us.

To philosophize is to free oneself from conventional prejudices. Many people float about without any real motivation to understand anything, and accept current trends at face value. It seems that when most people hear the word "philosophy," they imagine sitting around a fire at 2 in the morning, talking about God, free will, all the typical "big questions" we've pondered forever, but are deemed unanswerable.

This is true in part, but there's more to it than aimless speculation.

When we philosophize, we try to come to grips with questions we have yet to answer, considering whether they're even worth asking.

That's why I believe the first question to ask oneself is what we can truly know what are the limits of our understanding? With that, a person may set boundaries for oneself in pursuit of general knowledge and head in a direction that won't inevitably return to the starting line.

By taking a biased point of view, we effectively impair ourselves to the rest of the world, expecting nothing besides what we already believe. But by philosophizing, we expose ourselves to unexpected possibilities and free ourselves from the narrow view of conventional wisdom.

We adopt a larger view of the world and its inhabitants, by realizing that there is much, much more than what meets the eye.

In short, what's gained from studying philosophy is not so much the material as the method: developing an ability to discuss and to understand things to a greater degree and in a greater context.

With this, we may realize our minuscule role in the universe and begin to approach things more rationally. With philosophy, we can remove our dogmatic assertions and adopt a bigger but less certain perspective of things. Not to mention, it's absolutely fascinating.

Zach Fannin is a Hortonville resident and a Post-Crescent Community Columnist. He can be reached at pcletters@postcrescent. com