Why Defend Philosophy?

In recent years there has been a spate of articles defending the study of philosophy. Philosophy is not all idle chatter, these defenses usually argue. On the contrary, philosophy is surprisingly useful. The skills that philosophers gain through their study are remarkably important in all arenas of life, and especially in growing and lucrative fields like commerce and tech. Philosophy, they say, is not only good for the brain, but good for business! Plato, as is well-known, said that studying philosophy made you fit to rule others. Apparently he was wrong. According to the many defenses on offer, philosophy doesn’t make you a good ruler, but a good earner. I dislike this defense.

Many of the recent defenses have appealed to the employability of philosophy graduates, and we are variously told that philosophy graduates make the best entrepreneurs and business leaders, that they earn more than accountants and that philosophy is possibly the most practical major one can take! These defenses became arguably more frantic and desperate after Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio famously said “we need more welders and less philosophers.” His claim was quickly rebutted by major new outlets such as the New York Times and CNN, who both pointed to the fact that philosophy majors make almost twice as much as welders. It seems that philosophers have felt themselves on the back foot ever since, fighting off a stigma that they are all useless navel-gazers, with suspiciously empty pockets.

But must we defend the study of philosophy by appeal to a dollar yardstick? Don’t get me wrong, money is a very good thing. But if philosophers were to go out of fashion, and the resale value of our knowledge were to plummet, would we then be forced to say that philosophy is a worthless discipline and that no-one should study it? Of course not, and neither should we say that philosophy is worthwhile right now because it can generate big bucks. Equating the value of philosophy to its earning power is a dangerous move that is capable of destroying philosophy as easily as it might justify it. Market forces change. Fashions come and go. The economy is a fickle thing.

Well then, why study philosophy? Let me humbly propose that the answer is very simple: because it’s enjoyable. Should we be ashamed to admit it? Must we excuse ourselves, adding that although we’re having great fun doing philosophy, we’re also being very practical and productive and helpful? The fact of the matter is that philosophy can be very difficult to do well, and some people are much better than others at it. But no matter who does it, good philosophy can be both satisfying and therapeutic. It can sometimes be even cathartic. Grappling with confusion, solving puzzles, finding or defeating doubt, and clarifying the scope and limits of human knowledge is, even if not always especially practical or useful, a good, and entertaining, and meaningful, and refined thing to do. And, I add, it’s good for anyone to try to grapple with these questions no matter whether they are expert or novice. Do we demand that the amateur footballer, who plays in the local friendly league, give reasons for wasting his time pointlessly kicking a ball around a field? Of course we don’t, and neither should we. He kicks the ball because it’s an enjoyable thing to do. Indeed, I should do it more myself.

Faced with endless sideways glances, philosophers have blinkered themselves to their own practical impotence. They have attempted to defend their almost criminally indulgent behaviour by appeals to higher wages and higher demand for philosophy graduates. This is no defense of philosophy at all. The awful truth is that philosophers are usually neurotic introverts, obsessed with often unimportant minutiae, and self-indulgent in their personal quest to solve problems that have no practical significance. They are the kind of people who argue all night, relishing every bit of it. They are the kind of people who interrupt conversations to obsess over a non sequitur. They like to talk, they like to think and they like to fight. Most of them would pay to do it.

If this sounds like you, perhaps you’d like to consider a career as a philosopher.

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