On philosophy

and what it is for

If you teach philosophy at the university level, you find yourself trying to explain the point of philosophy quite a lot, to students or their families, to administrators, to colleagues in other departments, even to audiences of the general public. In the course of such explanations, it is tempting to say that studying philosophy helps you become a more critical or independent thinker. 

What we typically leave unsaid – for reasons of prudence or out of mere discomfort – is that critical thinking is not, unquestionably, a good thing. Of course, an early lesson of philosophy is that the goodness of nearly everything can reasonably be brought into question.

For a long time, even after I had taken my first philosophy class in college, I had no idea what philosophy was. That class was on philosophical logic, and logic was something I knew about from having studied mathematics and linguistics. In fact, my mother had bought me a copy of Bertrand Russell’s Principles of Mathematics in high school. The first few parts of that book – all I ever managed to wade through – are concerned with identifying the logical notions on which pure mathematics can be based. I was particularly fascinated by Russell’s obsession with what precisely the notions any and some mean. Still, it was only later that I realized logic had something to do with philosophy as a broader discipline or way of thinking.

The seed of understanding was really only planted on the first day of a yearlong philosophy class I took later, one that was required of students in my honors program. In spite of this requirement, our professor (Paul Woodruff) tried to convince us that we were taking a serious risk by embarking on philosophy, because we would be forced not just to study it but to engage in it. And to engage in philosophy is to run the risk of losing hold of the way things make sense to you. (Both as an homage to Paul, who is still the best teacher I’ve had, and because I think this claim is actually true, I present a version of the argument, with considerably less panache, on the first day of my history of philosophy class.)

There are many explanations of this phenomenon. The ancient philosopher Sextus Empiricus and Russell’s sometime friend and colleague Ludwig Wittgenstein both suspected that philosophy was the problem itself. In this case, the hazard is a purely voluntary one, and some of us ought to have walked out of the classroom when Paul suggested we do so. A more optimistic view of philosophy sees our impulse to ask philosophical questions as natural and perhaps even inevitable, which in turn recommends to us the possibility of asking these questions well, of seeing philosophy as a discipline and not merely an intellectual trap.

But notice that the idea that philosophy is risky doesn’t vanish on this sunnier conception of it, though it may slip out of direct sight. If philosophy is just something one can learn about in a classroom, the only risk is wasting one’s time. But if Paul was right that really to study philosophy one had to engage in it, then studying philosophy might still threaten the security of your views. 

For example, it is considerably harder in the face of philosophical argument to maintain faith in science (how often do we now hear the credo ‘I believe in science!’ — there is something deeply puzzling about this profession, even as it purports to defend something mundane and sensible). The natural sciences tend, in our time, to serve as models for knowledge, but their epistemic foundations are fragile. The toy model of the scientific method that many of us were taught in grade school can hardly serve to justify one theory over another when an indefinite number of theories can always successfully explain the data. Modern physics is as profligate in positing unobserved entities as any medieval metaphysics. The relationship of the physical sciences to mathematics is, as a whole, deeply puzzling and hard to explain.

But should one give up on believing the products of scientific practice out of aporetic skepticism? It’s not so clear. There is, then, a destructive edge to philosophical inquiry that cannot be blunted.

This sort of danger ultimately stems from another feature of philosophical thinking: its open-ended address to us. If philosophy merely equipped us with a set of intellectual tools, then we could resolve only to direct them to others. A common exercise in introductory philosophy classes is reconstructing (and deconstructing) the argument of an op-ed. But the point of philosophy, as opposed, say, to the formal study of rhetoric, is not to become a better reader of newspapers. It’s just that op-eds are a familiar place where we find arguments that are addressed to us, as fellow citizens or as otherwise interested parties. 

When we engage in philosophical thinking, the arguments we find ourselves making in relation to another are also addressed to ourselves and, indeed, to anyone else who finds themselves in the same position. For instance, if we point out a reason to reject one of the assumptions in an argument, it doesn’t really matter who is making the argument. This is part of why philosophers are such bad company (Jonny Thakkar makes the point nicely in this essay). Perhaps it helps to point out that we are bad company for ourselves, too.

It may sound scandalous, but I like to try to convince my students that the Athenians had a point in putting Socrates to death, even if we also think that they were short-sighted and wrong to do so. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates compares himself to the hero Achilles. Plato’s point in putting this outrageous claim in the mouth of Socrates is not just to exalt the value of philosophy. He also wants to see that if we domesticate philosophy, treating it like just one more discipline young men should study before embarking on a political career, that is, if we fail to see the risk of it, we will also miss the point of it. There is something heroic about Socrates, because he values the search for the truth about himself above everything else and lives his life accordingly. But nothing is heroic without price. 

If we conclude that the price is poverty, as some of Socrates’ interlocutors in the dialogues do, we also miss the point. After all, Socrates seems quite cheerful in his poverty. The price is instead losing the serenity of received wisdom, of knowing what to do. The Athenians valued that serenity quite highly, to the point of being willing to put Socrates to death for disturbing it. Again, we can think they were wrong to do so, but the tradeoff is real, for a society and for any individual.

The market forces that drive the modern academy mean that we are called to hawk our wares in the way that sophists like Protagoras and teachers of rhetoric like Gorgias do in Plato’s dialogues. We are not so crude, usually, to point to money as a motive, but instead to power. In particular, when we present critical thinking as a good that the study of philosophy can stimulate, we are implicitly appealing to the power it affords its possessor, a power that can be directed toward any object one wishes. (Talk of LSAT scores is usually not far behind.)

Socrates asks Protagoras in the namesake dialogue what the sophist’s course of study makes his students better at, and Protagoras readily replies that it makes them better at politics. Socrates isn’t convinced by this answer and turns the conversation to what makes someone a good citizen and a good person in the first place. We are, I wager, more like Protagoras than Socrates when we confidently promote critical thinking or indeed any other ability that philosophy is supposed to foster.

To the extent that we must advertise ourselves, we are better off pointing to the confusion that seems to attend even our most basic attempts to make sense of ourselves. Might one not gain clarity about that confusion by considering others’ attempts to face up to it? There are no guarantees here, of course. But the study of philosophy, like that of literature and the arts, offers the possibility of a better acquaintance with things human. And while a better acquaintance can sometimes lead to bitterness, it seems more naturally to promote affection and even love. That, I hold, is the best we can do.