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What is the Use of Philosophy?

Collage of wordsTO ASK WHAT THE USE OF PHILOSOPHY IS is like asking what the use of understanding is. One answer is that understanding is something that we very often seek for its own sake. As Aristotle said long ago: “All human beings by nature desire to understand.” We are curious if nothing else, and it is one of the more admirable traits of human beings. We like to know what is going on and why. After we have fed ourselves and put a roof over our heads, and attended to other basic needs, the question arises what we are to do with our time. One suggestion is that we should raise our heads a bit and look around us and try to understand ourselves and things around us. This turns out to be interesting. It is the genesis of both science and philosophy, with science taking the more empirical road to understanding and philosophy the more conceptual. These are complementary enterprises and there have always been important connections between them which continue despite the growth of institutional science and its increasing splintering into more and more highly specialized sub-disciplines.

There are universities only because human beings are by their nature curious. Universities are centers of curiosity. They are repositories and preservers of the accumulated knowledge and understanding of humankind as well as the primary centers in the modern of world of the pursuit of pure inquiry, that is, inquiry for sake of slaking our thirst for understanding. Why is this valuable? Well, why is anything valuable? It is a good question, isn’t it? It’s a philosophical question. Curious? You ought to be. To think that one thing is more valuable than another is already to have presupposed answers to a range of questions, questions which most people scarcely raise for themselves. Wouldn’t it be a good thing to know whether you had any good grounds for thinking the things you do, and to know what they were and how they supported what you thought? It would be. But then what you are seeking is understanding. The question why understanding is valuable answers itself. Once you ask the question, any sound answer requires that you seek an understanding of what makes something valuable and what understanding is. Understanding pays its own way.

It seems scarcely necessary to defend the value of understanding—except a context in which the university is conceived of as primarily a vocational school. It is an embarrassing fact that even many within the university community—administrators often enough—justify the university in a way that encourages this view. But it is understandable, since we live in a culture in which affluence is often treated as if it were an end-in-itself. It is often tacitly and somewhat cynically assumed that an inattentive public’s support for the central role of the university in civilization can be bought only with the promise of high paying jobs for their sons and daughters—as if that were the final end of life. But you can only eat so much. The poverty of a life is not measured by the amount of money one has in the bank. Most people know this. Aristotle said that education is the best viaticum for old age. But it is not just the best provision for the last part of the journey of life, but for the whole of the journey. It is because with a good education comes an enlarged capacity for understanding. A good education gives you the knowledge of what it is like to really understand something. It brings a wider and more acute perception of things generally. It provides a context for understanding the pattern of your own life which frees it from the parochialism of time and place. It cultivates a larger and more sophisticated range of interests. It provides a perspective that eases, if does not remove, the inevitable burdens and pains of a private life.

Of course, a university education is not irrelevant to success in life, in all its aspects. But that doesn’t mean that the university is a vocational school. The university is constituted by a variety of colleges and schools. Two things set a university off from a college. The first is that it offers graduate degrees as well as undergraduate degrees. This marks a university as a center of active research in the disciplines it represents, for graduate training in a discipline involves active participation in research in the discipline. The second is that the university is a consortium of colleges which includes professional colleges, such as engineering, law, medicine, and business. Professional colleges do aim to train graduates in professions. But the university should be conceived of as like a solar system in which there is an anchor that holds everything together. At a university, that is the college of liberal arts and sciences (or sometimes a collection of colleges representing the liberal arts and sciences). This is the college which aims at providing the core of the educational experience at a university, and without which you would not have anything recognizably like a university. Its disciplines are, by and large, not professionally oriented. They are organized by subject matter. They express that curiosity which we human beings have which drives us to try to understand ourselves and our world as soon as we catch our breath and look up around us. What is the relation between this and work?

It is indirect, of course, but powerful. Two observations to begin with. First, it is worth noting that even training in a profession does not prepare one for any particular job. It rather equips one with some specialized knowledge presupposed by most jobs in the field and with general skills applicable to the general category of job. Any job a graduate of a professional school gets requires further job specific training. Second, it is striking how limited is the number of professional schools. There are vastly more things people do than are dreamt of in the professional view of a university education. Now turn to training in one of the non-professional degree programs. What is the relation of this to work? First of all, to put it simply, training in any serious degree program makes you smart. Being smart is the key to success in anything you do. If you have a choice between training that makes you smarter, and training that prepares you to do some particular thing for the rest of your life, take the training that makes you smarter, for then what training you need you can get whether you have it now or not. Second, and more specifically, training may be in either a mathematics intensive discipline or in a writing intensive discipline (ideally both). Learning the language of mathematics opens up work in technical fields which rely on it. Training in a writing intensive discipline prepares the mind for analytical work more generally, for learning to write well and to think well are inseparable. It is not an accident that people with university educations have greater life opportunities. But it is not because they have been trained for some specific job. It is because they have been trained to think well. That is a by-product of being trained to think well about particular subjects. Why not just get training in thinking well? There is no such thing as thinking well about nothing. And if you want to engage yourself, you should think about something interesting.

What about philosophy in particular? Philosophy is a very abstract subject, and it is one of the more difficult ones. It has many values, but one is that it requires exercise of very advanced analytical skills, and very highly developed language skills, the sort mentioned above that are inseparable from being able to think well. Is there evidence for this? Yes.

  1. GRE TEST: Philosophy majors score higher than any other group on the verbal and analytical sections of the Graduate Record Examination. They score highest of all humanities majors on the quantitative portion of the GRE, higher than the social & behavioral sciences, education, and business (economics and finance being exceptions), and ahead of many mathematics intensive disciplines.  (source: ETS , opens in a new window) (source: APA , opens in a new window)
  2. LSAT TEST: Philosophy majors as a group consistently score second highest on the Law School Admission Test.  (source: JEE , opens in a new window) (source: APA , opens in a new window)
  3. GMAT TEST: On the Graduate Management Admissions Test, philosophy majors consistently score higher than all other humanities and social science majors; ranking in the top 4 or 5. (source: SSRN , opens in a new window)
  4. WAGES: Data gathered by PayScale from the 2016�2017 academic year shows that people with bachelor’s degrees in philosophy tend to earn more over their lifetime than people with degrees in any other humanities field. Philosophy students have both the highest starting salary of any humanities major and the highest percent increase between starting and mid-career salary.  (source: APA , opens in a new window)

These are not surprising results. If you can think well about philosophical questions, you can think well about things in general.*

Now, what is philosophy? That’s an interesting question. Here is the beginning of an answer.

Prepared by the Philosophy Department at the University of Florida. © 2007 – 2019


* No one should choose a major on the basis of how members of the major do in aggregate on tests of this sort. You should choose what to study on the basis of interest, for if you study something you are not interested in, you will not apply yourself to it in the same way, and you will not get as much out of it as you would studying something that interests you. You will not get out of it really what you got in it for — and you’ll be unhappy as well! But if you are interested in philosophy, you’ll get a lot out of it.