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Value of Philosophy Essay

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. Time should be spent on them only so long as one’s mental abilities are not up to dealing with higher things.

They are our apprenticeship, not our real work. Why ‘liberal studies’ are so called is obvious: it is because they are the ones considered worthy of a free man. . . . Why then do we give our sons a liberal education? Not because it can make them morally good but because it prepares the mind for the acquisition of moral values. Just as that grounding in grammar, as they called it in the old days, in which boys are given their elementary schooling, does not teach them the liberal arts but prepares the ground for knowledge of them in due course, so when it comes to character the liberal arts open the way to it rather than carry the personality all the way there . . ..

Words need to be sown like seed. No matter how tiny a seed may be, when it lands in the right sort of ground it unfolds its strength and from being minute expands and grows to a massive size. Reason does the same; to the outward eye its dimensions may be insignificant, but with activity it starts developing. Although the words spoken are few, if the mind has taken them in as it should they gather strength and shoot upwards. Yes, precepts have the same features as seeds; they are of compact dimensions and they produce impressive results–given, as I say, the right sort of mind, to grasp at and assimilate them.

The mind will then respond by being in its turn creative and will produce a yield exceeding what was put into it. Seneca, Letters from a Stoic Philosophy and the Uncertainty of our Answers to Fundamental Questions The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has not tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason.

To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious, common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find . . . that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom.

Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never traveled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect. Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy Philosophy, then, is not an empirical study: not the critical examination of what exists or has existed or will exist—this is dealt with by common-sense knowledge and belief, and the methods the natural sciences.

Nor is it a kind of formal deduction, as mathematics or logic is. Its subject-matter is to a large degree not items of experience, but the ways in which they are viewed, the permanent or semi-permanent categories in terms of which experience is conceived or classified. . . . These models [categories] often collide; some are rendered inadequate by failing to account for too many aspects of experience, and are in their turn replaced by other models which emphasise what these last have omitted, but in their turn may obscure what the others have rendered clear.

The task of philosophy, often a difficult and painful one, is to extricate and bring to light the hidden categories and models in terms of which human beings think (that is, their use of words, images an other symbols), to reveal what is obscure or contradictory in them, to discern the conflicts between them that prevent the construction of mare adequate ways of organizing and describing and explaining experience (for all description as well as explanation involves some model in terms of which the describing and explaining is done); and then, at a still ‘higher’ level, to examine the nature of this activity itself (epistemology, philosophical logic, linguistic analysis), and to bring to light the concealed models that operate in this second-order, philosophical, activity itself. . . .

The perennial task of philosophers is to examine whatever seems insusceptible to the methods of he science or everyday observation, for example, categories, concept, models, ways of thinking or acting, and particularly ways in which they clash with one another, with a view to constructing other, less internally contradictory and (though this can never be fully attained) less pervertible metaphors, images, symbols and systems of categories. it is certainly a reasonable hypothesis that one of the principle causes of confusion, misery and fear is, whatever may be its psychological or social roots, blind adherence to outworn notions, pathological suspicion of any form of critical self-examination, frantic efforts to prevent any degree of rational analysis of what we live by and for.

Berlin, “The Purpose of Philosophy” Philosophy’s purpose is to illuminate the ways our soul has been infected by unsound beliefs, untrained tumultuous desires, and dubious life choices and preferences that are unworthy of us. Self-scrutiny applied with kindness is the main antidote.

Besides rooting out the soul’s corruptions, the life of wisdom is also meant to stir us from our lassitude and move use in the direction of an energetic, cheerful life. Epictetus, The Art of Living, 84 Philosophy and the Enlightened Character Who can doubt . . . that life is the gift of the immortal gods, but that living well is the gift of philosophy? . . .

They [the Gods] have given no one the present of a knowledge of philosophy, but everyone the means of acquiring it. For if they had made philosophy a blessing given to all and sundry, if we were born in a state of moral enlightenment, wisdom would have been deprived of the best thing about her–that she isn’t one of the things which fortune either gives us or doesn’t.

As things are, there is about wisdom a nobility and magnificence in the fact that she doesn’t just fall to a person’s lot, that each man owes her to his own efforts, that one doesn’t go to anyone other than oneself to find her. What would you have worth looking up to in philosophy if she were handed out free?

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic Let no one put off studying philosophy when he is young, nor when old grow weary of its study. For no one is too young or too far past his prime to achieve the health of his soul. The man who alleges that he is not yet ready for philosophy or that the time for it has passed him by, is like the man who says that he is either too young or too old for happiness.

Therefore, we should study philosophy both in youth and in old age, so that we, though growing old, may be young in blessings through the pleasant memory of what has been; and when young we may be old as well, because we harbor no fear over what lies ahead. We must, therefore, pursue the things that make for happiness, seeing that when happiness is present, we have everything; but when it is absent, we do everything to possess it.

Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus I tell you . . . let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and examining both myself and other is really the very best thing that a man can do, and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living . . .. Plato, Socrates Defense (Apology).

In other occupations, the reward comes with difficulty after their completion, but in philosophy delight coincides with knowledge. For enjoyment does not come after learning, but learning and enjoyment come together. Epicurus, Vatican Sayings Philosophy, likewise, tells all other occupations:

‘It’s not my intention to accept whatever time is left over from you; you shall have, instead, what I reject. ‘ Give your whole mind to her. Sit at her side and pay her constant court, and an enormous gap will widen between yourself and other men. You’ll end up far in advance of all mankind, and not far behind the gods themselves. Seneca, Letters From A Stoic ———————– 3


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