What's the point of philosophy?

"If we want to investigate the world, we need science, not armchair musing!"

This expresses a view about the merits of differing ways of investigating reality. Such views are themselves just the sorts of things that philosophers spend their time discussing. For example, perhaps the view at stake is Empiricism, a classic theory according to which everything we know is learned via sense experience, never rational thought alone. Or perhaps it's the modern descendant of empiricism, Verificationism, according to which (very roughly) a question doesn't even make sense if it can't be answered by science.

Such views are a major part of the subject matter of philosophy. We spend a lot of time trying to get clear about exactly what these views really say, and trying to work out if they are sustainable[1]. That is, some of those who express scepticism about philosophy are really expressing a viewpoint within philosophy. Such people would probably be interested by much of what we do! (Such people might start with A.J. Ayer's short book "Language, Truth, and Logic", which is a fantastically readable classic defending a view they might well like.)

"Philosophy is a waste of time and money: We should be spending those resources on other things!"

This is just the sort of issue that got me into philosophy! As individuals, and as a society, we have limited time and other resources: how should we prioritise those resources? Is it fair for the government to pay for museums when those same funds could be diverted to hospitals and save lives? Should we prioritise healthcare for the youngest, who have most to gain, or is that age discrimination? Such questions are the subject matter of ethics and political philosophy. If you feel strongly about such matters, you should read the things written by people who spend their whole lives working on them. (Peter Singer's Practical Ethics is a good opinionated (controversial!) place to start.)

But philosophy is a good use of resources: it advances our understanding and knowledge in ways that leads us (as individuals, and as a society) to make better decisions in future. Of course, it being research, I can't tell you what the next successes will be. And even present philosophical influence - such as the effective altruism movement, and on animal rights - are hard to praise without first deciding whether such development are good or not, and that is just the sort of thing we are trying to work out. But past successes are easier to judge: philosophers such as Francis Bacon, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, let alone Plato or Aristotle, have had an enormously positive influence on the Western World and beyond.

"But who really cares about the issues philosophers investigate?"

You do, almost certainly. I'm sure you care whether you have free will, care about the moral status of abortion, care about the existence of God, and so on. And these issues matter to us as a society as well: we ask whether drug addiction is a disease or a choice, whether abortion ought to be legal, whether creationism ought to be taught in schools, and so on. These questions can't be resolved without investigating more general issues about free will and responsibility; the nature of personhood and human rights; and the nature of science, truth, and the limits of reasonable disagreement. These are questions that are deeply important for us to resolve, and it's thereby important that we have people who try to seriously investigate them."

"But do you ever really make progress?"

We do. No philosopher today will read older books of philosophy without groaning from time to time at points of ignorance and confusion: we do this because we've made progress and we now know things that were not apparent to our predecessors. No doubt our successors will do the same when they read our work. Will this process ever come to an end? Not soon, for certain. But our theories will continue to approximate the truth to a greater and greater degree, and that is enough to make our work worthwhile.


On this general issue, see also Scott Soames' item in the New York Times.