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The Uselessness of Philosophy

6:00:00 AMCatherine Beigel

Adding to the frustration of being the last to board the Greyhound bus to Detroit, I was dismayed to discover that there was not a single empty row on the bus. Looking from face-to-face deciding which stranger I would share bench with, I settled on a man who looked about my own age. He was tucking a military backpack into the overhead. I sat down next to him and over the next several hours we chatted and exchanged the usual small talk questions. When asked what I did, I explained that I was going to school for a degree in philosophy and theology. Even as the words were leaving my mouth I dreaded the inevitable follow up question, “What are you going to do with a degree in philosophy? Shouldn’t you be learning something useful?”

You would think that I would have a semi-prepared answer to this sort of question. I don’t. In fact, it always takes me by surprise; I’m left fumbling my words and playing defense for the discipline which I love. I think in part I share this man's question. Why is it important to continue to study philosophy? Instead of reading the musings of men like Aristotle and Plato who died 1000s of years ago, shouldn't we be trying to solving the issues of security, politics, and health facing the modern American? Why is a 20 year old like me wasting her time studying philosophy?

While I don’t entirely know the answer to these questions, I hope this post can shed a little bit of light on them. If you have further insights please drop them in the comments below and perhaps with your help we can piece together a more coherent answer. 

On a subjective level my love of philosophy is simple. I love philosophy for itself, not for what it can give me.  There is no end goal per-se when engaging in philosophy. For example, one branch of philosophy is epistemology or the study of the theory of knowledge. When studying epistemology I do not expect to solve the world’s educational problems, or to uncover some earth shattering reality that to know is impossible. The question of “Is knowing possible?” simply fascinates me in itself. Even if I cannot find the solution, I am satisfied to merely keep looking for it. Now of course there is the necessary side effect that when looking sometimes you find the answer. That is not a problem by any means. But it also was not the original intent. The intent was to look into the question. In asking questions, I experience joy and for that I love philosophy and the tools it gives me to continue to engage them. 

Approaching the question from a different perspective: Philosophy comes from the Greek meaning “love of wisdom.” Wisdom not of a particular branch like the natural sciences but wisdom in general. The natural sciences are gone about in a philosophical manner.  What does that even mean you’re probably asking? Josef Pieper explained it as, “when we say of a science that it is practiced in a ‘philosophical manner,’ we mean it is undertaken ‘academically’ in the original sense of the word (3).” The two are essentially interchangeable because of the educated man is the man who is wholly formed. Specialized “practical” sciences (i.e. nurses, doctors, and engineers) are necessary in that they provide men a path to engage in the normal ‘work’.  If however man is capable of being more that these utilitarian pursuits, then should not those avenues be engaged? Not because they are useful, but simply because they have as their primary aim the introduction of man to the love of wisdom. 

While these two takes might not be enough to convince you that a bachelor’s degree in philosophy is “worth it,” I hope it is enough to start the gears spinning in your brain that it is possible. If you think these sorts of questions are engaging you might be philosopher in disguise. Keep asking questions. Keep seeking out truth. Pursue what you know to be good. In the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German author, “I have never bothered or asked in what way I was useful to society as a whole; I contented myself with expressing what I recognized as good and true. That has certainly been useful in a wide circle; but that was not the aim; it was the necessary result (5).”

(1) Image 1
(2) Image 2
(3)Josef Pieper, "Leisure the Basis of Culture" pg. 35
(4) Image 3
(5) Josef Pieper, "Leisure the Basis of Culture" pg. 37

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