Republished (from 2014)
Today is UNESCO World Philosophy Day, a day aimed to “underline the enduring value of philosophy for the development of human thought, for each culture and for each individual”.
However, it was not so long ago that philosophy was the target of university funding cutbacks. Philosophy is commonly painted as a discipline defined by ivory tower musing and abstraction. We don’t often celebrate philosophy and many question its value. What makes philosophy so special?
We might start by saying a little about what philosophy actually is.
As every student who has ever enrolled in a philosophy subject knows, philosophy’s etymological roots lie in two Ancient Greek words: philo – loving, and sophia – wisdom. Thus, literally translated, philosophy is a love of wisdom.
This romantic notion is one that still resonates with philosophers today, but it doesn’t say much about what philosophy does, or what it offers to humanity. To answer that, we need to consider philosophy as an intellectual discipline.
Aristotle argued that philosophy begins with wonder. In this he is right, but more precisely, philosophy begins when we wonder about something. It is – like every intellectual discipline – a way of asking questions about the nature of things. In this way, philosophy is born of the very basic human disposition toward asking questions.
More than that though, philosophy asks questions of a particular type. British philosopher Isaiah Berlin argued that all disciplines are defined by the types of questions that they have been designed to answer. Again, the study begins with questions.
Most questions that human beings tend to ask can be divided into two categories: formal and empirical. Formal questions as those that can be answered by deduction from our knowledge of axiomatic truths: for instance, the answer to “are healthy behaviours ones that prolong our lives?” is discoverable merely by thinking logically about the concepts of health and life.
Empirical questions, by contrast, cannot be answered without observation of the material world. “Which behaviours are healthy?” cannot be answered without observing some large number of behaviours and tracking their effects on health.
However, there are another set of questions whose answers cannot be discovered either by formal or empirical inquiry. For instance, the question: “why should I be healthy?” or “should I fear losing my life?” cannot be deduced from the very concepts of life and health, nor discovered through observation of healthy, living beings.
These questions demand an entirely different method of analysis. This, Berlin argues, is what defines philosophical questions: ones that “cannot be answered either by observation or calculation.“ This describes our questions about life and health. To answer these questions requires a kind of knowledge that neither formal nor empirical inquiry can attain. In this case, we need an understanding of the value of human life.
Values cannot be observed: nor are they (with apologies to Immanuel Kant) mere matters of deduction from self-evident truths. Rather, they imply entirely new kinds of questions about value, right and wrong, and the relevant context. Today, determining whether, and under what conditions, life is valuable is as pertinent a question as ever – despite all our advances in scientific analysis and a deepening understanding of what life – as a concept – actually is.
Answering a question like this requires more than clinical facts regarding levels of pain, likelihood of recovery, or quality of life. They require serious thinking about questions such as whether existence is always preferable to non-existence, the relationship between death and non-existence, the moral significance of suffering, and the importance of individual autonomy.
Philosophy matters, simply, because the answers to philosophical questions matter. Not only is it a matter of life and death, but a matter of, to name a few examples, the nature of law, the role of language, where morality comes from, whether there is a God, whether there is a self and what constitutes our identity, and what beauty is. What makes these questions important is not only that they help societies to function (although they certainly do), but that they reflect something deeply fundamental about human beings: that we are physical creatures, but our consciousness is not restricted to physical matters. Indeed, philosophy is both reflective and perfective of human nature.
As author and philosopher C.S. Lewis explained, although we are physically embodied, most of the things that give our lives value are less tangible than material reality, and philosophy is among them:
Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.
Aristotle thought that philosophical reflection was the perfection of human living. He might have been overreaching a little bit, but there can be no question of the value that reflection adds to our lives.
There is only so much that talking about philosophy can persuade of its value though.
Today, on World Philosophy Day, I encourage you to give it a try yourself. Find a philosopher – there are plenty on Twitter and every university faculty member has an email address – get in touch and see what it’s like first hand. All you need is curiosity, and the right question.