Calling all philosopher...
February 3, 2010 12:52 PM   Subscribe

How can someone get excited about philosophy? (This wasn't a very good mini explanation... More inside)

I recently acquired a philosophy minor to accompany my journalism major. While I've always really liked philosophy this course I'm taking this semester is kind of making me doubt the importance of it.

I'm taking Feminist Philosophy and while the material is really interesting, I'm having trouble mustering up all the excitement my classmates show during class discussions. I think that too often philosophy, especially modern philosophy, poses this great mandates to society - in a "we should all think in this way now, change everything you ever thought you knew" way. The theories presented just seem so macro that the practicality of actual implementation is pretty much nonexistent. It all seems so passive. I have trouble getting excited about abstract ideals that have no apparent agency.

So, basically, my questions is... What is the point of philosophy in our oh-so-practical world? Can some philosophers (or just some plain, old, regular people) explain to me why they are so passionate about philosophy?
posted by jay.eye.elle.elle. to Religion & Philosophy (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
What is the point of philosophy in our oh-so-practical world? Can some philosophers (or just some plain, old, regular people) explain to me why they are so passionate about philosophy?

A lot of philosophy is reasoning and understanding how coherent arguments work. It gives you the skills to understand, defend and challenge the arguments that are made around you. Once you know how arguments are made and some common fallacies that people use, you're more confident and able to take a stand on virtually any topic.

There is a lot of cruft and rhetoric out there in the real world; trained philosophers, ideally, possess the skills to get to the heart of argument and avoid bias.
posted by Hiker at 1:04 PM on February 3, 2010

One thing worth noting is that philosophy is really, really big and broad. I'm a philosophy grad student now, so I'm definitely the kind of person who gets excited about philosophy, but there are still big areas of it that I just can't get motivated to pursue. Myself, I'm particularly interested in applied ethics and political philosophy, which are the kind of things that really do lend themselves to implementation instead of abstract, macro-level statements.

Consider doing some reading around in the various subfields of philosophy and see what calls out to you. Read some metaphysics, some epistemology, some ethical theory, some applied ethics, some political philosophy, some environmental philosophy, some philosophy of language, some philosophy of science, some philosophy of language...the list goes on. There's an incredible amount of "Philosophy of"s out there, some vastly more applied than others, and they all appeal to different people.

In terms of the point of philosophy in the practical world...I think the biggest benefit is that taking philosophy teaches people how to think well. When you study arguments and fallacies and really look at the way thought and knowledge work, there's a lot to be learned, and it becomes a lot easier to separate truth from bullshit in everyday life. Even if nobody gets the joke on my Descartes hoodie but the folks in my department, the logical, argumentative, and problem-solving skills are applicable quite well and anywhere.

If you want to talk philosophy, feel free to MeMail me - I love this stuff.
posted by Rallon at 1:05 PM on February 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I want to add one more thing; if the types of skills that I described above appeal to you, aim towards the critical thinking/formal logic portion of your curriculum. If you enjoy math, you'll enjoy formal logic.
posted by Hiker at 1:06 PM on February 3, 2010

My favorite answer to this question: there are not only wrong answers to questions, there are also wrong questions. The way we perceive a problem is itself a manifestation of the problem.

This is what philosophy should be for, showing how to ask the right question; philosophy reduced to logic is of limited interest to me, and IMO, of limited usefulness in general.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:16 PM on February 3, 2010

It can help you recognize how people (yourself or others) go wrong in thinking about practical, non-philosophical problems.

For instance, you might take a metaphysics course and study the concept of "identity" (of persons or things). You'll distinguish among different meanings of words like "identity" and "identical" and "same" and "different." You might analyze the meaning of mundane, non-philosophical sentences like, "I've had the same car for 10 years," "I like this shirt so much I'm going to buy the same one again," "I take the same train to work every day," "I'm a different person than I was 5 years ago," etc. (Each of those sentences, which I just made up, uses a different meaning of same/different.) Then, outside the course, if in a public forum debating whether to outlaw cloning, and someone makes an argument like, "Cloning undermines the uniqueness and individuality of human beings by duplicating them," you'll be better equipped to explain the fallacy of that argument since you'll be alert to the different kinds of sameness and differentness that may be obscured by our everyday use of words like "same" and "different."

I'm not sure how much that helps you get excited about your specific course, since I haven't taken a course in feminist philosophy. Frankly, I mostly agree with your feeling that philosophy isn't practical, even though I majored in it and enjoyed it. There are some practical uses to philosophy, but it's more about learning to think clearly, question assumptions, analyze how we use language, etc., than about actually solving specific philosophical problems in any kind of useful way. I had a philosophy prof who told us straight up, on day 1, "Philosophy has nothing to do with the real world." That was an overstatement, but it shows that the feelings you have are far from heretical.

If you'd have the time to read a whole book on the themes you're asking about, Bryan Magee's Confessions of a Philosophy does an excellent job of describing how he got excited about philosophy, beginning with thoughts that captivated him when he was just a young child. Another book I've been reading, Mary Warnock's Intelligent Person's Guide to Ethics, talks about the interplay between her study of philosophy and her advocacy for special needs children.
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:29 PM on February 3, 2010

Bryan Magee's Confessions of a Philosopher is the name of that book.

(Edit function, please!)
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:31 PM on February 3, 2010

Philosophy is exciting because it's not obvious whether or how any of it can actually be implemented or of any practical use.

I'm not glorifying pure intellect untouched by grubby and earthly concerns here. Sure, there's something to be said for pursuing truth without caring whether it can ever make a new political system or a flying car. But I think people emphasize this too much when defending philosophy. It makes philosophy look ossified and stultified and gray-bearded. No, philosophy has plenty of practical import. It's exciting not because it can't be put to use, but because it's not obvious how it can be put to use.

It's easy to look back through history and see the influence that philosophers have had on the direction that civilization has taken. Countless philosophical systems have given rise to revolutions and political doctrines. Hume and Locke influenced the way that medical men viewed madness which gave rise to the birth of psychiatry. Old-school conceptual analysis became linguistic semantics. Russell, working on logic and the foundations of mathematics, sat in the middle of a dynasty that gave rise to the invention of the computer. Nearly any legal system or law you can think of is the output of thousands of years of philosophical debate. Really, everything that we think of as science was, at one point, natural philosophy. If it worked well, it splintered off and became a science. The reason we call Newton a scientist and Leibniz a philosopher is that Newton discovered a bunch of physical laws that turned out to be applicable, but the two of them were engaged in exactly the same sorts of activities at the time.

I think of philosophy as the study of questions we naturally want to ask but that we don't have a settled method of answering. Figuring out how to answer these questions is the whole problem. When progress gets made, it can have huge impact. It only seems passive, like you say, because it moves slowly. But so does tectonic drift. And by the very nature of the discipline, it's really hard to tell whether you're making any progress. I study philosophy, and it's always a little hard to answer people when they ask why I'm doing it for any reasons that aren't purely personal. I can't answer that! (I'm a bit jealous of scientists who can point to cures for polio or whatever even though what they actually study is purely theoretical and far removed from practical application -- it's a cheaty answer.) I might be working on puzzles that are way off-base and won't have lasting impact. But I might also write some papers that solve a few problems and intangibly contribute a little something that will have an effect way down the line somewhere. Philosophical labour is distributed among all of us.

Most philosophy is useless, of course. I think most is crap. (I mean, analyses of knowledge? Ugh.) But that's OK -- someone needs to be working on this stuff, just in case it bears fruit somewhere down the line. If you don't like one area or don't feel like the problems that are set out in one area feel important, just shift concerns. It's a huge and interdisciplinary field that pokes its intrusive and unwanted little nose into pretty much every other discipline. If you choose to study philosophy, you can study literally anything. You get to take the objects of study of other disciplines, and see if you can find important questions about them that those disciplines don't have the established methods to ask. How could that not be exciting?
posted by painquale at 1:39 PM on February 3, 2010 [6 favorites]

Incidentally, I think the "philosophy teaches people how to think well" is a bit of a cop-out answer. It treats philosophy as if it's a training course for other disciplines and as if the content doesn't matter. And anyway, while philosophy is good at teaching certain deductive forms of reasoning, it's very bad at teaching certain important styles of reasoning, such as causal reasoning (take sciences) or statistical reasoning (economics). It would be a joke if someone defended science by saying that it makes us good at causal reasoning. That's obviously not the primary concern of the discipline... it's just a nice side-benefit, or maybe a prerequisite.
posted by painquale at 1:45 PM on February 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was a philosophy major in college. In my experience, philosophy classes tend to be either broadly focused: Ethics, Continental Philosophy, etc; or very specifically focused: Environmental Ethics, Theories of Consciousness, etc. Your Feminist Philosophy is in the latter group. I mean this as gently as possible, but it's a little silly to make broad generalizations about a subject based on a single class that has a very narrow focus.

I liked philosophy for three main reasons. The first, as was mentioned upthread, was because I liked learning how to construct proper arguments and how to see the holes in other people's arguments. There are good reasons why people major in philosophy at schools where they're not allowed to major in pre-law.

The second reason was because I liked the way studying philosophy forced me to clarify my own ideas. For instance, I discovered in my first ethics class that I disagreed with anyone who was arguing for moral relativism, which forced me to articulate what ethical theories I did agree with. Studying philosophy doesn't necessarily illuminate The Truth, but I think it does make you clarify your own beliefs about a number of things. I like being able to articulate the beliefs that guide my actions, instead of acting based on some slightly fuzzy, dark gray ideas that were lurking in the back corners of my brain.

The third reason is that I like knowing where particular ideas came from. An astonishingly large amount of the common wisdom out there is actually a watered-down version of Plato or Locke or what-have-you. And there are some ideas that have become so ingrained in our society that you don't even think about them having a beginning, until you read Aristotle and Kant and realize that before Kant, people thought the bravest people were the ones who didn't get scared. It gives you a different perspective on the world when you realize that most of the ideas that we use had a specific starting point and have gradually disseminated through time. I think it's useful to understand the more complex versions of the ideas that people use every day, and to be able to recognize the ideas/assumptions that other people work from--both individually and historically--because it allows you to see their argument more clearly.
posted by colfax at 1:46 PM on February 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

So far people have pointed out skills that studying philosophy will help you acquire. I think their advice is good, and I think those skills are valuable, but that might not be what you need to get motivated in an immediate, "excited" kind of way.

Personally, I never get interested in philosophical issues in that kind of intense way unless they have some bearing on an issue that I personally care about, something I'd think about all the time outside of class. Philosophy may seem like it's about trying to discover the truth about a bunch of abstract theories, but I don't think that's what it's really about—people don't get interested in philosophy because they care about those theories per se, but because they care about issues to which those theories are responses. Those issues are often conflicts: how can we reconcile the apparent contradictions in the things we believe about ethics, politics, the nature of consciousness, etc.? If you find an issue that you're conflicted about, or a belief you're confident of but that other people disagree with—something you'd really love to argue about all day—then I think you'd be interested in uncovering the philosophy underlying that. When you care like that, all those abstract theories will start to matter, and you'll like discussing them with people. But without that inner motivation, philosophy can be pretty dull.

Also, I haven't studied much feminist philosophy, but feminism is a topic more often discussed by "Continental" (i.e. European, and especially French) philosophers than by "analytic" (i.e. anglophone) ones. If your feminist philosophy course is taught from a Continental perspective, it could be very different in style from the analytic philosophy that most people here are familiar with, and the kind you're likely to encounter in most other philosophy classes.

Feel free to MeFi-mail me too, if you like.
posted by k. at 1:57 PM on February 3, 2010

Plenty of philosophers don't get excited about certain areas of speculation. Everyone has the thing they think is interesting and shakes their head at the nonsense someone else wants to investigate. Some people study philosophy more as a kind of literature, a history of thought throughout western civilization, and enjoy it for the same reasons people enjoy literature and history - to better understand our culture, where we come from, the roots of our mindsets and so on. Some study it in hopes of clarifying thought processes, language use, ideas and arguments. Some hope to reach useful answers on ethical and political questions. Some explore areas of crossover with psychology, physics, or other empirical sciences.

PHilosophy is a large domain. But even so, if it's practicality you're most interested in, there are other social sciences that might be more satisfying to you... The roots of philosophy come from ideas like "all human beings desire to understand" or "the unexamined life is not worth living"... so there are practical components, certainly, but it is still somewhat a science of examining and understanding for its own sake.
posted by mdn at 1:58 PM on February 3, 2010

I'm excited by philosophy...but not so much by modern philosophy; which, in my assessment, is ideologically driven by unexamined assumptions. I like philosophy that unearths and explores those kinds of assumptions--philosophy which hungers for reality as it is, rather than for a reality it would like. I recommend the work of G.K. Chesterton and Fr. James Schall.
posted by keith0718 at 2:09 PM on February 3, 2010

There are some great answers in this thread... Just popping up to add 2 things.

One is that philosophy has a further practical function in addition to helping hone critical thinking and writing skills: namely, it forces you to think hard about your assumptions, about why you think what you do, about whether you should jettison beliefs that it turns out you hold for no good reason. And what other classes will help you think about whether God exists, whether there are objective moral values, what the good life is?

The other is that it sounds from your description like you might have a bad professor. Someone doctrinal and, as k. said, maybe contintental-ish and full of Theory-with-a-capital-T. Philosophy classes aren't usually "passive" or ""we should all think in this way now". That's a different complaint than the perfectly understandable complaint that the courses aren't practical--and not one that you would have about a good class, I don't think.
posted by kestrel251 at 4:01 PM on February 3, 2010

poses this great mandates to society - in a "we should all think in this way now, change everything you ever thought you knew" way.

Is this true? If this was true, would it be a bad thing? Should people's thinking never be changed? When is it acceptable to try and change their thinking? The US carried out a massive program designed to change the thinking, at a very macro level, of the Japanese post-WWII: was that ethical? How could you begin to test the ways you were prescribing for everyone to think in? Could you be sure they were right?

The theories presented just seem so macro that the practicality of actual implementation is pretty much nonexistent.

Is an idea only any use if it's practically implementable? Are the ideas in science fiction worthless? Couldn't philosophers actually running the show be a nightmare?

It all seems so passive.
How can it be both passive and attempting to change the way everybody in the world thinks?

I have trouble getting excited about abstract ideals that have no apparent agency.

Well, can you get excited about questions? Does the thought of someone asking such a baffling but meaningful question that you'll then lie awake for hours working it over in your mind -- actually feeling your mind stretch -- excite you?

Would you like to be able to argue over all of these questions? Would you like to be able to take someone's innocent assertion, tear it to bits and answer with nothing but -- well, except for the last sentence -- fifteen more questions of your own? Then philosophy is for you.
posted by bonaldi at 4:44 PM on February 3, 2010

I'm all for avoiding great big mandates, so I'm with you on that.

Having said that, I enjoyed studying philosophy (especially epistemology :-D ) because it gave me the kinds feelings that I think others get from art. Excitement, passion, wonder, love, anger etc, etc. It felt like it stretched me, not just by making me think differently, or more logically, or more completely, but it actually expanded my consciousness, making me more aware, giving me a broader scope, etc, etc.

The inverted spectrum (and the wiki is pretty short and narrow) is a good example. It blows my mind to think about this question to this day, and I love all the mental garden paths it takes me down. And, to be honest and contradict myself, a practical extension of contemplating the inverted spectrum problem is a different attitude towards the experiences of others, depending how open and touchy-feeley you are.

You might consider exploring a book called The Mind's I. They present some fairly famous articles (mostly about things like consciousness and identity) and then discuss them. Some people think the authors (Hofstadter and Dennett) to be both sloppy and snooty, but I think their commentary helps make some pretty sophisticated ideas a little more down-to-earth. And a lot of it is just downright cool.
posted by Gorgik at 10:20 PM on February 3, 2010

First read William James' Pragmatism and you will discover immediately how philosophy can be useful.

What is exciting about philosophy is that it is actually _psychology_. It shapes the way you look at the world, which shapes the way you feel about the world.

As Schopenhauer puts it: "In these pages I shall speak of 'The Wisdom of Life' in the common meaning of the term, as the art, namely, of ordering our lives so as to obtain the greatest possible amount of pleasure and success; an art the theory of which may be called Eudaemonology, for it teaches us how to lead a happy existence. Such an existence might perhaps be defined as one which, looked at from a purely objective point of view, or rather, after cool and mature reflection — for the question necessarily involves subjective considerations,— would be decidedly preferable to nonexistence; implying that we should cling to it for its own sake, and not merely from the fear of death; and further, that we should never like it to come to an end."

By looking at different schools of philosophical thought and different philosophers, you will find much that makes no sense--but much that is complementary to your personal temprament and current outlook, and that makes you a happier person by broadening your outlook at the margin.

If you study phenomenology, for example, you will find a completely new way of seeing the world. Wikipedia says: "The phenomenological method serves to momentarily erase the world of speculation by returning the subject to his or her primordial experience of the matter, whether the object of inquiry is a feeling, an idea, or a perception."

So enjoy, and take what you can use.
posted by supremefiction at 4:16 PM on February 4, 2010

How is philosophy relevant to the outside world? How isn't it? Philosophy is about nothing more than the world.

The readings in your feminism class might not be stimulating in themselves, but feminism is very much a world-centered theory. It gives you a chance to think about how people interact with each other.

However, you are right to point out that it's sometimes hard to see how a very abstract theory relates to day to day activities. But it can be done. (Socrates was very day-to-day. Plato was not, but they shared many of the same ideas.) My advice would be to not keep this to yourself. You should make this very point in your class (especially in a class like feminism). Play the gadfly, ask the professor and other students how their views can be practically applied. Find counterexamples and problems that lead to slippery slopes. In short, focus your attention on the applied (or lack thereof) aspects of feminism.

In this way philosophy is just like physics. In physics you can spend a lot of time doing very abstract mathematical calculations or you can try to figure out the best way to spin a basket ball when shooting free throws. In philosophy you can spend a lot of times figuring out which of Kant's different formulations of the Categorical Imperative is more fundamental or you can ask what would Kant have us do about the electoral college (in the US).
posted by oddman at 6:45 AM on February 7, 2010

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