A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 19, 2010
Karl Marx (1818 – 1883)
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As a philosopher I am often asked about the usefulness of philosophy. At this point, I have a set template for my reply. I begin by presenting the historical contributions of philosophers in areas such as logic, ethics, political theory and the sciences. I then note some of the trees that have grown from these philosophical seeds, such as computers, the web, notions of human rights, and various political systems. I usually close by discussing what philosophy can do for people today, such as improving their reasoning skill. I then close by noting the continued importance of philosophical discussions in such vital areas as ethics and politics.

Yet, oddly enough, some people are still not satisfied and insist that philosophy is useless. While this might be merely an attempt to start and continue an amusing fight, perhaps there is something substantial to this sort of insistence. Perhaps there is actually a meaningful dispute over what it is to be useful. As such, I invite the reader to propose some accounts of “useful” as well as provide some examples of what sort of disciplines and things would be useful. For bonus points, compare philosophy to these paradigm cases and show how it matches up or fails to do so.

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on July 19, 2010 at 7:58 am

    I think the only point the students are trying to make is that having a lot of philosophy classes on their transcripts is not going to impress prospective employers very much. So perhaps philosophy is not immediately useful in terms of finding a job.

    But, when they are unemployed, they will at least have time to read the classics, and more importantly, know which ones to read!

  2. freddiek said, on July 19, 2010 at 8:23 am

    What is your yearly wage? The answer may (or may not?) provide one clue as to your value to society. If value to society or any of its members has nothing to do with usefulness, then ignore the following.

    Roethlisberger’s contract with the Steelers is $102 million for 8 years. That’s how they valued his usefulness to their team. By that monetary measure, how do most of us stack up against Big Ben?

    One reason you get the question about the usefulness of your profession: When the dollar signs flash society’s rational side (shouldn’t philosophers be “improving [society’s] reasoning skills”?) such as it is, shuts down. Firefighters are useful, essential. In some places they may earn more than you do, in others they’re volunteers. RN’s get $50-70k/yr.

  3. hamlynart said, on July 19, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    Great! I’m really glad that you’ve broken this subject out of the old (and too lengthy) comments section of your “Is philosophy useless” post.

    Tools! All tools are useful. The really interesting issue here, I think, is not so much our “accounts of ‘useful’” in this context, so much as our ability to think of something as being useful. I’ll try to be a little clearer.

    A fork is a useful thing, but its usefulness is fundamentally dependent upon our imagination. Without imagination a fork is only thing for putting food in our mouths, and that’s a pretty limited usefulness (I remember that I once used to hold the kitchen door open with a rather decorative fork and it made a very effective and doorstop which frequently provoked discussion with visitors who were somehow affronted that I could “misuse” it thus). Two chopsticks on the other hand, perhaps because they’re not so familiar to many people in the West, are less useful than a fork for eating but unbelievably useful for other purposes. If we weren’t so overly familiar with the specific function of a fork then we probably be more able to find a multitude of uses for forks also.

    Generally speaking, the fewer tools you have, the more imaginative you have to be in their use. Sometimes it takes longer and can be far more difficult, sometimes impossible, to achieve but it’s surprising how much you can do with a very limited toolbox.

    I don’t really believe the situation is significantly different in the case of philosophy.



  4. kernunos said, on July 19, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    “Generally speaking, the fewer tools you have, the more imaginative you have to be in their use. Sometimes it takes longer and can be far more difficult, sometimes impossible, to achieve but it’s surprising how much you can do with a very limited toolbox.”

    I couldn’t agree more. time to line up those philosophers for federally funded labotomies. Let us see their imaginations after.

    • hamlynart said, on July 19, 2010 at 6:52 pm

      Hi Kernunos,

      I’m pretty sure you were being facetious there but in actual fact you might be more right than you think. A recent study:
      suggests that it’s the slow development of the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) which is responsible for the increased creativity of children (as well as their prodigious take up of language).

      “Creativity—the ability to approach an object or a situation from an alternative perspective—may benefit from the unsupervised competition that occurs in the absence of prefrontal control. Consider one common assessment of creative thinking, the Alternative Uses Task: When attempting to think of ways to use an object in some atypical way, adults struggle. In this case, an active PFC might, paradoxically, hinder flexible thinking, because the representation of the object is sculpted by prior experience and expectations. Interestingly, young children are immune to this kind of functional fixedness”

      Though, to be honest, I don’t think kids are really creative so much as uninhibited by all those critical faculties that the rest of hold dear – with good reason (so to speak!).

    • freddiek said, on July 19, 2010 at 10:33 pm

      “Sometimes it takes longer and can be far more difficult, sometimes impossible, to achieve but it’s surprising how much you can do with a very limited toolbox.” I think the answer to the following question is probably obvious.Which is more useful to man: a/the creativity needed to “make something of ‘nothing'”, or b/the ability to simplify our lives in the face of the ever-increasing complexity of the world around us? How about this question: Will we survive without both a and b?

  5. Seán said, on July 25, 2010 at 10:18 am

    You havent answered Brennans’ critique of your standard template, Michael.

    Leaving that aside, how about ” a useful discipline is one where it would matter in some detectable way if we made it illegal to practice it”. If we closed all schools of philosophy tomorrow, and made their staff pick litter instead of philosophising, it would arguably improve matters.

    Therefore philosophy is worse than useless if we consider the waste of resources involved. Let us contrast this with engineering, for example. Society would only last a few weeks if it was illegal to practice engineering.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 25, 2010 at 8:14 pm

      Well, let us outlaw the use of critical thinking, logic, and ethical reasoning for a start and see what happens. Then we can move on to aesthetic reasoning, political philosophy, legal philosophy, and then continue from there. To finish up, we can outlaw all philosophical speculation in the sciences and mathematics. I’m sure that would go very well.

  6. Seán said, on July 26, 2010 at 4:01 am

    “If we closed all schools of philosophy tomorrow” is what I said-this action would have no effect on the things you mention, surely?

    Philosophers didn’t invent thinking, ethics, politics, or laws, and virtually none of those who practice them have studied the subject.

    You are claiming for philosophy things which existed before its inception, and which would continue in its absence, Michael.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 26, 2010 at 9:48 pm

      Philosophers obviously did not invent thought, but a case can be made that philosophers did develop the methodology of thinking, the discipline of ethics, the science of politics, the basis for legal theory, and so on.

      Interestingly, your method of argumentation could be used against engineering. After all, engineers did not invent building things. Engineering arose after people were already doing the things that would later become developed into the actual field of engineering.

      I’m curious about your motivation in attacking philosophy.

      • Seán said, on July 27, 2010 at 5:33 am

        Engineers did not invent building things, but if you cannot see that there has been incredible progress in engineering you really are a philosopher, Michael.

        I see no progress in philosophy, nor any reason to think that the development of normal human functions in philosophers exceeds that of an untrained person.

        Engineers design complex machines and systems which provably and reliably do the things they said they would do.

        A Roman engineering genius could not do these things, which rely on a vertical accumulation of known facts. Couldn’t Socrates argue the toss as well as (or even better than) you?

        Why are you curious as to my motivation? Why would that matter to a philosopher? Isn’t there a formal logical fallacy attached to that? I want to know the truth. Isn’t that enough?

        You started a thread called “is philosophy useless”. You said that thinking that it is is a misconception. After a passing interest in the subject for quite some time, I have been required to look harder at the subject. The harder I look the less useful it seems.

        As part of my course of study, people stand up in front of me and tell me that there is no truth, that black is white, and claim that philosophy underpins these claims. So I as some philosophers,. and they tell me either than philosophy supports these things, it depends what you mean by truth, philosophy doesnt deal in truth any more, and so on. So I conclude after a year or so that philosophy isnt going to answer my question. It is clearly useless in that regard.

        But you tell me that it is a misconception that philosophy is entirely useless, though instead of the things which I recognise as evidence, you offer only assertions to back your claim.

        Then Brennan’s paper comes along. It seems that even philosophers can see the holes in your argument. I ask you to address his points, and you simply restate your assertions more forcefully, and attempt to shift the burden of proof onto me.

        Then you question my motivations.

        Now you are a professor of philosophy, so these various dodgy-looking arguments must not be based in the formal logical fallacies they seem to be, and I’m not in any case going to make the mistake of swapping sophistries with a pro.

        Please can you show me some objective evidence to support your assertion that the beleif that philosophy is useless is a misconception? If not, why not?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 27, 2010 at 7:09 pm

          You misinterpret me. I did not claim that there has been no progress in engineering. Obviously our computers are more advanced than, say, sharp stones lashed to sticks.

          As far as the progress in philosophy, the easy and obvious example is logic. Start with Aristotle and then follow this to the advanced logic used today (including the logic that makes computers possible).

          The next example is in the realm of politics and ethics. Humanity has made considerable advances in political systems and ethics. Unless, of course, you do not consider the decline of racism, the rise of gender equality, and the notions of rights, democracy and so on useful.

          I gather that you have had some annoying experiences with philosophers. I do not claim there is no truth, nor that black is white. In any case, it is unfair to judge the entire discipline by such examples. After all, engineering is not judged by the worst engineers or on the basis of folks who do silly things and claim to be engineers.

          I do not give mere assertions-I’ve given example after example. Perhaps you could help me by providing a clear standard of what is useful.

          I do not question your motivations, I am curious about them. I like knowing what motivates people-I have found it improves my understanding to have information that assists in seeing things from their points of view. Knowing why you regard philosophy as useless helps me better grasp your views and even your arguments.

          • sean said, on July 29, 2010 at 2:45 am

            Thanks Michael,

            If I were to get into defining usefulness, we’d be back in no time to your original argument that anyone who thinks philosophy is useless doesn’t understand what useful means.

            Instead, let’s work with the definition of usefulness implicit in your own examples. You have indeed given any number of examples of the plausibility of the concept that philosophy is useful. But that isn’t evidence of the truth of the statement to an empiricist.

            What part for example did philosophy play in the decline of racism/sexism (ignoring for now the sizeable proportion of the the human race who do not consider this progress). What percentage of this improvement might modern day philosophers claim they were personally responsible for? Why should I believe their claims? What empirical evidence can you give to support them?

            Similarly, you say philosophy has spawned a number of disciplines which you believe to be self-evidently useful. Why should I believe that linguistics, political philosophy, economics, or the rest are useful? What empirical evidence is there that they ever benefited anyone other than those practising them?

            Ancient philosophers were clearly involved in the early development of democracy, but that was a while back. I’m not claiming philosophy was always useless, but that it is now. That philosophy has changed or expanded is clear. That it has progressed is not. You say logic has progressed, but I am told that it is logically possible to argue that there is no truth, or that the sun may not rise tomorrow- would the Greeks have put up with that nonsense? It looks to me more like decadence than progress.

            And then, to an engineer, there is also always the question of resources. Let us allow that philosophy contributed 1% to the political and social developments to give as examples. (Let us ignore for now the disbenefits of the rise in learned stupidity as a result of the adoption of continental philosophy in the social sciences and huimanities)
            What did this benefit cost us? If we had not maintained all of those expensive schools of philosophy, how long would it have been before a non-philosopher came up with the idea anyway?

            Are your examples not merely examples of polite fictions? Philosophy as practised today is useless, as far as I can see, even by your own standards. If we closed all schools of philosophy tomorrow, and diverted the money into the nurse-family partnership, wouldn’t this be a better use of resources?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 31, 2010 at 10:18 am

              While I do think that taking philosophy to be useless tends to involve a misconception of “useful”, I am willing to consider plausible accounts of the term which could be used to argue that philosophy is useless. I am, of course, willing to admit that some of what is taken to be philosophy does seem rather useless (in the everyday sense of the term).

              Interestingly, the notion of empiricism is a philosophical notion. While it dates back to the early Greeks (at least), the debate over the nature of evidence and justification really got rolling during the Modern era. Descartes and Leibniz argued that deductive logic could be used to establish knowledge by beginning with self-evident truths. However, thinkers like Locke and Hume argued in favor of the empirical approach. So, your empiricism is actually a philosophical position in the context of epistemology.

              Yes, it can be argued that there is no truth. The Greek skeptics did this as did the Greek sophists. Of course, this is not unique to philosophy. As far as the sun perhaps not rising tomorrow, that seems to be a legitimate scientific possibility. We do know that suns can “die” and we also know that we do not know everything about them. As such, as far as we know the sun could undergo some fundamental change. To use an analogy, I think I will be alive tomorrow . But, perhaps I have some fatal and undetected heart defect and I will drop dead during my 9 mile run.

              You do make an excellent point about resources. From an ethical standpoint, we should spend our resources in a way that best serves the greater good. If expending resources on philosophy gives less return than spending money on something else, then it would make moral sense to switch to supporting that. Of course, I think we should begin by getting rid of actually pernicious and harmful expenditures first. For example, we could put an end to war and oppression, then worry about philosophers.

              You also make a good point about supporting philosophers (presumably you mean philosophers in philosophy departments). As you point out, someone outside the academy could come up with those ideas. However, that person would be doing philosophy. Being a philosopher and being a professor of philosophy are two distinct things. There are philosophers who are not professors and there are philosophy professors that, I would argue, are not really philosophers.

              I think that some of the academy could be effectively weeded. The same, I am sure, is true of all institutions. However, closing all the philosophy departments would mean that universities would lose their classes in logic, critical thinking, and ethics. Naturally, they could hire people to teach just those classes. However, these people would probably either be or become philosophers. The fact that some philosophy classes are not useful does not show that philosophy itself is useless. After all, the fact that some science classes are useless does not show that science is useless. Likewise for any discipline.

  7. hamlynart said, on July 26, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    Hi Sean,

    I’ve just been reading about Richard Feynman and perhaps it might help to string some quotes together here:

    Richard Feynman’s colleagues liked to think of their gruffly plain-spoken pragmatist hero as the perfect anti-philosopher, doing rather than justifying… yet Feynman now felt a hollowness in the purely operational view of what a theory means to a scientist. He recognised that theories came laden with mental baggage, with what he called a philosophy, in fact.

    “Consider a Mayan astronomer, he suggested… the Maya had a theory of astronomy that enabled them to explain their observations and to make predictions long into the future. It was a theory in the utilitarian modern spirit: a set of rules, quite mechanical, which when followed produced accurate results. Yet it seemed to lack a kind of understanding. “They counted a certain number and subtracted some numbers, and so on,” he said. “There was no discussion of what the moon was. There was no discussion even of the idea that it went around.”

    “Now a “young man” approaches the astronomer with a new idea. What if there are balls of rock out there, far away, moving under the influence of forces just like the forces that pull rocks to the ground? Perhaps it would make possible a different way of calculating the motions of the heavenly bodies. “Yes,” says the astronomer, “and how accurately can you predict eclipses?” He says, I haven’t developed the thing very far yet.” Then says the astronomer, “Well, we can calculate eclipses more accurately than you can with your model, so you must not pay any attention to your idea because obviously the mathematical scheme is better.”

    “The notion that alternative theories could account plausibly for the same observation had slipped into a central position in the working philosophy of scientists. Philosophers called it empirical equivalence, when they began to catch up.”

    The really important issue that this points to is that we have to be careful that we don’t start calling for some kind of intellectual monoculture. Philosophy may be full of dissensus (or empirical equivalence) but just imagine how impoverished the world would be with just one truth. It’d be like expecting all artists to work in exactly the same style, and just imagine how depressing that would be.

    Jim H

  8. Seán said, on July 26, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Engineers have any number of ways of modelling the things they study, none of which claims to be the truth (capital T). They are all however useful, as those which are useless have been abandoned. Your Feynemann quote is about these sorts of models.

    Philosophy also has any number of ways of modelling, all of which which are useless, as philosophers have not developed ways to discriminate between the useful and the useless models.

    Hence their 2500 years of “work” has merely multiplied their confusion, and more work will multiply it still further. Claiming that philosophy is useless is too kind, it is worse than useless.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 26, 2010 at 9:41 pm

      You just assert they are useless without actually arguing in support of your claim. Can you provide such an argument? But, perhaps you are being consistent: since philosophers developed logic and argumentation and philosophy is worse than useless, it would be worse than useless to argue.

      As I have argued repeatedly, logic, ethics and so on are rather useful.

  9. Seán said, on July 27, 2010 at 5:05 am

    Thanks for that Michael,

    This is indeed because philosophical arguments seem worthless to me in establishing the truth of a matter. If they had value, philosophy would have reached a firm conclusion about something in the 2500 years it has been going.

    What engineers need to believe something is evidence. Can you see that from this viewpoint, it seems that we have you saying that philosophy is useful, Brennan saying that it is not, and Derrida laughing at both of you. Let us assume that all of you are competent philosophers. Can you see that to me it seems that you are the one making groundless assertions?

    You can make a philosophical argument that these things are worthwhile, but if philosophy is worthless, why should I care that your arguments meet the criteria of philosophy? Does that make them true? Or does it make it true that you believe these things? It seems not to even make it true that philosophers in general believe these things.

    If you were to say ” I believe philosophy is useful”, who am I to argue? But if you say “philosophy is useful”, I read this as intending to represent a statement of objective truth. If it is objectively true, why can I not see it? Why can Brennan not see it?

    Never mind philosophical argument, do you have any evidence which I can see for myself without subscribing to your creed? From where I am standing, philosophers have as much chance of seeing that their discipline is useless as a theologist would have of seeing that there is no god.

    If you think making a philosophical argument is some sort of evidence, consider this. Can you make a valid philosophical argument that engineering is useless? I’m pretty sure you can. So, isn’t philosophy like maths, which can describe things which could never be, in ways which fully meet the rules of the discipline, but that this formal correctness has no correlation with truth?

    As a philosopher, you entertain Hume’s notion that the world might not rise tomorrow. Engineers dont lose much sleep over this, as this is a sign of the deficiencies of philosophy rather than the unknowability of the real world.

    It seems to me that most of the things you claim a spart of philosophy have merely been annexed by the discipline. Thinking can be useful, and compassion can be useful, but do the formal abstractions of logic and ethics add anything to a person’s natural thinking and feeling abilities?

    Is an ethicist for example somehow more ethical, wiser, or otherwise capable of making better decisions about moral dilemmas than an average person? If you think the answer is yes, where is the evidence?

    Is someone trained in formal logic a better engineer or scientist than someone who is not? If so how? Is there any objectively accessible evidence?

    I’m not just “greifing” you, these are genuine questions, all linked to my original question.

  10. sean said, on July 31, 2010 at 11:51 am

    I’m sure you are being mischievous now, Michael. I ask you for evidence and you instead debate the philosophical positions you think I am taking. I’m not taking philosophical positions, I’m asking for evidence. Do you have any?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 1, 2010 at 11:38 am

      No, not at all. I will admit that I do have my moments of sarcasm and mischievousness. However, I am being serious here. The nature of the useful seems rather important. After all, as you argue, it would be unwise and perhaps unethical to waste resources on the useless.

      Actually, you are taking a philosophical position by being an avowed empiricist. That is a paradigm case of a philosophical view.

      As far as evidence of the useful goes, we have yet to settle what it means to be useful. Once that is settled, then it would be possible to determine whether philosophy meets that definition or not.

  11. sean said, on August 8, 2010 at 11:41 am

    I’ll take that as a no then.

    • Ceres said, on January 16, 2011 at 2:24 pm

      Goodness i fully agree, my field is AI and boy, and there is something that put this field in the dump is givin it to a philosopher. They could take the work of a life in doing nothing spreading acrross multiple papers and books and bitch for centuries against problems that aint there.

      Last closed door meeting we have with some neurobiologist at the faculty, they say with their branch is the same, and for politeness and the pressure to join philosophers to their research they havent been able to kick them out.

      • Asur said, on January 16, 2011 at 4:20 pm

        When you say “philosopher”, what do you mean?

        I don’t mean to accuse you of this, but every challenge to the utility of philosophy I’ve ever encountered has been made by someone who had false conceptions of what philosophy was and philosophers did.

        • Ceres said, on January 16, 2011 at 5:55 pm

          Nop, i live in interdisciplinary research, for example im working now with breast cancer specialist seeing if we can make an expert system to automatically detect early symptons in national scale samples. They are experts in the field, they deal with life and death situations, or at least a horrible malformation of the mamma, very practical men, they ought to be that way.

          I’ve worked with philosophers of the mind while i was doing strong AI. They are useless, more than useless, they derange the work into nonsensical problems that come from the fact that they dont do reality checks on anything they talk. One of the most frustrating experiences of my professional life and goodness i wast alone in that feeling in the group.

          So thats it, accuse me of what you want, go on for a century worth battle of definitions , point me in that little “theories” of philosohpy , dismiss my experience or w/e, but that is.

          • Asur said, on January 16, 2011 at 7:44 pm

            Perhaps you’ve encountered bad practitioners of philosophy — unsurprising given that every profession has its bad practitioners; it would be strange for philosophy to be immune.

            But to move from such particulars into expansive statements about philosophers and philosophy as such requires more than this, it requires that there be some intrinsic flaw that prevents there from being good, useful philosophy and philosophers at all.

            If you know of such a flaw, why hedge and refuse to say what it is?

            The truth, I think, is that there is no such flaw to point out. All these sciences you mention rely on precise definition of terms in order to do their work — if you truly admire them, don’t be so shy about precising your own.

            • Ceres said, on January 16, 2011 at 9:17 pm

              Have you ever put your words to the test?

            • Asur said, on January 16, 2011 at 10:14 pm

              Which ones?

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