It is easy to mock philosophy majors. One of my favorite jokes is “what is the sound of no hands clapping? Your parents after they realize you spent $60,000 in tuition for nothing.” Funny, but unfair.
Bertrand Russell says that if we are to examine the value of philosophy we must first “free our minds from the prejudices of what are wrongly called ‘practical’ men.” Maybe, but that approach does little to persuade skeptics that philosophy is important. So, for the practical minded I want to defend why philosophy is important.
We must understand what philosophy is, but first we should state what it is not. Philosophy is not the bong-fueled musings of people with questionable hygiene. Unfortunately it is also a discipline where you are unlikely to find good writers. Clarity and brevity are uncommon attributes among philosophers.
The shortest definition of philosophy is that it is “thinking about thinking.” Philosophy is rational, critical, probing, and occasionally systematic inquiry of the world and the mind. Practically, philosophic exercise is akin to exploration. It goes to the dark places of the map.
As soon as philosophy has cast some light to drive away whatever lives along the edge of the maps, it becomes something else entirely. This is a vital point. Much of what we now think of as science was once philosophy.
Once upon a time there was no thing called psychology. There was no physics, or biology, or astronomy. There was no scientific method. These sciences, and many more, were philosophy. The scientists colonized the regions discovered by Aristotle, Bacon, and Descartes.
Philosophy is, much like mathematics, a tool used to achieve some other end. Philosophy is used to pursue truth.
It seems a shame to me that today we celebrate the foresight of science fiction, but routinely mock the field of philosophy. It is right to marvel at the forecasts of Verne, Wells, and Asimov, but we too should celebrate the prescience of Hume, Kant, and Leibniz.
Should you still need to joke about any academic discipline worry not. There are scores of communications majors in our midst.
As with anything, philosophy has its share of fruitless – and even worthless – pursuits. Also, as some philosophic schools have opened new vistas of beauty and achievement so too have some led to horror and despotism. I excuse none of that. I am merely insisting that philosophy is a valid and worthwhile field.
If you want more, here is a good, quick, but broader introduction.