On the Uselessness of Philosophy
Is philosophy useful? I mean, in a practical, roll up your sleeves and “let’s get this job done” kind of way? Does it have any utility in the straightforward sense that learning it helps you accomplish a specific task in the world? What can we do with philosophy other than read it and contemplate it? Further, if it does have any practical value in a general sense, can we wield it in today’s moment of anxiety and fear? I am a philosophy professor and I am here to tell you, quite simply, that philosophy is utterly useless.
As an academic who is occasionally asked by her department to peddle philosophy classes to the undergraduate student body at large, I’ve long been resistant to efforts to marshal data in order to demonstrate to students how philosophers earn more money than most people and that they typically use their studies to propel them into a lucrative profession like law and medicine. I think it’s more likely that this data simply shows us that philosophy classes, until recently, have been largely dominated by semi-affluent white men. That being said, go ahead and ask your doctor or your lawyer if they liked their college philosophy classes, and it is true that a goodly number of them will brighten right up and start talking about Kant, or Locke, or some such. I, myself, resort to these sorts of questions all the time. For instance, when I’m making small talk with my optometrist and I want to discreetly impress upon him that, Pretenders t-shirt notwithstanding, I am most certainly a professional and that while some people might not truly appreciate an accurate prescription with correct reading magnification in their progressives, I might actually perish without it.
My optometrist notwithstanding, most of those individuals who have dedicated themselves to philosophical studies, the ones I actually know in the flesh and blood, are poorer than most struggling artists. In my first couple of years as an adjunct instructor, I told my friends, only half-jokingly, that while most musicians had to get a day job, I had a day job, but had to get a night job playing gigs to support myself. And yes, there are the lucky few who are full-time philosophy professors and if you hang out with those people, you, and they, will likely underestimate how lucky and rare they actually are. I would never in good conscience encourage one of my students to get an advanced degree in philosophy with the aim of turning it into a lucrative professional pursuit. Studying philosophy with the aim of teaching it and earning a livable wage is no doubt possible, but it’s becoming ever rarer and counting on it is sort of like counting on a winning lottery ticket. Only, a lottery ticket costs a couple of bucks whereas an advanced philosophy degree will cost you tens of thousands of dollars and almost a decade of your life.
So, back to the question at hand: is philosophy useful? The utility of philosophy is practically non-existent. To say that something is useful is to say that it has external utility in the world of tasks that require accomplishing and goals that require achieving. This is not the world in which philosophy makes its home. Philosophy is an intrinsic good. An intrinsic good is something that is good in itself, without recourse to external justification. Asking if philosophy is useful is sort of like asking if friendships are useful. Maybe they are useful, but we don’t typically cultivate them for their utility. I value my best friend J. who has been in my life for decades, not because she serves a utilitarian function, but precisely because she doesn’t. Her friendship is a good in itself, without needing further justification. All of our deepest relationships are of this nature. I believe Aristotle is correct when he claims that the good life, a life characterized by eudaimonia, requires these sorts of deep friendships, but that’s not why the friendships are valuable, either. I value my friend J. without appeal to eudaimonia, or anything else. This friendship is a good in itself. Any utility served by the friendship (like receiving excellent advice, feeling comforted by the duration and stability of the friendship, and so on) is completely incidental. Those things don’t get to the heart of why I hold the friendship so dear.
I hold philosophy dear in a similar fashion. Philosophy is a constant friend that is always available. I can pick up the phone at 2 a.m. and babble away while she dozes off. Even at my lowest moments, or perhaps especially at my lowest moments, philosophy is a companion. I sometimes tell people that books saved my life, by which I largely mean, reading and grappling with philosophical ideas fed something in me, something that does not live in the world of uses and utility, that would have starved otherwise. Philosophy didn’t have to turn me into a lawyer to add value to my life. The value of philosophy is ineffable. If you encounter philosophy and it does not spark something in you that is impossible for you to put into words, I advise you not to pursue philosophy beyond a class or two. And if it does spark this unspeakable thing inside of you, you will no longer care about philosophy’s utility.
But what about right now? What can the ineffable possibly offer in the midst of a global pandemic, massive unemployment, anxiety that is so free-floating that I’m not always sure if I’m experiencing my own or someone else’s? Ineffability resides in a world beyond brute survival. When such a world becomes impossible, being fully human will become impossible. Philosophy is not here to provide comfort. She is not here to whisper into the ears of the intellectual elite. There is a reason why Socrates practiced philosophy in the dirt and din of the marketplace, not the silence and peacefulness of the garden. Thinking deeply right now will likely lead to thoughts that are not at all consoling, but consolation is not the business of philosophy, either (sorry Boethius). Engaging with questions that matter, tangling with minds both living and dead, reading the thoughts of thinkers who think thoughts that I would never think on my own, that is why I seek philosophy.
When the value of a thing is equated with its utility, when philosophy is interrogated only for its usefulness, I fear we’ve already missed the mark. Utility and value are not the same thing and we should not conflate them. We can make a list of the extrinsic goods produced by philosophy, and some might even find this list impressive, but what about the intrinsic good offered by philosophy? That list will be quite small, because the ineffable does not translate well to listing. If philosophy is just another business among businesses, then it should be measured using the same indices as any other business. And using those indices, philosophy is hardly the straightest line to any destination.
There are many things I do in my life that are extrinsically motivated. Or to speak plainly, I do them because I have to. I have a mortgage, I’m a single parent, I am responsible to other people in my life who I value. I continue to drag my unwilling bones out of bed every morning and do my best to fulfill my “obligations.” The old version of the world might be fading, but my kid still needs to eat breakfast. My English bulldog still needs to go outside. My (now online) classrooms are filled with students writing work that still needs grading. I don’t much feel like doing these things right now, but I do them anyway. Philosophy, however, is not on this list of obligations, it’s just something I do. I visit philosophy and philosophy visits me. I’m determined to keep space in my life where philosophy can drop-in, unbidden, whenever she damn well please, and I’ll have a hot cup of tea and an occasional novel thought to offer. I don’t demand that she prove her usefulness. Philosophy is of no use to me, only value.
For me, and I suspect for most people, brute survival is not enough. Things that are merely “useful” are not enough. A Hobbesian state of nature is not one in which I would be too interested in living. Fortunately, I think Hobbes was likely wrong about the state of nature thing, though “nasty, brutish, and short,” does have a certain appealing ring. A world without philosophy is not a world in which I would choose to live, not because I have the high-minded ideals of a Socrates, or the raw courage of a Dr. Martin Luther King, but simply because in the small catalog of things I value, philosophy is near the top. A world in which philosophy is possible, whether or not it ever actually blooms, is the only kind of world worth living in. It’s sort of like what that old Russian acting teacher, Stanislavsky, said. Inspiration will come whenever it pleases, bidden or no. All we can do is create an environment in which the door is open, so we don’t lock her out. Philosophy is like that, as well, though she tends to be more generous with her time than inspiration.
Right now, I’m reading the apocalyptic novel, Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel. The book opens with actors performing a passage from King Lear, and though I’m only halfway through the book, I suspect it will close with King Lear, as well. The world is torched, but like Cordelia, the ineffable demands its due in any world in which human hearts still beat. Philosophy is also like Cordelia: she seeks and speaks the truth, not because it is useful (in Cordelia’s case a lie would be much more expedient), but because it is valuable. Philosophy is a kind of unquenching seeking of value. It is a simple understanding that there is always more to be understood, even if the roof is caving in. No fair-weather friend is she. Philosophy means always opening another book, always chasing down another thought, always asking someone to listen and refute, not in order to acquire more knowledge, but to seek value. Philosophy means that no matter what else, whenever my own private universe comes to an end, there will likely be a half dozen unfinished philosophy texts scattered around my house and none of them will be of any use to anyone.