The benefit of philosophy

Again and again people ask: “What is the benefit of philosophy?” Because they would not do it, if it had not benefit. Or because they only do things which do have a benefit.

I have do admit that I find it hard to answer this question. But the reason why I find it hard is not so much that no possible answers would come into my mind. Rather, if I am honest I have to admit that I do not understand the question.

Yes, in quiet moments I have also already asked myself about the personal benefit a person gets from philosophizing. Then things like “You learn to think in a structured, analytical manner” or “You learn how to express your thoughts in clear language” come to my mind. These and some other possible answers to the question of the benefit of philosophy are true, but, in reality structured thinking can be learned in some other field of interest, too, and the same is valid for clear language.

But what is more, such secondary benefits do not constitute the reason why one philosopizes.

So, if somebody asks me what I consider to be the benefit of philosophy, I now tend to return the question: “How can you live without philosophizing?”

“If I tried to live without philosophizing,” I would add, “within three weeks my head would be stuffed with so many confusing and contradictory contents that I would not know my own name anymore. My head would echoe from what other people have told me and from what I have heard or read in the media or in books like from the soap-opera oratories from politicians of different parties. It would all be a terrible havoc inside me, and I would not know anymore what to believe and what I think about things.”

To be clear about that: My concept of philosophy is philosophizing; it is not studying philosophical books or papers. Studying the works of professionals of the discipline of philosophy does not help you to bring order into your head. Of course, it might provide one or the other useful hint you were looking for. But in general, when studying Kant or Hegel or Thomas Nagel you are not busy with your own problems but with someone else’s business.

Now somebody could object: “But after all you are telling us, the benefit of philosophy for you is to bring order into your head!”

Theoretically or literally taken, this statement is somehow true. But what is wrong about it, is that it does not give a true account of my motivation for philosophizing. My motivation is not to philosophize in order to make order in my mind, but the growing disorder in my mind seems so threatening that I feel the urge to run away from it into philosophizing.

Would you say that somebody who is gasping for air because he is drowning, is doing that because the air has some kind of benefit for him? Theoretically you could say that, but practically somebody who is gasping for air does not ask for the benefit of air.

The real question, in my opinion, therefore is not: “What is the benefit of philosophy?” – but: “How do people manage to live without philosophy?”

I do accept the fact that there are people who are not philosophizing, because I know people who say that they do not consider themselves to be philosophers, that they would not want to consider themselves to be philosophers or one of their activities to be philosophizing. People also often say, that they do not understand philosophy, and that, after all they have seen of it until now, they do not like it. I think that those people should be taken seriously in considering themselves as not philosophizing.

 But the question remains: How do they do it. How do they manage to live without philosophy? Do they do it, but just call it by a different name? That could be true in some cases. Or do they run away from reflecting about their situation? That does not sound implausible either. In total, if I take into regard my existential equilibrium, I need philosophy for my sheer survival. But I would not wonder if other people emotionally function different in a manner, so that they do not need to philosophize or that philosophy even constitutes a threat to their existential equilibrium.

The only thing I can say is that I am not able to understand their way of functioning. And this is the reason why I do not really understand the question about the benefit of philosophy.

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6 comments

  1. ricksonmenezes

    I think a simple answer would have sufficed. We have to go back to Aristotle. What is the benefit of Philosophy, why do we philosophize? To create an order in my head? To run away from disorder as you say? I see them more as secondary effects than the primary motive.

    The benefit of philosophy is to seek the truth is to live a virtous life, is to have the right opinion on realities of life which is a path to virtue and justice. For Aristotle, virtue is a path of a happy life.

    That is the benefit of Philosophy. Then the secondary effects that your article points out (brings order, so many opinions etc) are fruits of the quest of philosophy: It is Man’s nature to want to know [the truth – Aristotle

    • philohof

      Hi ricksonmenezes,

      thank you for your comment!

      At the time when I wrote the text you commented, I started to think for the first time about how to explain the benefit of philosophy to a greater public. I have to note that because for me, personally, the benefit of philosophy was never called into question. This is because I felt a need to philosophize.

      In the meantime I have advanced a little bit on the path of reflexion on this question. I can see now that many people do not feel the need to philosophize. They just do not get the idea of it. For them it is like a fruit without any taste. In consequence, it is not possible to explain the benefit of philosophy to them.

      Curiously this statement also applies to philosophers. E.g. on 20th of May 2015, on the occasion of the “Night of Philosophy” in Vienna, I have given a reading & discussion. I presented a fictitious person who tries to find orientation in life by thinking about himself and his position in society. Afterwards I was critisized that the strugglings of my protagonist to find orientation in a complex world are senseless and useless because they to not lead to political action.

      What I want to say by that is that in philosophy you often meet other philosophers who are, for example, political philosophers. These philosophers are often Marxists. For them philosophical reflection always has to amount to political action, because, basically, they do not get the idea of philosophy. That is why they search for the idea of philosophy in something else, e.g. in politics.

      In the English-speaking world, the philosophical school of Analytic Philosophy is very prominent. These are scientifically oriented philosophers. They, like the Marxists, also somehow do not understand the idea of philosophy and look for it somewhere else – in science.

      If you look into the history of philosophy the idea of philosophy has always again be forgotten and reinvented. The reason is that philosophy is something that cannot be seen by many people. They feel no need for it, and that is why it makes no sense for them.

      On the other side there are philosophers who never have studied philosophy, but who do know very well what philosophy is and who also know how to philosophize. For me the investor Warren Buffett is such a person. He coined the term of “having an inner scoreboard” which, for me, is an excellent definition of what philosophy is about. Philosophy is about finding out what you yourself really think about things. Neither a political nor a scientific philosopher will ever find any sense in this approach to philosophy.

      In my opinion you are deluding youself when you think that there is a simple answer to the question of what the benefit of philosophy is. If you say, e.g., that “The benefit of philosophy is to seek the truth…” you will enter in conflict with scientists who claim that science is more apt to seek the truth about things than philosophy. And if you study science, you will find out, that scientists are really very good in discovering truths but that they are not focusing on such truths that assume the form of opinions we could hold in order to lead a better life. Science is rather good for producing better cell phones than for guiding us to lead better lifes.

      In summary, the question about the benefit of philosophy is an interesting question if I ask myself about it, taking into account that I do know already what philosophy is.

      However, if there are people who do not understand the need for philosophy and the benefit of philosophy beforehand, prepare yourself to fail when trying to explain it to them. Remember that there are people who are living their lives without music or dancing or art or reading literature or travelling or pets or skiing or cars and so on. And they did not feel any need for these things till now. They lived without these things or activities with the impreession of living complete lives. So how do you want to explain the benefit of philosophy to these people? That’s impossible.

      Best wishes
      philohof

  2. Pingback: What are the benifits of philosophy | We are philosophy
  3. Philosopher Evans G

    What a great philosophical thought on the benefits of philosophy, though not trying to proffer an answer. Bravo!

    • philohof

      My current take on the problem of the benefit of philosophy:
      -Philosophy has a benefit for people who are loners or outcasts – because if they want to find orientation in life they have to think for themselves.
      -Philosophy is a disadvantage for persons who belong to a group – for as soon as somebody thinks for himself he stands alone.
      (My premise is that philosophy is thinking for oneself (=philosophizing). If you study philosophy instead, this is of no use (except for professors of philosophy who need students of philosophy as a reason for their existence.)

    • philohof

      By the way, this text, inspite of its headline, is not on the benefit of philosophy. It is on the question how non-philosophers can live without philosophy. And this question is obviously related to the question why non-philosophers ask philosophers for a benefit of philosophy. If someone likes philosophy and does it naturally, it would not come to his mind to ask for a benefit from it. Only if philosophy is considered painful and undesireable, a benefit is requested to make up for its inconvenience.
      Now, there are people who say: “Better do not think, you might find something!”, people who try to install their lives on a surface. If one wants to moralize, one could call them “shallow”, but the more interesting question is: Is there anything rewarding in a shallow life?

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