What is Philosophy good for?

Philosophy is quite unlike any other field. It is unique both in its methods and in the nature and breadth of its subject matter. Philosophy pursues questions in every dimension of human life, and its techniques apply to problems in any field of study or endeavor. No brief definition expresses the richness and variety of philosophy. It may be described in many ways. It is a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths, a quest for understanding, a study of principles of conduct. It seeks to establish standards of evidence, to provide rational methods of resolving conflicts, and to create techniques for evaluating ideas and arguments. Philosophy develops the capacity to see the world from the perspective of other individuals and other cultures; it enhances one’s ability to perceive the relationships among the various fields of study; and it deepens one’s sense of the meaning and varieties of human experience.


Philosophy is the systematic study of ideas and issues, a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths, a quest for a comprehensive understanding of the world, a study of principles of conduct, and much more. Every domain of human existence raises questions to which its techniques and theories apply, and its methods may be used in the study of any subject or the pursuit of any vocation. Indeed, philosophy is in a sense inescapable: life confronts every thoughtful person with some philosophical questions, and nearly everyone is often guided by philosophical assumptions, even if unconsciously. One need not be unprepared. To a large extent one can choose how reflective one will be in clarifying and developing one’s philosophical assumptions, and how well prepared one is for the philosophical questions life presents. Philosophical training enhances our problem-solving capacities, our abilities to understand and express ideas, and our persuasive powers. It also develops understanding and enjoyment of things whose absence impoverishes many lives: such things as aesthetic experience, communication with many different kinds of people, lively discussion of current issues, the discerning observation of human behavior, and intellectual zest. In these and other ways the study of philosophy contributes immeasurably in both academic and other pursuits.

Today I would like to engage you in a conversation, a sort of interactive sermon. I’ll begin by asking you to respond to a few quotations. Something like this read from a printed book:

Assertion: Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.

Question: Why?

Answer: The Lord thy God is a jealous God.

No, not like that. That comes from my childhood memories of the Lutheran Church. The catechism had all the answers in a scripted text where even the questions were closed. So, today, unlike the old fashioned readings where the congregation’s responses are written down to be recited in unison, I’ll ask for individual responses, extemporaneous responses. I have every reason to believe that this approach will prove fruitful with a thoughtful group of Unitarians.

All men by nature desire to know… It is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.  -Aristotle

In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted. Bertrand Arthur William Russell

 Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.    – William James

 Belief means not wanting to know what is true.   Nietzsche

All our dignity lies in thought. Let us strive, then, to think well.  -Blaise Pascal

I am uneasy to think I approve of one object, and disapprove of another; call one thing beautiful, and another deformed; decide concerning truth and falsehood, reason and folly, without knowing upon what principles I proceed.  – David Hume

Philosophic study means the habit of always seeing an alternative. -William James

Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men. -John Dewey

It is absolutely correct and proper to say that ‘You can’t do anything with philosophy.’…granted that we cannot anything with philosophy, might not philosophy, if we concern ourselves with it, do something with us?  – Martin Heidegger

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.  – Albert Camus

Philosophy ought to question the basic assumptions of the age. Thinking through, critically and carefully, what most people take for granted is, I believe, the chief task of philosophy and it is this task that makes philosophy a worthwhile activity. – Peter Singer

To teach how to live without certainty and yet without being paralysed by hesitation is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can do for those who study it. -Bertrand Russell

[from Dr. Lex Crane: Nietzche is as usual a source of profound insight.  It wasn’t until late

in life that I recognized the wisdom in his assertion that “belief means not

wanting to know what is true.”  Belief springs from the human yearning to

escape uncertainty, which in turn generates gnawing anxiety at the present

level of development of our species’ cultural evolution.  Carl Jung expressed

the same insight this way:  “Belief in God is a protection from the

experience of God.”  It protects you from awareness of reality.


    The Bertrand Russell quote:  “To teach how to live without certainty…”

points to a task I have undertaken in my recent exploration of the disastrous

blight of ethnocentrism on our species.  It is so prevalent and persistent

because it meets the deep, unphilosophical need for certainty rooted (so far)

in human nature. 


    I have come to understand that it is not only the task of philosophy to

teach folks to live without certainty, to live thus with gusto; it must now

also be the task of religion. Or our species will be moving toward extinction

now that weapons of mass destruction are proliferating around the world. 

Universal ethnocentrism and nuclear weapons are a decided volatile



  1. Philosophy. What is philosophy?


“Love of wisdom” Philosophy is a conversation, aiming at truth and disciplined by reason. The conditions of the philosophical conversation are: (1) clarity, (2) logicality, and (3) relevance. If one fails in any one of these three areas, one excludes oneself from the philosophical conversation.

Since philosophy aims at the truth, philosophy is primarily about propositions — claims, theses, and possible assertions, things capable of being true or false. A proposition includes concepts — general ideas, corresponding to terms and predicates, such as goodness, existence, humanity, knowledge and redness. The clarity of a proposition, and its relevance or logical relationship to the progress of a dialogue, depends on its constituent concepts. Consequently, philosophy is also concerned with the nature and composition of concepts.

Philosophy presupposes a situation of controversy, doubt or ignorance. We don’t philosophize over questions that are undisputed, such as whether 2+2 really equals four, or over whether the sun rose this morning. In addition, philosophy arises only when the controversy, doubt or state of ignorance is one that cannot be resolved conclusively by simply doing something: observing, exploring, experimenting, voting, appealing to the Supreme Court, etc. Philosophy can arise within any science or discipline, whenever the agreed-upon methods and standards of that discipline are insufficient to settle some question.

Does philosophy make progress? Philosophy is infamous for being unprogressive. The same schools of philosophical thought, Platonists, Aristotelians, empiricists, skeptics, materialists, and so on, persist from era to era, and the same philosophical questions and debates recur endlessly. This lack of evident progress is not surprising, since philosophy does not define a specific subject matter, but instead consists by definition of those questions on which progress is most difficult. If a question can be resolved by some empirical, mathematical, legal or political method, then we assign that question to the appropriate special science or discipline, such as geology, algebra, or law. It is only the questions that resist such resolution that we assign to the domain of philosophy.

Nonetheless, despite the intrinsic difficulty of philosophical questions, philosophy does in fact make progress. The progress is not perhaps as fast as we might expect, given the fact that philosophy has been practiced for some 2500 years at least. However, we must take into account that over those 2500 years there were long hiatuses in which little or no philosophy was done, and that there were several episodes in which vast bodies of philosophical work were lost, either temporarily or permanently. It is only over the last 200 years or so that we find a continuous history of philosophical research at a professional level.

What we find in surveying the recent history of philosophy is real progress on secondary and tertiary questions — on matters of logic and mathematics relevant to enduring philosophical questions, on the logical and semantical form of important philosophical propositions. In addition, there are a number of significant negative results: cases of highly developed philosophical theories, which have been decisively falsified. There are theories, like that of logical positivism, which are universally acknowledged to have failed, and where there is a nearly universal consensus on the diagnosis of their failure.

What we do not see in the history of philosophy is a decisive resolution of any of the Big Questions. One such Big Question, of course, is that of the existence and nature of God. Consequently, we should not expect to find a definite answer to the question, but we can find a great deal of very helpful philosophical analysis that is available and that can help us to identify the crucial sub-issues and the relationship between the question of God’s existence and the other Big Questions in philosophy, questions about the nature of cause and effect, of existence and substantiality, of space and time, of mind and intentionality, of goodness and justice, of knowledge and reasonableness.

Philosophy is a conversation, aiming at truth and wisdom, disciplined by reason. It can help to form a world view.

World View: A model of the world

It should allow us to understand how the world functions and how it is structured. “World” here means the totality, everything that exists around us, including the physical universe, the Earth, life, mind, society and culture. We ourselves are an important part of that world. Therefore, a world view should also answer the basic question: “Who are we?”.


The second component is supposed to explain the first one. It should answer the questions: “Why is the world the way it is? Where does it all come from? Where do we come from?”. This is perhaps the most important part of a world view. If we can explain how and why a particular phenomenon (say life or mind) has arisen, we will be able to better understand how that phenomenon functions. It will also help us to understand how that phenomenon will continue to evolve.


This extrapolation of past evolution into the future defines a third component of a world view: futurology. It should answer the question “Where are we going to?” It should give us a list of possibilities, of more or less probable future developments. But this will confront us with a choice: which of the different alternatives should we promote and which should we avoid?


This is the more fundamental issue of value: “What is good and what is evil?” The theory of values defines the fourth component of a world view. It includes morality or ethics, the system of rules which tells us how we should or should not behave. It also gives us a sense of purpose, a direction or set of goals to guide our actions. Together with the answer to the question “why?”, the answer to the question “what for?”, may help us to understand the real meaning of life.


Knowing what to strive for does not yet mean knowing how to get there, though. The next component must be a theory of action (praxiology). It would answer the question “How should we act?” It would help us to solve practical problems and to implement plans of action.


Plans are based on knowledge and information, on theories and models describing the phenomena we encounter. Therefore, we need to understand how we can construct reliable models. This is the component of knowledge acquisition. It is equivalent to what in philosophy is called “epistemology” or “the theory of knowledge”. It should allow us to distinguish better theories from worse theories. It should answer the traditional philosophical question “What is true and what is false?”

Building Blocks

The final point on the agenda of a world view builder is not meant to answer any fundamental question. It just reminds us that world views cannot be developed from scratch. You need building blocks to start with. These building blocks can be found in existing theories, models, concepts, guidelines and values, scattered over the different disciplines and ideologies.

This defines the seventh component: fragments of world views as a starting point.


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