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.
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.
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.
All our dignity lies in thought. Let us strive, then, to think well.
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.
Philosophic study means the habit of always seeing an alternative.
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
What is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., and if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life…?
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?
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.
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.
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.
Does philosophy of religion currently deserve its name? If you examine the content pages of the most popular textbooks, or relevant undergraduate syllabuses, you’ll see that the discipline often has less to do with religion than it has to do with theology. But theology doesn’t exhaust religion. Religion is a tapestry of sociological, anthropological, and psychological phenomena often accompanied by a theology. If only to be worthy of its name, philosophy of religion has to have interests that go beyond the purely theological. Terence Cuneo’s book is an important contribution to this task.
Bertrand Russell was an iconoclast. An atheist. A conscientious objector. A strong voice against the use of the atomic bomb. A brilliant mathematician and philosopher. An advocate of sexual freedom. One of the intellectual giants of the 20th century. A fine writer. And he lived to be 97!
An individual human existence should be like a river–small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done. – Bertrand Russell, “How to Grow Old”
This essay is from Portraits from Memory and Other Essays.
After ages during which the earth produced harmless trilobites and butterflies, evolution progressed to the point at which it generated Neros, Genghis Khans, and Hitlers. This, however, is a passing nightmare; in time the earth will become again incapable of supporting life, and peace will return.- BERTRAND RUSSELL, Unpopular Essays
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