The Value of Doing Philosophy (FAQ)
Q. Why do philosophy?
Philosophy is concerned with the justification of our most basic beliefs and the analysis of the concepts making up these beliefs. Some of these beliefs are highly relevant not just to how we understand ourselves and the world around us, but also to how we should act in this world. A large part of philosophy is therefore devoted to exploring practical questions like “What is the good life?” and “How should I best get on with those around me?”
If you value gaining a better understanding of yourself and the world, and of the life that is best for you, then philosophy is likely worth a few hours of your time.
Q. Are all philosophical theories incorrect?
Maybe not. Theories attempt to give an account of how things are. Philosophical theories attempt to provide an account of some fundamental aspects of reality. Surely some philosophical theories are false. Maybe most are false. It is hard to get these things right. But some of those theories might be true — the accounts they give might actually be how things are — and it would be a shame to miss out on that truth.
Q. If there are objections to a philosophical theory, is it worth learning about the theory?
Yes, it can be. Just because there are objections to a theory does not entail that the theory is false. Maybe the objections can be answered.
Q. If a philosophical theory is false, is it worth learning about the theory?
Yes, it can be. Even if a theory is false, parts may be true. And even if a theory is false, we may come to have further insight about the issue, especially if we understand why it is false.
Q. Are there any answers in philosophy?
Q. Why don’t you tell us the answers?
The point of an introductory course in philosophy is to help you learn to think deeply about fundamental concepts and beliefs. Philosophers have done this, and reading what they have written can help us do likewise. I am not a preacher, and generally am not interested in convincing you of any truths.
To borrow from a Chinese proverb, I’m wanting to teach you how to fish, and I hope to do this by showing you how others have fished well. I have no intention of serving you fish on a platter.
Q. If you don’t tell us the answers to philosophical questions, what do you expect from us on tests?
I want you to be able to explain to me what various philosophical theories claim and what reasons (arguments) one has to accept or reject them — not whether they are true or not, but whether we have good reasons to believe them or not. I also expect you to show me that you can reason well about these matters.
Q. Isn’t any answer to a philosophical question just as good as any other?
No. Some are confused, and the confusion can be demonstrated. Others have other clear objections (viz., they are inconsistent with claims that enjoy more support than the original claim). Thus, many proposed answers are such that we have good reason to reject them.
Q. How do we know the teacher is right?
You don’t. You should question me. I’m human and fallible, just like you.
Q. If our teacher may be mistaken, doesn’t it follow that our opinion is as good as his?
No, it does not follow. Experts can be mistaken, but usually their views are based on more experience and more thorough reasoning than the opinions of those new to the field.
Q. Isn’t all truth subjective?
No — although I’m not entirely sure what the question even means. I am sure of this: Whether the moon really is made of cheese is not simply a matter of whether we believe it to be true. Whether God (as traditionally conceived) exists is independent of whether we think she does. Whether mental states are exactly the same things as brain states is not just a matter of whether someone believes them to be the same or believes them to be different.
Q. I am confused. What am I doing wrong?
Maybe nothing. Philosophy is confusing. Anyone who doesn’t find it confusing is probably not thinking hard enough. Much of this confusion will eventually pass — with time and effort — but not all of it will, and the darkness of some obscurities will only deepen.
We should not be blind to the possibility that we are nearest the truth of the matter at this very point of despair. Unlike most other disciplines, the “answer” often lies in the journey itself, and not in the (possibly) unreachable goal.
[With thanks to Richard Lee, University of Arkansas/Fayetteville,