Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Importance of Philosophy

"Why do people get degrees in philosophy? So they can teach philosophy!"

Philosophy often winds up ridiculed, the butt of jokes. This is true not only in society at large; I have often seen it tragically true in the sciences. When I was younger, I'm sure I questioned the value of philosophy as well, but I feel quite strongly that philosophy is very important, and for a long time, I've looked unsuccessfully for the perfect words to offer in defense of that belief. Fortunately, today, I found them said much better by Bertrand Russell than I could ever say them. The entire page is worth reading, but here is an especially germane except from the Chapter XV: The Value of Philosophy of Russell's Problems of Philosophy:

"...The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find, as we saw in our opening chapters, that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect..."


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