Why Philosophy

What is Philosophy?

Philosophy is a controversial subject which deals with the most fundamental aspects of reality and value. However, it is very difficult to give a short and helpful explanation of what a philosophical question is, and how it differs from other sorts of questions. Perhaps the best idea is to give a few examples (although the handful that follow will scarcely give an adequate idea of the range of different topics in which philosophers have taken an interest).

A problem of free will

Advances in scientific knowledge suggest that thoughts and actions are wholly determined by prior natural causes. But if people's actions are so determined, it seems that they cannot have free will and so cannot justly be praised or blamed for their actions. Yet surely you are sometimes free to choose one course of action rather than another? Surely you can be justly praised or blamed for what you do?

A problem of belief

Many people in our community believe in God but can the existence of God be proved? If it cannot, does it follow that their belief is irrational? Then again, theological statements about God's goodness or love cannot be shown to be true by ordinary observation. What sort of evidence would count for or against such a theological statement?

A problem about mathematics

Chemists study substances of various kinds, geologists study rocks, botanists plants, and so on. What do emmathematicians/em study? Numbers? But what are they? 'What is a number?' is not an easy question. Nor is it precisely a mathematical question.

A problem about morality

We all hold that some actions are right and some wrong. But what is it to say that an action is right or wrong? Is it to state a special sort of fact about the action? Is it to say how you feel about the action? Is it to report an arbitrary convention adopted by a particular human society? Is it to register God's mere commands about what to do? Is it to conform actions to the requirements of human nature? Or what?

A problem about scientific method

The laws which scientists state are supposed to hold for all time. But how do they know that the laws they now state will hold in the future? On the basis of past experience? But they are justified in going from 'this always has happened' to 'this always will happen' only if they can be sure the future will be like the past. And how do they know that in future the future will be like the past? All we know is that in the past the future has (so far) been like the past. And surely to rely on this fact would be question-begging (that is, assuming what has to be proved).

To find out more about the question, What is Philosophy?, view the 15 minute online video presentation below by Professor Graham Priest, The University of Melbourne's Boyce Gibson Chair in Philosophy.

What is Philosophy? from Australasian Assoc' Philosophy on Vimeo.

Why study Philosophy?

I came to Philosophy late in a protracted undergraduate career, after a disastrous tussle with Law and a mild flirtation with Fine Arts. I was nudged towards it by friends studying philosophy: I enjoyed their conversation and admired their mental habits, and wanted to learn more. I ended up studying philosophy for about five years; three years finishing a BA at Melbourne and then two years post-graduate study in the UK. Then I left philosophy to work in and around Government on foreign affairs and defence issues.

So what did I learn from Philosophy, and what use has it been to me? At one level the answer is 'very little'. In my professional life I have never called upon my once-extensive knowledge of the concept of a theory of meaning for natural languages, the possibility of natural laws linking mental and physical events, the semantics of proper names, or the connection between the ideas of the late Frege and the early Wittgenstein.

This was partly my fault. I could have spent more time working on ethics and political philosophy which would I know have touched my work in and around government much more directly, but as a philosopher I was attracted to the hard stuff where logic, metaphysics and ontology meet.

But I've never regretted that choice, because studying philosophy taught me, and I'm sure others I studied with, all kinds of other things which I do use every day.

First, we learned 'How to do Things with Words'. That is the title of a famous essay by J.L. Austin. Clear, simple, lucid and direct, it is a beautiful piece of prose and a model of exposition and explanation. Not all philosophy is well-written [or well-spoken] but good philosophers are always trying to explain complex things, and it teaches you how to use language to present ideas forcefully.

Because philosophy works on such complex issues, it teaches you especially to write about complexity. In particular it shows how the power of words is unlocked by using them precisely, paying careful attention to exactly what the words we use mean, and using them with precision to say exactly what we mean. And doing that, of course, makes us think about what exactly we do mean, so using words precisely makes us think more clearly. And that in turn means we can explain things more simply, because the better you understand something the simpler you can say it.

Second, philosophy taught us about the importance of the structure of any argument. An argument is not just a collection of ideas or facts: the relationships between them determine the conclusions that can be drawn. Studying philosophy is the best way to learn about these relationships and the structures they form. It gives one a kind of unfair advantage in any debate; other people might know more facts, but you know better why they matter to the conclusion.

Third, philosophy taught us always to push the analysis one step further: to challenge the assumptions and ask the deeper questions. It nurtures a certain intellectual self-confidence to do this, too: having wrestled with the deepest questions, nothing looks too hard to question.

Finally, Philosophy teaches the power and pleasure of argument with friends and colleagues in a way that is both competitive and collegial. Philosophy is an activity as much as a discipline and you do it with others; it's a collective activity. Studying philosophy is a great training in the social art of conducting civilised, gracious, courteous but still engaged and committed argument. That's a handy thing to know.

Hugh White
February 2011