Is Philosophy Useless?
By David V.
September 28, 2004
Refute the following criticisms:
The most credible argument given against philosophy is that it is useless as a practical guide to daily life. While it is rarely presented explicitly, it is at the root of the other two arguments (that philosophy stifles individuality or the self and that following a single philosophy means a life in conflict with the world) because it shares the basic notion that abstract philosophical principles are irrelevant to reality because mental processes cannot correspond to the “actual,” chaotic nature of the world. The claim that philosophy is useless rests on the premise that philosophical abstractions are somehow inapplicable or in conflict with reality. It argues that while philosophical ideas might point one in the right direction, they cannot provide guidance for the particular actions he should take in his daily life. When acting, man has to consider the particular facts of a given situation, as they apply to his life. According to this position, abstract philosophical ideas may contain some basic guidelines, but they cannot tell him what course of action is appropriate given the actual circumstances of his life.
For example, the Objectivist philosophy holds that productivity is a virtue – but how should this principle be applied in practice? Does being productive mean that one should work until exhaustion every day? If not, how much time should be devoted to work, and how much to recreation and rest? What counts as “work” when evaluating productivity – physical labor, monetary reward, fatigue, emotional stimulation, or some other, objective standard? To decide this, the skeptic might argue, one has to consider many factors – such as the enjoyment and financial reward of work, versus the value of the alternative activities and how present choices affect future plans. Simply choosing to “be productive” will not tell a man how productive he should actually be or in what field – and incorrectly interpreted, it may lead him to work too hard, leading to a life of boredom and loneliness, possibly leading him to dismiss work as being virtuous at all.
In his relations with others, the skeptic may aware that Objectivism holds justice and honesty as virtues. But this is an abstract ideal – no real-life relationship is perfectly equal or honest. If you disagree with a friend’s behavior, isn’t it sometimes preferable to be nice and polite rather that start a confrontation that could endanger your relationship? Why should you sacrifice your social position or employment prospects by being honest and straightforward while everyone else gets by with flattery and bluffing? Certainly, honesty is preferable to deceit, but total sincerity with others might cause one to come across as blunt and judgmental to others and overly self-critical and inadequate to oneself. Philosophical principles then, are at best only be general prescriptions for behavior, without any specific guidance for the particular situations or relationship of daily life.
In aesthetics, Objectivism holds that art should inspire and present life as it can and should be. But, the skeptic might reply, he isn’t an expert in art, it’s not his job to form professional opinions, and relying on his “gut” reaction to a movie or a song is more practical that attempting some idealistic philosophical standard that the director or singer never heard of. After all, isn’t one’s the enjoyment of an aesthetic work the only standard that really matters?
In these areas and others, the skeptic finds that philosophical abstractions are useless as a guide to life because the ideas he reads in books are too abstract to provide a guide to the routine activities and challenges of life. Philosophy may provide some basic guidelines for living, but they probably either obvious anyway, or too technical and abstract to be useful to the non-intellectual layman. At best, philosophical abstractions are confirmations of well-established truths, and at worst, they are rigid and idealistic commandments that are incompatible with the real, “grayish” nature of reality.
The position outlined above contains two major errors: it does not recognize that some form of philosophy is an inescapable part of human life – since all human actions must be based on some sort of value system and conception of reality, even if it is one that rejects the need for values, or the existence of reality – and the absence of an epistemological process to connect philosophical abstractions to reality. While the adoption of a philosophy is an inescapable part of human life, a rational philosophy may only be formed when it is connected to reality by a valid epistemological process.
The process of developing a rational philosophy to guide one’s life is an ongoing and challenging process. Because the skeptic has not learned to integrate abstract ideas to reality, his philosophical ideas remain floating abstractions, learned from other men, but not tied to his own experience of existence. Without a process to ground one’s philosophy in perceptual experience, it is impossible to apply one’s philosophy to one’s life. To close this gap, is it necessary to learn to derive philosophical abstractions from perceptual evidence– and how to prove abstract ideas by reducing them to the facts. Thus, the “problem” of making philosophy a practical guide to life is an ongoing process that requires the formation of a correct methodology for both validating abstract ideas and deriving them from reality.
For example, to practice the virtue of productivity, it is necessary to know why one should be productive in the first place. This requires an understanding of the importance of productivity to one’s life. This in turn requires an understanding of man’s nature as a rational being, and the means by which man must pursue the values necessary for his life.
An integrated understanding of philosophy will allow one to view both work and leisure as simply different aspects in the process of value-pursuit rather than unrelated commandments in perpetual conflict with each other.
In regard to one’s relationships with others, a proper philosophical approach cannot take justice and honesty as ends in themselves without understanding their relation to man’s life. To apply these principles, it is necessary to understand how they relate to the virtue of rationality and why they in fact have selfish, personal justifications, rather than simply being conclusions reached by someone else. This requires both an understanding of the philosophical principles involved, and their validation through the application of those principle to one’s own experience in dealing with others.
In art, a valid philosophical methodology must seek to reconcile the emotional responses one experiences from art with the values that gives rise to them. This requires an understanding of the role that art plays in one’s life – connecting the philosophical conclusions with the particular concretes one experiences. Thus, aesthetic evaluations can become not unknown and incomprehensible reactions to be determined by some unknown and idealistic standard, but demonstrations of one’s own value judgments in action.
Once one grasps that philosophy is inescapable, the argument against philosophy becomes a question of whether it is possible and beneficial to live by an explicit, rationally chosen philosophy. To understand this, one has to grasp the proper role of philosophy in man’s life. The argument for the uselessness of philosophy pits abstract ideas against the perceptual experience of reality as an irresolvable mind-body dichotomy. To close this gulf, man must apply philosophy to his life – and to do that, he must apply his life to philosophy.
Once the dichotomy between abstract concepts and percepts is resolved, philosophy becomes not a technical and impossibly abstract study, but a single, integrated, reality-based body of knowledge. Living by a philosophy does not consist of following context-less commandments that are incompatible with life on earth, but treating philosophy as a science of ideas – which requires an ongoing dedication to validating philosophical principles and their practical application. The primary goal and consequence of such an outlook is attaining an understanding of reality and human nature that makes possible consistent action towards the achievement of one’s selfish interests.