June 4, 2006

The Purpose of Philosophy

[As featured in Philosophers' Carnival #35!]

At the beginning of the year, Dustin (see previous post) challenged me to say what the purpose of doing philosophy is.  Now that the year is over, I realize that I never answered his question.

Partly this is because, at the time, I could think of no justification.  The purpose of philosophy, I said, was to make one's beliefs consistent in areas in which it's not clear what to believe.  Given two sides of a philosophical problem (say, the problem of free will versus determinism), you're presented with a paradox.  The paradox--at least, if you're a philosopher, or are in the right mindset--is frustrating, and you want to know what to believe.  Philosophizing ensues.  The question I felt unable to address at the time was: Why is this important?

It's possible that it isn't.  If you never see philosophical problems as frustrating, because they are below your radar, or because you think they can be dissolved in an obvious way, it isn't important to decide what you believe about philosophical problems.

But if you do see them as problems, deciding what you believe with regard to them is important.  To use an old accusation, one would be a misologist (Phaedo), a hater of rational accounts, if one refused to hear them.  One could just live as if philosophical problems don't exist; but I don't think that's a good solution.  Philosophy is one of the only areas in which we have all the tools to decide for ourselves about the issues in question.  Some input from science (and to guide science) is useful; but the problems are conceptual, so their solutions (I propose) will be conceptual as well, and so at least in theory within the reach of all who approach the problems.

There is another reason: I think philosophical problems are important in themselves.  They embody important features of our situation as humans, about the way our world is structured; about what it means to know something, or another person, to be free, whether there are any criteria for sense and nonsense at all.  These are significant aspects of the lives of both philosophers and non-philosophers, and they are aspects of our lives which produce philosophical puzzlement.  I cannot but think there must be some benefit from trying to get things straight with regard to them.