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As a philosopher I am often asked about the usefulness of philosophy. At this point, I have a set template for my reply. I begin by presenting the historical contributions of philosophers in areas such as logic, ethics, political theory and the sciences. I then note some of the trees that have grown from these philosophical seeds, such as computers, the web, notions of human rights, and various political systems. I usually close by discussing what philosophy can do for people today, such as improving their reasoning skill. I then close by noting the continued importance of philosophical discussions in such vital areas as ethics and politics.

Yet, oddly enough, some people are still not satisfied and insist that philosophy is useless. While this might be merely an attempt to start and continue an amusing fight, perhaps there is something substantial to this sort of insistence. Perhaps there is actually a meaningful dispute over what it is to be useful. As such, I invite the reader to propose some accounts of “useful” as well as provide some examples of what sort of disciplines and things would be useful. For bonus points, compare philosophy to these paradigm cases and show how it matches up or fails to do so.

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  1. This is a funny question that I get a lot when I tell people I studied philosophy in college. I usually just reply that “I learned to ask a lot of good questions and use reasoning” since that’s relevant to my work.

  2. I’d be inclined to say, “I dunno, what does something have to do to qualify as being useful?” Talk about that for a bit, and then tell them they were doing philosophy 😛

  3. Michael, that’s brilliant!

  4. Michael, excellent.

    My thoughts were more along the lines of the importance of history and the dangers of repeating the bad decisions of the past. Philosophy is so intertwined with key historical events and decisions, that neglecting the philosophical foundation would create the same risks as forgetting history.

  5. I too agree with Michael. Philosophy is inseparably present in every field of life and science and plays and played very important roles. For exmple mathematics in ancient Greece was born out of philosophy. And we know what contribution mathematics has had and has 🙂
    Even the term of usefulness is unseparable from pilosophy 🙂

  6. Mike Labossiere states

    “Yet, oddly enough, some people are still not satisfied and insist that philosophy is useless.”

    The reply to this is: inform the person they have just made a philosophical statement, which no doubt they may wish to justify. In point of fact almost everybody is a philosopher by virtue of the fact that they express beliefs which they often enlarge upon and attempt to justify; some are better at it than others. There are those who elect to take training in philosophy in an attempt to understand better, and possibly explain, what confronts us in this place in which we find ourselves.

  7. How useful is the process of formulating and justifying arguments? Isn’t philosophy just a more formalized process of this? The best questions, the best answers—aren’t these the concerns of philosophy?
    “almost everybody is a philosopher”— I totally agree with this, but not everyone is articulate enough to arrive at the best questions or answers, albeit provisionally so. It seems to me a primary concern of philosophy is to articulate ideas and problems that have perhaps been hitherto neglected.
    I can call anything useless, but that simple statement is no argument.

  8. One of my favorite philosophy moments in a movie is in Jurassic Park when the dinosaurs are taking over and destroying the park and Jeff Goldblum goes, ‘We spent so much time thinking about whether we could, we never stopped to think whether we should!’
    Of course, that would have been more useful before they started cloning t-rex’s:)

  9. The most useful thing about a philosophy degree is being able to be condescending to family members at holiday parties, and do so with authority and legitimacy.

  10. Seems everyone has pointed out good things to mention to the skeptics off philosophy; my favorite is probably Michael’s, that, and the subsequent comment by Ernobius.

    Perhaps I am giving in to an immature impulse in mentioning this, but one of my knee-jerk thoughts about the person who claims (anything) so confidently without the ability to explain their claim is…

    “My, what a useless thing to say.”

    To reference a favorite motto, “If you cannot state it clearly, then you do not understand it for yourself.”

    I think Twitter has given people a venue to make such empty claims and therefore perpetuated the already ubiquitious problem.

  11. It seems that the first use of knowledge is its informative aspect; it informs us about something in the world. This also could be the most important feature of knowledge, because empirical science that are regarded as the paradigm case of useful and respectful knowledge, first try to know the world and then change or something. However, facts are not of the same sort. Mathematical, historical, logical and physical (in its narrow sense) facts are clearly different. Nevertheless, they all reveal some features of the world, whatever it is.
    It seems that philosophy, too, is a segment of knowledge that deals with a special aspect of the world, call it fundamental facts. So, in this sense philosophy is as useful as physics or chemistry. They all are parts of human attempt to unveil world’s mysteries of different kinds.

  12. Frequently when a person says “philosophy is useless” or “why are you reading that book it is rubbish?” You then reply, “what parts of the subject, or book, or whatever, do you object to.” Very often the reply comes “I would not waste my time reading that rubbish.” At that stage you have a verbal counterpart of checkmate; Your reply being “Oh I see, I was assuming you actually knew what you were talking about.”

  13. Philosophy has been useful to me.

    It has clarified many confusions about what matters in my life.

    It has given me a language with which to explain myself and the world to others.

    It has provided me with intellectual stimulation and entertainment in an otherwise mentally and spiritually bleak world.

    A while ago, my sister offered
    me money for fancy dental work (a lot of money) or to buy philosophy books (much much less money). I choose the latter, because it matters more to my life. What could be more useful?

    Now, is philosophy useful to those who prefer perfect teeth?
    No, not at all.

  14. AMOS
    I would have chosen the dental work. I sit here with philosophy books up my backside and I am still not much good at it.

  15. Yes, but in an absurd universe nothing is truly ‘useful’. Have a nice day!

  16. This question of usefulness seems tied to money and employment.

    And, I’ve know plenty of teachers and professors who feel that students are a little too focused on the sheepskin and don’t get the point if it won’t get them a job later on.

    So, we have politicians who want to cut budgets for art and music education since they don’t see that as productive. And yet, the free market seems to need art and music, at least for the advertising industry.

    Yet, while there are corporations with art departments, few of us have ever heard of a corporation with a philosophy department.

    Asking if Philosophy is useful is a bit like the questioning of the student who asks “I’m never going to use this math; why do I have to learn it?”

    I think the answer to this question of usefulness should be like the answer you would give to those who think they don’t need math.

  17. TesserID,
    Nice analogy to math. I suspect that people often regard things as useless without considering whether they do, in fact, use them or not. When people say they never use math, they clearly are mistaken. Surely they do things like count, add and subtract. Also, they use many things that actually depend on math (and often philosophy).

    As such, I suspect that sometimes when people say “x is useless”, they actually mean “I don’t think I use X.”

  18. I think the people who think philosophy is useless don’t know what it is really about, about trying to figure things out and understand the world. Probably they only see its useless side, like the question asked about whether we really exist or not or whether life is an illusion, and whether we or a chair are really here or not.

  19. A thought about those who believe that philosophy is useless – they could simply be afraid of it, on one side. And on the other I would agree with AIRTH10’s comment on philosophy and reality (although books like The Secret and others have broaden their minds). I compare philosophy to Duct Tape (which is like the Jedi Force). There is a Light side, there is a Dark side, and it holds the Universe together.

    Food For Thought
    If you are Hungry


  20. By Don Bird:
    Frequently when a person says “philosophy is useless” or “why are you reading that book it is rubbish?” You then reply, “what parts of the subject, or book, or whatever, do you object to.” Very often the reply comes “I would not waste my time reading that rubbish.” At that stage you have a verbal counterpart of checkmate; Your reply being “Oh I see, I was assuming you actually knew what you were talking about.”

    Couldnt stop laughing, this is perfect and powerful reply. But after reading it again, i must say its a perfect reply when the subject is defined like a book or a movie. I feel philosophie is less defined, and replying ” i know what philosophie is about, might be a dangerous way to go.


  21. I never thought that “philosophy is useful”.

    It says no more or less than “thinking is useful”.

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