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The Useful & The Useless

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A stock criticism of philosophy is that it is useless. This, of course, has a certain appeal. After all, philosophy does not seem to do anything obviously useful like baking bread, killing people, selling beer, or curing cancer.

One stock reply to this charge is that while philosophy might not be useful, it is still valuable. Value, one might argue, is not merely a matter of usefulness. While this has a certain appeal to it, it also seems to be a bit of a surrender. As such, I will avoid taking this approach.

Another stock reply is that the definition of “useful” that is limited to such things as baking, building and killing is far too narrow. Under a broader (and superior, a philosopher might say)definition, philosopher would be found to be eminently useful.

While this might strike some as a mere semantic trick of the sort beloved by philosophers, it does seem to be a legitimate approach under certain conditions. Obviously, if a philosopher employs an ad hoc definition to “prove” that philosophy is useful, then this would hardly do. Equally obviously, if the philosopher’s critic simply insisted on excluding philosophy from the realm of the useful by fiat, then this would also hardly do. What is needed, obviously enough, is an account of the useful and the useless that does not beg any questions. Providing such an account would be rather challenging. After all, philosophers will want to slide the definition so that philosophy is useful and those who disagree will wish to narrow the definition so that philosophy is excluded. Any compromise might be regarded as unthinkable-a selling out of one’s position to the enemy. However, a rational discussion over this matter has to begin with a willingness on both sides to at least consider the possibility of yielding some ground in the face of cogent arguments.

Since this is but a brief blog post, I will not endeavor to settle this matter or even make much progress. Instead, I will just engage is some sketching in regards to the useful.

While people often say that something is useful, it seems unlikely that usefulness is a intrinsic property of anything. Rather, when someone says that X is useful, they mean that X is useful (or useless) for Y (where Y is a person or some purpose). For example, running long distances is useful for people training for a marathon. However, it would seem rather useless for people training to design web pages.

On this view, usefulness would seem to be relative to the person or purpose. Thus, usefulness would be (to steal from Kant) hypothetical  rather than categorical.

In this case, philosophy would obviously be useful to many (if not all) professional philosophers. After all, it provides the basis of their employment and gives them something to do. This makes philosophy as useful as a large range of activities and professions that provide employment and activity.  It would also be useful to those who publish, purchase or read philosophy books (and other material). It would also be useful to the students who get credit hours towards graduation. This usefulness could, obviously enough, be extended quite far. For example, comedians who make fun of philosophy and people who enjoy arguing that philosophy is useless would actually find it useful in that it gives them a target.

This view also would entail that things that some see as paradigms of usefulness could also be useless. For example, someone who elected to live “off the grid” could regard a field such as electrical engineering as useless in that it would be useless to him in his chosen way of life.

I suspect, however, that critics of philosophy would not accept this line of thought. This sort of usefulness/uselessness  seems to be far too broad in that almost anything could be useful  or useless simply because someone finds it useful or useless in some manner. To add a few more lines to the sketch, the critic of philosophy no doubt wants the usefulness to be far more robust. Philosophers, I should think, would also want something more robust than this.

This then turns away from considering useful in terms of “useful for who?” and to the other path, namely “useful for what(purpose)?” This would seem to move a bit beyond the subjectivism of “useful for who?” and to a certain relativity, namely usefulness relative to a purpose.

On this sort of view, the usefulness of X would be defined in terms of what sort of purposes X can advance. In the example above, long distance running would be useful for training for longer races (10Ks and up, perhaps).  As another example, running instances as DPS in WoW and observing other players tanking would be useful for learning how to tank. Of course, some might regard playing a video game to learn how to play it better as not being very useful. Likewise, even if philosophy is useful for certain things (like giving philosophers a job) it might be seen as not useful.

Of course, it cannot be taken as being “not useful” in the strict sense. After all, philosophy does have many uses (as noted above). Rather, when the critic says that philosophy is useless, she most likely is making a normative judgment about the value of the uses of philosophy. To say that philosophy is useless thus seems  to say that the uses of philosophy are without value.

Of course, this raises the matter of determining value. As with usefulness, value seems to often be subjective  to the person doing the assessment or relative to the purpose at hand. Then again, perhaps there is some sort of intrinsic value that can be used to ultimately distinguish the truly useful from the truly useless.

This has, obviously enough, been a mere sketch of some of the debate and I do not claim to have settled anything at all. However, I think that progress has been made in that some of the terrain has been mapped out and some vague goals have been set.

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Useful?

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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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