One of the most annoying things about being a professional philosopher is the fact that I so often am called upon to defend the value of my profession and my discipline. One thing that makes it especially annoying is that so many philosophers have written so much about the value of philosophy (including, of course, Russell’s work on the subject). One would think that the value of philosophy would be a settled matter by now. However, this is not the case.
Like almost all professors, I have to deal with the occasional student who questions the value of my discipline in general or my class in particular. I have, naturally enough, worked out a well developed reply to such questions. In addition to the challenges put forth by students, philosophers also face a challenge put forth by fellow academics. For example, The Philosophers’ Magazine (third quarter 2008, pages 120-126) features an article by Julian Baggini in which Lewis Wolpert’s view of philosophy is discussed. Wolpert puts forth the usual charge against philosophy: “…philosophy is not successful. It has achieved nothing.” (page 121). He does concede that Aristotle did make a difference and does allow a place for political and moral philosophy. Other than that, he regards philosophy as not making “the slightest difference” in regards to what we know.
Naturally enough, these criticisms have some plausibility. Philosophy has long been attacked because it bakes no bread, builds no weapons, and seems to do nothing. In short, philosophy seems to be useless. If this is the case, then philosophy professors like me have worked out quite a scheme: we get paid to achieve nothing. However, I think that Wolpert and the other critics are fundamentally mistaken about the value of philosophy.
One stock argument is to present the accomplishment of philosophers such as Thales, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton and others. Since these people accomplished so much in terms of science, mathematics, and geometry it would seem mistaken to regard philosophy as lacking in achievements.
Of course, there is an obvious reply to this. While Thales, Descartes, Leibniz, and Newton were all philosophers, it could be argued that their achievements were within other disciplines. For example, Descartes’ work in mathematics and geometry were great achievements-of mathematics and geometry. To use analogy, while I am a philosopher and I have won 5Ks and 10Ks, it would be incorrect to say that philosophy has achieved victories in running. Rather, I just happen to be a philosopher who is also a runner. It is as a runner that I accomplish such achievements. Likewise, it is as a scientist that Newton accomplished his great achievements. Thus, the mere fact that philosophers have had great achievements does not entail that philosophy has achieved anything.
Another stock argument is to present achievements that seem to clearly be within the discipline of philosophy. The modern sciences, it is often argued, arose from philosophy (mainly what was known as “natural philosophy”). Further, logic, critical thinking and reasoning are all within the domain of philosophy. Wolpert himself notes the importance of avoiding logical contradictions (page 125) when using the scientific method. Thus, it would seem that philosophy has achieved something after all.
Not surprisingly, there are ways to reply to this defense of philosophy.
In regards to the sciences, it can be argued that while philosophers did contribute to the rise of the sciences, they did so as scientists (or pre-scientists). This is a variation on the argument given above. It could be conceded that (as Wolpert does for Aristotle) that philosophy did give rise to the sciences. However, it could be argued that this is analogous to parents having children who accomplish great things. While the child would not exist without the parents, the children’s accomplishments are their own and hence do not count as achievements for the parents. Philosophy can, of course, take pride in bringing such children into the world. But that is all the credit she deserves.
The matter of logic (broadly taken) does present a tougher dragon to slay. On the face of it, there seem to be two important points here. First, logic belongs to philosophy. Second, logic is extremely useful and seems to be quite a feather in philosophy’s cap. Not to brag, but logic is critical to the information age. Without such logic, there would be no PCs, no internet, no Nintendo Wiis, no Xboxes (360 or otherwise), and no iPods. This alone should refute the charge that philosophy has achieved nothing. Of course, logic and its various domains (such as critical thinking) are also useful in many other ways. Imagine a world without logic and critical thinking and their value seems evident.
This would seem to provide philosophy with an iron clad claim to achievements. However, perhaps philosophy can still be robbed of her prize.
One way to rob philosophy in this matter is to argue that logic belongs to another discipline or that specific types of logic belong to specific disciplines. For example, symbolic logic could be seen as belonging to the discipline of mathematics. The logic used in computers could be seen as belonging to computer science. Scientific and professional reasoning (law, economics, business, etc.) could be seen as belonging to those disciplines. This approach, obviously enough, mimics that used by Socrates against Ion. Socrates argued that the specific content of a poem belonged not to poetry but rather to some other field. For example, while chariot racing is described in the Iliad, the art of racing does not belong to poetry and poets cannot claim the accomplishments of the chariot racers as their own. Likewise, while philosophers talk about logic, logic does not belong to philosophy. Hence, philosophy deserves no credit for the value of logic. Rather, proper credit belongs to all the various disciplines that own a piece of logic.
In defense of philosophy, it can be argued that while other disciplines have employed and developed logic, philosophy deserves the credit for creating logic. To use an analogy, to deny philosophy credit for logic would be like denying Thomas Edison credit for his inventions because other people have developed them in so many new and useful ways over the years.
While this seems like a reasonable argument, there is a way to counter it. When I was in graduate school, I first encountered what turned out to be a standard means of arguing that philosophy accomplishes nothing. Put bluntly, the tactic is to argue that every accomplishment attributed to philosophy belongs to another discipline. This is often done by defining “philosophy” in such a way that achieving results means that one is no longer practicing philosophy but doing something else. For example, once a philosopher begins to develop logic, then he is no longer doing philosophy. Hence, philosophy did not even give the world the beginnings of logic.
This approach does, in a way, work. If the discipline of philosophy is defined in a way that precludes achievement, then philosophy can (by definition) never achieve anything. The same sort of method can be used to “prove” that a liberal can never accomplish anything. Just define “liberal” such that if someone achieves something, then she is not a liberal.
There seems to be no compelling reason why philosophers should accept this view of philosophy. Naturally enough, those who claim philosophy accomplishes nothing would need to provide an adequate defense of such a definition. Philosophers are, of course, obligated to provide an alternative definition.