Written by: Corey Washington
Primary Source: Zero Ideology
There is a lot of debate these days about the value of the Philosophy. Many people doubt it is relevant. A few years ago Stephen Hawking made headlines by telling the audience at a Google conference that Philosophy is dead.Most of us don’t worry about these questions most of the time. But almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead…Science now addresses these questions, but
philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.
Hawking’s critique is part of the broader view that Philosophy has ceased to be relevant because it has not made progress.
You get a sense of how deeply this concern is felt within Philosophy by reading the increasingly frequent defenses philosophers have been offering of their field. In a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education Rebecca Newberger argues that appearances to the contrary notwithstanding Philosophy does drive progress, not scientific progress, but ethical progress. It is progress in seeing how rights once applied to one group should extend to others
progress in increasing our coherence… In the case of manumission, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights, criminals’ rights, animal rights, the abolition of cruel and unusual punishment, the conduct of war—in fact, almost every progressive movement one can name—it was reasoned argument that first laid out the incoherence, demonstrating that the same logic underlying reasons to which we were already committed applied in a wider context.
I think Newberger has a point here, but it is buried in the abstract talk of “coherence”. Philosophy is useful because it teaches people to think critically, and critical thinking has contributed to the extension of rights to larger groups of people. Critical thinking is what helps you see that gay marriage will not hurt straight marriage, contrary to what gay marriage opponents say. (But left-liberals aren’t the only ones who can use critical thinking as a weapon: there are also philosophical lines of reasoning leading to the conclusions that corporations and fetuses are people too.)
This point helps answer another doubt that many harbor about Philosophy: its practicality as something to study. We are in an era when technology is rapidly changing, and it might seem that if you want to participate, you should be studying science, engineering or business, or at least social science, rather than Arts or Humanities. Students should be studying fields from which they can acquire useful skills in data analysis, for example.
This argument overlooks the fact that doing quality work in science and engineering and working with data in general requires the ability to think critically. The best scientists and engineers are top flight critical thinkers, and there is probably no better place to learn how to think critically than a philosophy class.
The plot below does not contain error bars, but it’s clear that philosophy majors do extremely well on the LSAT, the US law school entrance exam, which measures critical thinking, ranking 6th overall and the highest among fields with over 1000 majors in the study.
In my view Philosophy’s value is educational. Philosophy may not progress in any objective sense, but it teaches students how to question assumptions, reason logically, work with abstract concepts and express their views clearly in writing. This all has undeniable value. Critical thinking is one of the most important skills employers look for in employees and one we should want all citizens to possess.
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