For many people philosophy is something both ancient and other. It is “ancient” because the ideas presented in the works of a number ancient thinkers like Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle are sometimes believed to be outdated and irrelevant. It is “other” because the ideas presented are often complex, the arguments sophisticated, and the conclusions sometimes verging on the weird (come on, some say, obviously the external world exists!). However, be these as they may, and although philosophy is one of the oldest disciplines, I’d argue that it is still both hugely important and significant today. As Tom Butler-Bowdon says in his fantastic book 50 Philosophy Classics, “Whether it is Aristotle or Epicurus providing recipes for a fulfilled and happy life or Plato outlining the idea society, the ideas of these ancient thinkers remain powerful, if only because in over 2000 years humans have not changed much” (1). In other words, philosophy still lives on because the big questions never really go away. So, why is philosophy important? I will suggest a few reasons why I think it is important.
Perhaps a first point stems from its area of emphasis. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.” Thus, philosophy is an exercise in intellectual thought that seeks to get to the truth about the world and reality that we experience (2). Engaging in such an effort should be considered a necessity (after all, learning to think is no doubt crucially important). Thus, part of thinking critically is to expose oneself to the ideas presented by some of the brightest minds of history, and there is just so much value that historical philosophers have contributed to this effort.
Philosophy is also required on moral grounds because many ideas presented by historical individuals have been immoral. Unfortunately, many of these ideas and ideologies (apartheid, fascism, and Nazism, for example) have had broad and harmful impact on human beings that have lingered decades and centuries after their time. A deep engagement in philosophical thought can therefore bring light to these bad ideas, and go as far as to suggest better alternatives. Philosophers have thus presented ethical theories which they argue should be accepted in helping us make moral decisions.
It is worth noting that everyone has a philosophy, in other words, everyone has a way of viewing and interpreting reality, and it therefore shapes everything that they do. This seems to somewhat grounds philosophy in that it is not only limited to the professional philosophers who are scholars but is also accessible to laymen (or the “uninitiated” as Plato once said). Ayn Rand seemed to most appropriately capture this point when she once penned that “A philosophic system is an integrated view of existence. As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation — or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind’s wings should have grown” (3).
As Rand observed that there are a few ways one could sustain a philosophy. First is to put in real effort and grapple with the weighty philosophical questions in hope to come to one’s own informed conclusions about the world. Second, and which seems far more common, is that one picks up the philosophies, beliefs, and views of other people and embraces them as he or she journeys through life. The problem here is that often the beliefs that we inherit are unwarranted, outright false, and/or contradictory. Thus, the ability to engage in critical and logical thinking can assist one in identifying bad beliefs and logic held by some. Philosophy looks to analyze the beliefs one has inherited from others (friends, family, mentors etc.) while also examining assumptions that are often overlooked.
A holistic view of reality is similarly important, and philosophy no doubt seeks to establish this. Engaging philosophy exposes one to the different branches of the discipline with each being distinguishable by the sort of questions they ask. In moral philosophy, for instance, we would want to know what makes an action wrong. In metaphysics we would like to determine whether or not our senses accurately describe reality. In historical philosophy we would like to know on what grounds can we know anything from history and with what degrees of certainty. In epistemology one might wonder how we can known anything for certain. Moreover, in the philosophy of religion we would want to ask whether or not the supernatural or God exists.
However, putting effort into these questions should not prove to be a deterrent given that human beings are both unique and inquisitive creatures. We are unique in that we are not only intellectually curious about a great many things but that we also employ reason and logic in daily life. Unfortunately, despite this fact, many of us don’t channel this ability into the best areas or we often leave it vastly under utilized (4). Rick Lewis says that we seem to have an “instinctive ability” to detect bad logic and unsound reasoning, and although that’s a step in the right direction, it is not enough on its own. Rather, we ought to go further and acquire the ability to think clearly and critically about many things. The great Rene Descartes saw this in his day when he stated that “It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use it well.”
Philosophy specializes in that. And that’s why philosophy is important.
1. Butler-Bowdon, T. 2013. 50 Philosophy Classics: Thinking, Being, Acting, Seeing – Profound Insights and Powerful Thinking from Fifty Key Books. p. 4.
2. Kelly, M. Why Every Student Should Study Philosophy. Available.
3. Rand, R, 1984. Philosophy: Who Needs It?
4. Lewis, R. Thinking Straight. Available.