What is the value of philosophy?
Philosophy is a branch of human inquiry and as such it aims at knowledge and understanding. We might expect that the value of philosophy lies in the value of the ends that it seeks, the knowledge and understanding it reveals. But philosophy is rather notorious for failing to establish definitive knowledge on the matters it investigates. I’m not so sure this reputation is well deserved. We do learn much from doing philosophy. Philosophy often clearly reveals why some initially attractive answers to big philosophical questions are deeply problematic, for instance. But granted, philosophy often frustrates our craving for straightforward convictions. In our first reading, Bertrand Russell argues that there is great value in doing philosophy precisely because it frustrates our desire for quick easy answers. In denying us easy answers to big questions and undermining complacent convictions, philosophy liberates us from narrow minded conventional thinking and opens our minds to new possibilities. Philosophy often provides an antidote to prejudice not by settling big questions, but by revealing just how hard it is to settle those questions. It can lead us to question our comfortably complacent conventional opinions.
With this in mind, please read Chapter 5 from Bertrand Russell’s Problems of Philosophy, “The Value of Philosophy,” and then read the following analysis and response to it.
We humans are very prone to suffer from a psychological predicament we might call “the security blanket paradox.” We know the world is full of hazards, and like passengers after a shipwreck, we tend to latch on to something for a sense of safety. We might cling to a possession, another person, our cherished beliefs, or any combination of these. The American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce speaks of doubt and uncertainty as uncomfortable anxiety-producing states. This would help explain why we tend to cling, even desperately, to beliefs we find comforting. This clinging strategy, however, leads us into a predicament that becomes clear once we notice that having a security blanket just gives us one more thing to worry about. In addition to worrying about our own safety, we now are anxious about our security blanket getting lost or damaged. The asset becomes a liability. The clinging strategy for dealing with uncertainty and fear becomes counterproductive.
While not calling it by this name, Russell describes the intellectual consequences of the security blanket paradox vividly:
The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the cooperation or consent of his deliberate reason. . . The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests. . . In such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophic life is calm and free. The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins.The primary value of philosophy according to Russell is that it loosens the grip of uncritically held opinion and opens the mind to a liberating range of new possibilities to explore.The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. . . Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never traveled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.
Here we are faced with a stark choice between the feeling of safety we might derive from clinging to opinions we are accustomed to and the liberation that comes with loosening our grip on these in order to explore new ideas. The paradox of the security blanket should make it clear what choice we should consider rational. Russell, of course, compellingly affirms choosing the liberty of free and open inquiry. Must we remain forever uncertain about philosophical matters? Russell does hold that some philosophical questions appear to be unanswerable (at least by us). But he doesn’t say this about every philosophical issue. In fact, he gives credit to philosophical successes for the birth of various branches of the sciences. Many of the philosophical questions we care most deeply about, however – like whether our lives are significant, whether there is objective value that transcends our subjective interests – sometimes seem to be unsolvable and so remain perennial philosophical concerns. But we shouldn’t be too certain about this either. Russell is hardly the final authority on what in philosophy is or isn’t resolvable. Keep in mind that Russell was writing 100 years ago and a lot has happened in philosophy in the mean time (not in small part thanks to Russell’s own definitive contributions). Problems that looked unsolvable to the best experts a hundred years ago often look quite solvable by current experts. The sciences are no different in this regard. The structure of DNA would not have been considered knowable fairly recently. That there was such a structure to discover could not even have been conceivable prior to Mendel and Darwin (and here we are only talking 150 years ago).
Further, it is often possible to make real progress in understanding issues even when they can’t be definitively settled. We can often rule out many potential answers to philosophical questions even when we can’t narrow things down to a single correct answer. And we can learn a great deal about the implications of and challenges for the possible answers that remain.
Even where philosophy can’t settle an issue, it’s not quite correct to conclude that there is no right answer. When we can’t settle an issue this usually just tells us something about our own limitations. There may still be a specific right answer; we just can’t tell conclusively what it is. It’s easy to appreciate this point with a non-philosophical issue. Perhaps we can’t know whether or not there is intelligent life on other planets. But surely there is or there isn’t intelligent life on other planets. Similarly, we may never establish that humans do or don’t have free will, but it still seems that there must be some fact of the matter. It would be intellectually arrogant of us to think that a question has no right answer just because we aren’t able to figure out what that answer is.