The Value of Philosophy


By Ann K Johnson

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 nation, and from the convictions which have grown up in his mind without the cooperation of his deliberate reason.

— Bertrand Russell, from Ch. XV The Value of Philosophy in The Problems of Philosophy*


When people hear that you took a major in Philosophy, you generally hear comments like “What are you going to do with Philosophy?”  The general consensus seems to be that Philosophy is dead, we have Science and Social Science, so why do we need to read or know what a bunch of old dead guys had to say (By the way, they weren’t all guys and I hear there are some Philosophers still among the living!).  The idea is that classic studies have had their day, but this suffers the same kind of myopic thinking as suggesting that one’s grandfather is of no use because he can no longer work.  If it’s not new, it’s of no value.


But, what is wrong with this perspective?  Well, I will tell you.

First, it assumes that value is only indicated by something being useful, which is not to say that Philosophy has no use value, but it is also to recommend that the idea of value has much more to it than mere use.  While I believe that practical value is important, there are other kinds of value that are equally if not more important.  For example, intellectual value is important.  Shall we ponder why?  Because it brings out a depth of dimension to one’s general experiences.  It enables one to grapple with those parts of life that are truly complex, if not generally overwhelming.  Moral value is important, and while a Utilitarian believes that moral value is use value, I think that there is a lot going for ideas that present moral value as a much richer concept including things like care, character, and even love.  Social and community value is important.  Human value is important. Sentient life value is important.  Non-sentient life value is important.  Are all of these things useful?  They can be, but would you say that you are only valuable because you are useful? Or are you valuable for some other reason, let’s say, because you are a human being?


Another problem with this perspective is that it assumes that Philosophy should serve some greater social agenda like making one money.  While making money is important for survival and has been shown to be of certain significance for general flourishing, it is not an end in itself; it does not lead to a richer, fuller, more purposeful life.  It can enhance such a life, but it cannot be the sole condition for one’s reason to live or do anything.  In fact, it is a rather shallow goal that many have achieved only to find themselves wondering, “Is this all there is?”  Perhaps if we look to Philosophy, we would find what all the great sages believed about money, namely that it has the potential to distort not only the role of leadership, the good of the state, but also one’s general welfare and spiritual development.  Does this mean money is bad?  Not necessarily.  But, it does mean that it is not an essential condition for flourishing.


While there are other problems with this assessment, I will leave you only with two more:

First, is that this view assumes that Philosophy has no practical value.  This assumption is quite wrong.  The engagement with the best thoughts of one’s cultural tradition is to operate within a community offering the most penetrating ideas about the biggest questions of life and to enable oneself to the challenge not only of understanding what those questions are, but how one might articulate and understand them, and, finally, to potentially come to one’s own conclusions.  Having the ability to more adequately navigate one’s life in the largeness of the world and, even more so, the cosmos, is of tremendous practical value, as it informs one’s decision making on both macro and micro levels.  It builds reflective skills that enhance every feature of one’s ability to choose and act. And it enables, through this skill, the proper ability to assess the auspiciousness or inauspiciousness of one’s choices and actions.  In this sense, Philosophy is an essential quality and practice.


Finally, this view allays the responsibility we all have to exercise our person in fundamental ways.  We seem to be okay with the idea of working out the body.  It takes a certain amount of energy and discipline, but when it comes to the mind or the spirit, we seem unwilling to make any extra effort.  But, when we are in our suffering, life is demanding of us precisely this – to make this extra effort – to rise to the occasion, and Philosophy is a significant way to challenge our own ways of thinking, our long-held assumption, our logical mishaps, our relational paradigms, and our overall symbolic order that rules our general understanding of the world.  How then, could Philosophy NOT be of value?  How indeed.  Knowing how to think, not what to think, is the path of knowledge, a path that centers, traditionally speaking, on the state and progress of the soul.  Even if you don’t believe in a soul, you may replace it with the mind, which is the term you see in exchange of the soul within the history of Western thought.


My question to you, therefore, is this, “Can you afford to not take up Philosophy as a value?”  Even if you will never become a professional Philosopher, you may find you encounter one at some point in your life or maybe you even were so ambitious as to seek one out.  When you do, you will find a new kind of conversation to be had, an engagement that can be fundamentally enriching.  Let’s not throw out the story of our human mind for, within it, we find a story that brings us back to who we are, that brings us back to our human condition and the terms of flourishing that foster the living spirit that enriches all life.  Besides, in this old world, what we throw away has such potential to become new again if only we choose to cross the threshold of our conditioned experience.  Let us take that step together.

© 2018 Arete Center for Excellence, LLC.

*Russell, B. (2017).  The Problems of Philosophy. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

If you are interested in reading further on this topic, you may find Bertrand Russell’s Chapter The Value of Philosophy from his Problems of Philosophy here:

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