Why Study Philosophy?
Ironically, this question "Why take Philosophy?" is itself a philosophical question. Once we have asked what we should do (rather than merely how to do what we want), we have taken an irrevocable step, for once this question is asked seriously the old answers are no longer good enough. The word `philosophy' means love of wisdom; it is the search for answers to the hardest questions in life and so yields no easy answers. But as many writers have observed, we have no choice whether to do philosophy or not; our only choice is whether to do it well or poorly. Nevertheless, there are two answers that are often given to the question of why anyone should study philosophy.
First, studying philosophy yields some very practical results. Philosophy majors consistently score higher than most other majors on LSAT, GMAT, and GRE tests. (In fact, twice in the past several years the scores of philosophy majors on these three tests were higher than any other discipline.) In addition, the ability to think critically, argue persuasively, and solve problems which is the focus of philosophical training is essential for success in our society's rapidly changing work environment.
Second, philosophy plays a central role in shaping our lives. A well-known story in the history of science concerns the reluctance of nineteenth century physicians to accept the existence of germs. In 1865, an English physician named Joseph Lister speculated that there was an invisible cause for the high incidence of infections in hospitals. He argued that physicians who worked on a corpse and then, without washing their hands, helped deliver a baby were transmitting some invisible agent responsible for the infections. We now know that germs cause this effect. But at the time, most physicians thought Lister was crazy. They wanted an explanation in terms of things that were obvious and tangible real things. In the same way, we tend to overlook the invisible agents of change that philosophy takes so seriously: concepts.
We often think that to understand our world we must study the facts: environmental influences, government policies, resource allocations, and so on. Yet facts alone have never influenced anyone. We care about facts only if they mean something to us. No one cares whether the White House lawn has an odd or even number of blades of grass. In this sense, concepts are much more powerful than facts: facts are cookies; concepts are the cookie cutters. Since what we know depends on the facts we gather, and since the facts we gather depend on the concepts we have, if we are to act on what we know (or believe we know), our concepts will determine how we act. Hence philosophy can shape our lives, just as the philosophy of Marx changed the politics of the twentieth century.
What defines us is not the answers we have but the questions we ask--for questions can hint at truths that the answers we now grasp cannot encompass. Philosophy is frustrating because it often raises more questions than it can answer, but it is the only discipline that attempts to answer the question of why we should study anything at all. It is the discipline that looks for the invisible things.