My journey into philosophy has begun quite recently, but already I see a host of pronounced benefits, and a panoply of others have begun to take root. What follows is my exploratory ideas into the importance of philosophy to the individual, namely: It promotes a dynamic intellect, allows us to think differently, gives our lives direction, enriches our existence and promotes a love of learning. I would like now to leave a quote from C.S Lewis, explaining why I decided that I am qualified to write this while still early on in my philosophical learning.
>The fellow pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago he has forgotten. He sees the whole subject, by now, in a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t.
Philosophy fosters a dynamic intellect, the ability to adapt
Philosophy provides us with meaningful intellectual discourse. Too often do we either just accept things to be true, and move on, or fail to be persuaded at all; humans tend to settle into a comfortable state, an intellectual monotone. To disrupt this state, and to maintain active and inquisitive minds, we require not just a source of intellectual conflict (such as a political debate, which is rarely fruitful), but meaningful discourse; philosophy.
But what separates philosophy? What makes it meaningful? In my mind this is the fact that it deals with our fundamental beliefs, problems at the very core of our existence, that we would otherwise take for granted: the existence of god(s), what is happiness, the nature of reality, et cetera. While we usually assume the answers to these problems (due to them rarely being questioned in daily life), based mostly on what we were taught during childhood, now the answers become outcomes of rational thought, an intimate and personal product (not the random outcome of your surroundings, but of yourself). Therefore, meaningful thought over these problems, prompted by the ideas we encounter in philosophy, strengthens our foundation — the beliefs we build ourselves upon (and act on).
Philosophy is about being exposed to these fundamental ideas, rebutting some of them, adopting others. The cornerstones of our existence are in this manner maintained, and replaced when necessary, and therefore the entire building (which is our life), is stronger.
It is by self-reflection that this maintenance and replacement takes place. The ideas of philosophy, being as deep and foundational as they are, give provoke this introspection. We not only change who we are, but come to know ourselves. And an intimate knowledge of the self has many benefits.
Through philosophy we can develop intellectual modesty (I say can because the opposite is often true in academics). Being exposed to such monumental, unanswered questions imparts a sense of modesty in a person; when confronted with the extent of what we do not know we cannot help but be awed into intellectual humility. It also practices this, by the aforementioned process of questioning our assumptions, thereby removing delusions of wisdom. Furthermore, from the constant assault of our ideas by those much more intelligent than us arises a detachment from them. We learn to not take ourselves too seriously, but to be open to new thoughts.
To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it — Bertrand Russell
These factors culminate in an intellectual fluidity, an ability to adapt, to reinvent ourselves, which is becoming increasingly important in modern society. Through intellectual modesty we are opened to new ideas, our minds fertile soil for the seeds of change to take root. This constant shifting of our fundamental ideas also accustoms us to change, not superficial and paltry, but dramatic reinvention of ourselves (which becomes necessary with the advent of life-changing technology, revolutions in the way we live and work that are becoming ever more frequent). A strong foundation ensures the winds of change do not sweep us up and toss us about, but that we remain firmly anchored; like a windmill, harnessing the change, but remaining unperturbed. Philosophy fosters a dynamic intellect, and the ability to effectively adapt to new situations.
The search for truth enriches your life
I truly believe that philosophy has enriched my life. It is a lofty and empowering pursuit, one that lends grace and flight to the soul, a joy borne from the acquisition of knowledge. Philosophy is usually referred to as an “ivory tower” subject in a derogatory fashion, meaning a disconnect from reality. However, the study of truth is a noble pursuit, and it does not always have to return to reality; we can do something purely for the joy and enrichment it brings, without clear practical benefit (which philosophy by no means lacks however). Philosophy can serve as an escape from reality, or more accurately a transcendence of it.
Plato believed that the purpose of man was to make use of his rationality, to attempt to find truth — the perfect, quintessential forms of things, that exists outside of our physical perception, and rather within us. He believed that philosophy was therefore the noblest and most fundamental pursuit of man. The pursuit of the truth, some argue, makes us human.
So, while philosophy might sometimes justifiably be called an “ivory tower” subject, is this really that bad?
Truth has no inherent value, outside of its application?
Many might argue here that objective truth has no inherent value, and that the purpose of knowledge is to benefit society; therefore philosophy, the pursuit of this truth, is not useful. But (disregarding the false notion that the knowledge of philosophy is never applied) are you not philosophizing in undertaking this debate, and for this very reason it is important?
Furthermore, if early Homo Sapiens decided that the only useful thing to do is that which directly benefits society, would they not still be hunting animals and gathering fruit. Because why look at the stars, and wonder; philosophize about possibilities?
An example closer to home is that of the Space Race and subsequent moon landing of 1969. Would we move to deny such an event from ever taking place, reasoning that the money could be spent to the immediate benefit of those in need? While this is certainly an important consideration (and a balance must be found), we must also not deny 1) that the pushing of boundaries, discovering new frontiers (in thought and actuality) is a profoundly human endeavor and 2) that the technology developed there has opened up many long-term possibilities and benefits, which could not be visualized at the time.
And therefore the pursuit of truth, pushing our intellectual boundaries, is important, necessary for advancement and indulgence of our nature.
Philosophy nurtures a love of knowledge
Philosophy comes form the Greek word philosophia, meaning a love of wisdom. Philosophy teaches a love of learning, of knowledge, and of wisdom. Ideas are the substance philosophy is built of, and they are treasured and respected. Through philosophy we learn to appreciate ideas through their study, not only looking at the face-value, but also seeing an element of craftsmanship, of elegance and grace, buried in them. Philosophy transcends the material value of an idea, the contribution it has to the physical world, and also looks at its inner quality. Being able to see the magnificence of ancient musings, possessing the ability to marvel at ideas, though outdated and erroneous, and find the beauty and value in them. This is one of the arts of philosophy.
In the same way as we today can admire a well-constructed and elegant building, though our current means are far superior to the ones employed in its making, so should we to learn to appreciate ideas. Through this appreciation of good craftsmanship, judging an idea not only by its material value, but also by its eloquence and elegance, we learn a love of the inherent quality of ideas, and therefore a love of knowledge, of learning and growing in wisdom.
Philosophy changes how you think
It deepens your perspective
Philosophers dare to venture where no other discipline does, to attempt the vast wildernesses and indomitable bergs at the edge of human thought. Philosophers inquire deeply into a variety of problems — this inquiry can open up new paths of thought for the individual.
Through learning philosophy we start to look at a variety of new things, which we otherwise would assume. It functions the same way as science in this regard. Science reveals to us laws of nature, which change the way we think about things from an early age. Similarly, philosophy reveals to us yet another layer of existence, one arguably more fundamental than that of science. It is the layer of thought, of human experience, of the very nature of our reality (and how we acquire the knowledge of science) — problems scientists do not roam for fear of being lost in amorphous world of thought and speculation. They prefer the concrete world, where things can be seen, and tested; a firm conclusion reached.
This ‘layer’ opens up new perspectives for us, and I believe cultivates new ways of thinking. We start to look at problems from a philosophical perspective, one which is always present, but is now deliberately developed. This added perspective grants an enrichment of thought, and a new depth of viewing things.
It widens your perspective
The ideas of philosophy are vast and varied. Through learning philosophy you are exposed to thinkers from different social statuses, different cultures and different historical periods. The breadth is truly astounding.
There are thinkers such as Diogenes, an ancient Greek who lived in a barrel, embracing abject poverty. There are spoilt princes, such as Siddharta (Buddha), who later converted to a life of denial. There are great monks and wise men, such as Laozi, a Chinese Taoist philosopher.
Philosophy exposes you to such a wide assortment of ideas and backgrounds that it greatly extends the width of your perspective. If you can truly start to consider problems from these different viewpoints, and see the wisdom in the ideas of those who differ dramatically to you, your thinking will inevitably be enriched.
Philosophy gives direction
It is not possible to run a course aright when the goal itself has not been rightly placed.” — Francis Bacon
We all have some sort of ideal in our lives, things we aspire to be, people we attempt to emulate. Philosophy is the construction and refining of ideals — it attempts to rationally and systematically develop our idea of the truth, and define the best form of things.
Ethics, a branch of philosophy, attempts to define the ideal conduct. What is the best path to happiness, what is happiness, what gives us meaning, how can we act virtuously et cetera. These are ideals which philosophy attempts to define and understand.
This refining and development of our own ideals is beneficial as it serves as a goal. The better the goal, the better our means for getting there will be. If the goal changes, so will our means, the path we take to get to the destination. These are the daily actions we take, the decisions we make, and our attitude to life. In this way philosophy has a pronounced influence on our existence.
>”Seek ye first the good things of the mind, and the rest will either be supplied or its loss not be felt” — Francis Bacon
Philosophy allows you to seek the truly good things of the mind (by defining and understanding them), and from the knowledge of these things comes an attainment of them.
Philosophy has practical and immediate benefits
The ideas have practical import
Many of the ideas of philosophy have practical application. Most philosophies had some form of the good life, teaching you how you can attain a perfect existence. We can pick and choose from these ideas, implement those that work, and discard those that do not. We can build a better existence for ourselves in this way.
One of the philosophies I find intriguing is Taoism. They have this idea of Wu Wei, action through inaction, or effortless action. The idea is that you do not strive to solve problems (breaking the barriers nature has placed in front of us), but flow around them, following the path of least resistance. I incorporate it into my writing strategy by working on a problem (an article) until I start to encounter friction (a barrier) — lack of enjoyment, lack of ideas etc. Then I start writing another one. By switching between the tasks I find most interesting at the time, following the path of least resistance, I get much more writing high quality writing done than I usually would.
You develop skills, which benefit your career
Learning philosophy develops your skills of argumentation and rational thinking by you being exposed to different viewpoints, being forced to consider them, and either conceding to them or justifying your own viewpoints. Reason is the tool of philosophy (similar to the relationship between science and mathematics), and through the practice of philosophy is honed. Philosophy also improves your skills of writing, reading comprehension, summarization and critical thinking among others.
We often consider philosophy to be of little practical application in a career. People believe it to be only useful for a narrow range of jobs — a niche and impractical skill. This simply isn’t true. (and there is evidence to back this claim up). Bear in mind, however, that while these statistics may seem impressive, there is much discussion to be had around them. For instance, it may just be that more academic people are attracted to philosophy, due its nature, accounting for the very high test scores. A better discussion of the topic can be found here (don’t expect a solid conclusion, this is philosophy after all!).
So, while philosophy might not translate directly into a career as well as other degrees, it does lend benefits which I believe outweigh this drawback. It is flexible, and if you can apply it to another field, it will be a powerful tool.
Where to now
Philosophy, being exposed to deep ideas and thinking about them, is a greatly beneficial practice. If you’re still not persuaded, here’s my blog post on why philosophy is important for society, and why we as citizens of a nation might even have an obligation to learn it.
The takeaway here is: if you haven’t tried it, try it. If you hate it, don’t do it, it’s not essential by any means. However, I believe philosophy has something interesting for everyone, scattered across its various branches and sub-branches.