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What Can You Do With Philosophy, Anyway?

Jeremiah Conway says that philosophy is profoundly useless but incredibly worthwhile.

Anyone who has taught or studied philosophy is familiar with the question. It is a standard question of undergraduates during their first, usually mandatory, brush with philosophy in introductory courses. The question, however, does not diminish over time; it doggedly pursues philosophy majors throughout their studies as they face puzzled friends or, worse, anxious parents, who fear hard-earned tuition dollars are being channeled into a degree whose ‘payoff’ is far from clear. In a culture where academic pursuits are firmly tethered to career aspirations, the incomprehension greeting any serious involvement with philosophy gets funneled through the parameters of this question.

As a professor of philosophy, I have fielded this question more times than I care to remember. Yet considering my responses to it, I am amazed at how fumbling they have often been. I suspect I am not alone on this score. Carelessness with the question is traceable partly to annoyance at its numbing familiarity; one simply gets tired of it. The question is relegated to career counseling offices and departmental secretaries with the unfortunate consequence that the nexus between philosophy and everyday life is shortchanged – to the detriment of both. The question is also sidestepped because its apparent simplicity can be deceptive. On the surface, the question simply inquires about the jobs and careers to which the study of philosophy can lead. Frequently, however, there are more complex motivations for raising it, ranging from genuine puzzlement about the pursuit of anything whose marketability is unclear, to resentment against those gutsy enough to study what they truly enjoy, to the desire to poke fun at the ‘occupationally challenged’.

Nevertheless, the familiarity of the question, its deceptive simplicity, and the relentless cultural preoccupation with jobs and careers are poor excuses for not taking it seriously. Failure to engage this question also bypasses a significant philosophical opportunity in that the question throws a spotlight onto basic assumptions about what philosophy is, and the limits of judging everything according to its ‘usefulness’. Even the ubiquity of the question invites reflection about the cultural situation that seems to drive it.

I intend to examine the question initially by gathering some typical responses to it, each of which identifies a use to which philosophy can be put. Thereafter, I develop the suspicions of one philosopher, Martin Heidegger, about the legitimacy of the question. Heidegger argues that the ‘uselessness’ of philosophy is intimately a part of its nature,and that the unique and powerful contribution of philosophy to human life lies precisely in this uselessness. With Heidegger’s thoughts about philosophy in mind, I will return to the question of philosophy’s use in an effort to show why the demand to establish the usefulness of everything ends up being an unfortunate impoverishment of life.

The question about what one can do with philosophy is ordinarily understood in terms of specific career applications. The question seeks to know the kind of employment to which philosophy can lead. Not surprisingly, responses to this question tend to conform to the same expectation, ticking off career and job possibilities for which students of philosophy are prepared. For example, the catalogue description of philosophy at my university claims the following:

It has been a welcome surprise within recent years to witness how many professions – business, law, nursing, for example – want and reward many of the capacities that the study of philosophy develops. People trained in philosophy are not only prepared to do many kinds of tasks; they can also cope with change, or even move into new careers, more readily than others.

Another related approach to the question concentrates on the intellectual skills developed in the study of philosophy, such as the ability to write, to analyze problems, to construct and organize arguments. Philosophy leads one to appreciate the importance of questions; it encourages one to think for oneself; it fosters the ability to understand problems from a variety of perspectives and at a number of different levels. This approach argues that the skills gained through the study of philosophy are valuable and transferable.

Yet another tack argues that, whether or not it ‘bakes much bread’ in terms of job or career preparation, philosophy’s primary use is the contribution it makes to the way in which one leads one’s life. According to this perspective, what one can do with philosophy is to lead a more interesting and fulfilling human life. This response recognizes that one’s livelihood, while certainly important, is not the primary measure of usefulness.

All of these replies share the assumption that it is possible for philosophy to be regarded as a tool, which can be used to achieve certain ends, beyond the pursuit of philosophy itself. Initially, this assumption makes a great deal of sense. There are professions and careers for which philosophy is excellent preparation. The skills developed in the study of philosophy are invaluable in many other areas. Philosophy can make a vital difference to the quality and character of one’s life. But upon further analysis, the argument betrays a subtle hitch: the ends to which philosophy is supposedly useful become vastly more complex and questionable the very moment they are thought about philosophically. Philosophical thinking challenges the very standards employed to argue for its usefulness; it recoils upon the uses it supposedly serves. For example, discussion of philosophy’s use in terms of eventual jobs and careers begs the question of why employment is given priority among all the other possible measures of usefulness. The same point can be made in terms of the claim that philosophy’s primary use lies in human well-being or personal satisfaction. According to what standard of human ‘well-being’ or ‘fulfillment’ is this statement made? Isn’t it the case, as numerous philosophers have said, that philosophy has little or nothing to do with making life easier and more satisfying, but only more difficult?

In regard to the familiar responses to the question, I want to make several points. The first is simply to note how the apparently straightforward, practical question “What can one do with philosophy?” becomes a philosophical issue as soon as it is considered carefully. The primary factor governing the examination of this or any other practical matter is the determination of the standards, values, and basic concepts that will be used to address it. Ironically, it is the questioning examination of these basic issues with which philosophy is occupied. The demand for a simple, direct answer to the question of philosophy's use is antithetical to the impulse of philosophical thinking.

The second point I want to raise concerns ‘use’ per se. The notion of use presupposes a relation between persons and tools. A person employs a tool in order to achieve some end or to fulfill some task. What is important here is that the person is distinct from the tool. The tool can be put aside or abandoned without affecting its user. But in philosophical activity, it is impossible to separate the doer from the deed. Unlike the relation between a tool and its employer, the philosopher is at stake in his or her work in a profound and inextricable way. One cannot, for example, engage in questioning the norms and hierarchies which organize so much of our lives, and remain untouched by this activity. Philosophy involves an alertness of existence to itself, in such a way that the person and the activity are inseparably intertwined. One cannot separate the dancer from the dance.

For years I responded to the question “What can you do with philosophy?” along the lines just described. But, increasingly, I did so with the suspicion that something was amiss. Knowing that, for most students, the focus of the question was on philosophy’s employment prospects, I eventually recognized that my assessment of philosophy’s ‘marketability’ was tenuous at best. As a teacher of philosophy, I know I have contributed far more to people losing jobs than gaining them. Even when I considered myself on firmer ground in touting the study of philosophy as excellent preparation for professional schools, I had doubts about the extent to which philosophical thinking would really be welcomed and appreciated within these other contexts.

But the central problem I had with my replies to the question was the suspicion that there is something profoundly characteristic of philosophical thinking that tends to get lost when the question of use becomes insistent. The force of this suspicion rests upon a determination of what philosophical thinking is. Whatever else it involves, philosophical thinking is a questioning of basic assumptions, particularly assumptions governing the conduct of our lives as human beings. As such, philosophy is one of the foremost creative, spiritual activities in which human beings engage. At the heart of this creative activity is the search for meaningful life possibilities.

Philosophical thinking examines the very ends and purposes that all contexts of use presuppose. For this reason, there is a profound ‘uselessness’ inherent in all philosophical thinking, insofar as philosophy questions the very standards which use-relationships must take for granted in order to remain on an instrumental level. As I said at the outset, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger helped fuel my bias against legitimizing questions about philosophy’s usefulness by trotting out a list of its job and career applications. Heidegger takes up the question of philosophy’s ‘use’ in a number of works. For example, in An Introduction to Metaphysics, he warns readers that, precisely because philosophy is a unique spiritual activity, it easily falls prey to misinterpretation. One of the most common misinterpretations is the expectation of usefulness. For instance, it is sometimes claimed that philosophy is useful because it supplies:

…a useful chart by which we may find our way amid the various possible things and realms of things, or because it relieves the sciences of their work by reflecting on their premises, basic concepts, and principles. Philosophy is expected to promote and even to accelerate – to make easier as it were – the practical and technical business of culture.

Heidegger emphatically rejects the expectation that philosophy can fulfill such roles. This is because philosophy is fundamentally an act of basic questioning; it challenges the parameters within which human life is understood and operates. This challenging goes to the heart of what philosophy is for Heidegger:

What philosophy essentially can and must be is this: a thinking that breaks open the paths and opens the perspectives of the knowledge that sets the norms and hierarchies, of the knowledge in which and by which a people fulfills itself historically and culturally, the knowledge that kindles and necessitates all inquiries and thereby threatens all values.

Philosophy is directly linked here with a creative enterprise that questions the parameters that define our world. It is for this reason that Heidegger rejects the very starting point of the question of what can be done with philosophy. Philosophy occurs when the assumptions dominating ordinary contexts of use are unsettled and examined. Philosophy is always out of order because it risks thinking beyond the ‘order’ we ordinarily take for granted. This recognition of philosophy’s groundbreaking character leads Heidegger to be suspicious of claims about its usefulness.

It is absolutely correct and proper to say that ‘You can’t do anything with philosophy.’ It is only wrong to suppose that this is the last word on philosophy. For the rejoinder imposes itself: granted that we cannot do anything with philosophy, might not philosophy, if we concern ourselves with it, do something with us?

Philosophy is, in an important and profound sense, useless. It is useless, insofar as considerations of use presuppose underlying contexts of meaning and value, which it is the specific and distinct task of philosophy to question and examine. Philosophy dos not occur in the service of an end outside itself. Philosophy, he insists, “is one of the few autonomous creative possibilities and at times necessities of human being’s historical existence.” Philosophy occurs when the assumed ends, which ordinarily organize our existence, cannot be taken for granted, and one find oneself suddenly stunned by the questionability of the obvious.

If philosophy can be said to serve anything, it serves the experience of wonder. It is wonder that not only gives birth to philosophical thinking but also sustains it, and in which it finally culminates. This insight, as Heidegger makes clear, is very old. Plato and Aristotle both said as much. Concerning the impetus to philosophize, Plato claimed: “This is the great passion of the philosopher: wonder. There is no other beginning of philosophy than this.” Aristotle in his Metaphysics says the same: “For it is precisely through wonder that people today and at the beginning began to philosophize.” Our modern passion for finding a use for everything is parasitic upon the general loss of appreciation for what the ancients prized as wonder.

Wonder is a state that is greatly underestimated and disregarded in the world we inhabit. It gets crowded out of our thinking, our education, our daily living. We are too busy to wonder; we are so oriented to results and ‘products’ that wonder seems an insignificant luxury on the border of the everyday. I am convinced, however, that no matter how much it is dismissed today, wonder is not only one of those experiences that makes living worthwhile but is one of those states that actually recalls us to an awareness of what it means to be human. Wonder isn’t an enhancement, an ornament, or just a pleasure of human life; it goes to the heart of being human.

These words presume, of course, that we have some experience of wonder, such that talk about its place in human life is meaningful. I’m not sure the presumption is valid. If Heidegger is correct, we often confuse wonder with states of amazement, curiosity, admiration, and astonishment. His analyses of the differences between wonder and these other states go well beyond the scope of this article. But, in a nutshell, his contention is this: in experiences of these other states, one is fascinated with some particular person or thing, which is regarded as exceptional and is set over against the ordinary. In contrast, wonder adverts to the utterly usual – not simply a familiar object but our relatedness to what-is. Wonder occurs when our openness to what-is becomes noteworthy and provocative of thought. As human beings, we live within a context of norms, values, language, and history that defines our place in the world and determines the way things appear to us as things. This ‘openness’ is like the invisible air we breathe or the light within which we stand. Because it is pervasive and does not appear as any distinct object, it is, most often, tacitly assumed. Wonder happens when this context becomes conspicuous.

But what can be done with experiences of wonder? As Heidegger says, philosophical wonder does not result in knowledge. If anything, it leads us to appreciate the limits, the inadequacy of knowledge. Yet the experience is significant. We can appreciate this significance by considering the consequences if wonder were removed from our lives.

It is wonder that makes fundamental change possible, on a personal or societal level. Change requires an alteration of consciousness, in particular, consciousness of our relation to the world. The wonder which drives philosophy is concerned precisely with this relatedness. Such wonder makes philosophy ‘fundamental’ in the sense that in philosophical thinking the very way in which things appear to us as things is at stake. Loss of wonder would also vastly constrict the power and potential of our questioning, which would be limited to the search for further information about objects. Deeper questions of meaning and existence would seem pointless and cease to be asked. It is wonder that impels basic inquiry; without it, the desire for learning would dry up. By choking off learning, the loss of wonder would stifle the consideration of new possibilities. In short: upon wonder all genuine human creativity hangs. Without it, we would become mere creatures of habit, complex information gatherers and retrievers – nothing more. Loss of wonder would be a devastating impoverishment of the human.

Philosophers have long been the butts of jokes, from Aristophanes to Woody Allen, portraying them as purveyors of the useless. My conclusion is that the jokes hit upon something very true. What the humor misses, however, is more thoughtful consideration of why philosophy’s uselessness is part of its nature, and why the useless is of such importance in human life. Philosophy is a movement of wonder, and while this does not produce direct tangible results and products, it keeps human beings alive as creatures of possibility and question. My defense of the ‘useless’ may not lead many to become philosophy majors; my hope is that it might encourage a few others to seize the philosophical opportunity when next they hear that question: “What can you do with philosophy anyway?”

© Jeremiah Conway 2002

Jeremiah Conway is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern Maine.

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