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Why you should be thinking about philosophy

Spencer Upton, Rocket Contributor

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Ask yourself the following question: what is ‘philosophy’? What did you think of, that is, what comes to mind? Was it thoughts of old dead guys, uselessness and unemployment followed closely by a disgusted facial expression? If so, then you have the feeling that most people have, that is, your conceptualization of philosophy has been saturated with negative connotations. However, the hard question you must ask yourself is the following: do you have good justification for holding such beliefs? However, before you can proceed to answer that question, you must first ask yourself the questions of what it means for something to be ‘good’ and what it means for something to be ‘justified’. If you have followed this opening paragraph till the current words being read, then you should give yourself a pat on the back, for you have just started to “do” philosophy. That is, you have started the process of conceptual engineering—the business of which philosophy is in. The importance of conceptual engineering is that it serves the crucial function of avoiding the problems associated with ambiguities in language.

The Greek understanding of the word ‘philosophy’ can be broken into two terms: philo and sophia. The former meaning “love” while the latter meaning “wisdom” and so taken together, philosophy literally means “the love of wisdom”. The discipline itself is diverse but can be broken down into consisting of four main interdependent branches: metaphysics, epistemology, axiology and logic. Metaphysics is concerned with studying the fundamental nature of reality. For example, questions such as “What is consciousness?”, “What is truth?” and “What are the fundamental constituents of the world: substances or process?” are all metaphysical questions. Epistemology is concerned with studying knowledge. For example, questions such as “What is knowledge?”, “What are the limits of knowledge?” and “What is the difference between belief and opinion?” are all epistemological questions. Axiology is concerned with studying value, specifically both aesthetic and ethical value. Questions such as “What is beauty?” and “What is goodness?” are axiological questions. Finally, the branch of logic is concerned with studying correct reasoning (e.g., validity and soundness). Questions such as “Does the conclusion follow from the premises?” and “Are the premises true?” are logical questions.

With high confidence, I believe that you the reader have asked a philosophical question at one point in your life. But what really is a philosophical question? What is it that the above examples all have in common that makes them philosophical? Most simply, the commonality the questions all share is that they all lack any immediate answers and require the process of self-reflection. In fact, it is this self-reflective process that the natural sciences originated from. That is, broadly speaking, we would never have had our such cherished disciplines as physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, or sociology had philosophical questions not been asked, nor all the sub-branches in between. Therefore, it appears that philosophy has contributed substantially to people and the world, that is, philosophy is far from useless as our intuitions may have it.

However, you the reader may be thinking, “Well, so what, regardless if philosophy served as the ground of the natural sciences, it is a useless practice today. We don’t need it anymore, so why care?” In response, I maintain that philosophy consists of both intrinsic and extrinsic value. Intrinsically, we ought to care about being self-reflective for the sake of itself and therefore, we ought not need an external motive to be self-reflective. Extrinsically, we ought to care because the way we think of people and the world impacts the way we regard people and the world. Some extreme cases of such are that of slavery and genocide, both of which are products of not being self-reflective. However, if slavery and genocide don’t do it for you and you still aren’t convinced, then extrinsically, B.A. philosophy majors earn the highest average score on the GRE (Educational Testing Service, 2013) and rank 16th on mid-career median salary which ends up being more than two-thirds of all other majors (, 2014).

In closing, philosophy can be seen as a tool that enables us to live a good life. That is, it provides us a means of questioning our beliefs and ideas and seeing if they hold under pressure. If they hold, then we have justification for keeping them, but if they break, then those beliefs need revision and sometimes must be thrown out altogether. Importantly though, we must always be in the process of testing our beliefs, even the ones that we had initial justification for keeping. The reason for this is because everything is in a constant state of change and so, when one belief is revised, it is vital that we see how this revision affects our other beliefs. If this process is maintained, then it safeguards us from falling into lackadaisical dogmatism and therefore keeps travesties from occurring.

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An Independent, Student-Run Newspaper at Slippery Rock University
Why you should be thinking about philosophy