Why is Studying Philosophy
Relevant: The Practical Value of Philosophy
In Chapter 1 the author does a
good job in providing many reasons for why the study of philosophy is
"invaluable in whatever career you choose to follow."
(p. 11). Keep in mind though that in addition to giving
you skills for being
more successful in any job, there is another part of education
in general and philosophy in particular that is not much
emphasized in today's performance/results based society.
Education in general and the study of philosophy can change
who you are.
So with the author's basic points
in mind and the above additional consideration, let's
elaborate and summarize.
1. Critical Thinking
Everyone involved in education agrees
that learning to be a critical thinker is a good thing.
(Chapter 2 is mostly on the details of some of the logical tools
one uses for critical thinking.) As the author explains,
learning to be a
critical thinker is simply learning to be a careful thinker.
Do we really have good reasons to buy a particular product (car,
computer, cell phone service, etc.) rather than another? Do
we really have good reasons to vote for one candidate running for
a public office versus another? At this stage in your life
you probably have some beliefs that you have clarified for
yourself. Probably most of you either believe in a God or
not. But do you have good reasons? Suppose you live
your whole life, making many judgments for happiness based on
believing in God, and He does not exist? Suppose you
live your whole life thinking God is a myth that people created to
feel good, but HE does exist!
Presumably at this stage in your life
you have bought something based on what you thought were good
reasons and then discovered that you did not really have good
reasons and the product was a rip off. Advertisers attempt
to brainwash and psychologically persuade us to buy products all
the time. Suppose you really wanted a new Apple
iPhone. Suppose you see an advertisement:
"No one can beat Best Buy's prices and
this weekend everything is up to 50% off."
Suppose Best Buy sells iPhones and you
assume that you can get a great deal at Best Buy this weekend on
an iPhone. But wait. Think carefully. What does
it mean that no one can beat Best Buy's prices? Suppose that
the price at Best Buy is $199.99. (Notice the the ".99" part
is also part of the trick psychology. We all know this is
really $200 but it just feels better if the price is some .99
number.) Well what if we went to another store and also
found the price to be $199.99? Notice that the first part of
the advertisement is true -- the second store did not beat Best
Buy! So what is this part of the ad really saying?
Nothing. It is not saying that they have the lowest prices
-- the mistaken conclusion many people will come to . It is
simply claiming in a fancy, deliberately tricky, psychologically
persuasive way that Best Buy's prices are the same that everyone
else has. They could have said, "Come to Best Buy today and
we guarantee that we have the same prices as everyone else."
But obviously they don't have ads like that because they would not
be as psychologically persuasive.
But what about the second part of the
advertisement? Usually you see these ads like this:
up to 50% OFF
The "50%" part is huge and the "up to" is barely
visible. The creators of this advertisement deliberately
engineer this so that you will focus on the 50% part and not see
the "up to" part. But the "up to" part is very important
to think about what the ad is really saying. Here you need
to know a little mathematics, and of course the advertisers are
counting on the average person having poor math skills.
Suppose I owned Rainbow Boutique and I tell everyone, "Today
everything in my store will be up to 50% off." How many
things would I need to have on sale and how much off would they
be off the regular price? Legally, logically, and
mathematically ONLY ONE ITEM and the one item would have to be
What you say? You said "everything." How can this
be? Here is where the "up to" comes in. Since the
numbering system starts at zero (0), zero is the first number,
my statement means that everything has to be in this range, 0 to
50% off. So, everything
else can be 0% off but one thing at 50% and the advertisement
is true. Get it? The ad from Best Buy
really does not say much of anything, but it says it in a
deliberately tricky, psychologically persuasive way to get you
to take the trouble to go to that store rather than another one.
Major point: Generally advertisements tell the truth,
but many who write and produce them will rely on the reader or
listener not thinking carefully, on not being a critical
So, one major reason for being a critical thinker is to avoid exploitation and
manipulation. You don't want to be a pawn and let
others push you around.
But what if the beliefs you have about happiness, God, and war
are the results of similar tricks?
On war and major life choices, philosophers tell the famous
story of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (470 BCE-399
BCE). Initially Socrates was very loyal to his Athenian
society. He volunteered and fought bravely as a
soldier. But eventually he discovered that the politicians
that controlled his city state of Athens, Greece had phony, but
psychologically persuasive reasons for going to war with Sparta,
another Greek city state. The politicians appealed in
fancy speeches to loyalty and blind patriotism. They
demonized the people of Sparta and made everyone think that
their entire way of life would be destroyed if they did not
attack Sparta. (Athens started the war.) But the
real reason was economic. Athens wanted to control all of
the shipping lanes and commerce in the Aegian sea part of the
Mediterranean ocean. Athens lost this war, called the
This experience had a powerful effect on Socrates. He
realized that there were so many important beliefs about life
that he did not know if he had good reasons for. As we
will read later, he spent the rest of his life trying to get the
people of Athens to think more critically about what they were
suppose to believe. But this eventually upset the people
in authority. Socrates' critical thinking was blamed for
Athens losing the war. He was eventually arrested and
tried for the capital offenses of impiety (questioning the
existence of the gods) and corrupting the youth of Athens (he
made them think!). He was convicted and put to death.
So, obviously a major value of using critical thinking is to gain more control over
one's life. If one wants to be truly free,
then one's decisions should be based on not only the best
available information, but one wants to reason about that
However, critical thinking will often produce
insecurity. What if you carefully examine the beliefs you
have and the ones you inherited from your family, and you find
that the reasons for these beliefs are very weak! The
story of Socrates shows that in general people don't like
someone rocking the boat with questions about what one's culture
or society believes. It produces confusion and
insecurity. Some students will claim that philosophy
courses undermine their family beliefs and just leave them with
lots of questions on life's major issues.
But philosophers see this insecurity as positive. Learning that
one's beliefs are weakly supported provides one with two
choices. Either see if better reasons exist for your
beliefs or change your beliefs to better supported
beliefs. Either way philosophers argue the value of this
insecurity is personal
Hopefully in learning what is true, or at least learning what is
probably not true (because of poor reasons for the beliefs) one
grows in awareness as an individual. In general,
philosophy accepts as positive an ongoing process of critical thinking
compared to security and stagnation of dogmatic answers.
2. Communication Skills
Philosophy forces one to read, write, and think about big
ideas. It exercises the mind to the max because it deals
with abstract ideas. Students often complain that abstract
ideas are hard to understand. Yes they are and they take
time, but the pay off is huge. Abstract ideas are the
secret to life. They help you organize
details. They are like a big net that can be placed over a
lot of detailed information so that the "dots" of the detailed
information are connected into a meaningful whole. Smart
people see the big picture of the forest and they don't get lost
in the forest of trees so to speak.
Generally managers and people who get high salaries are people
who are very good at the
of organizing and adopting a perspective on lots of
information. They can see the big perspective
because they can network ideas. These people are good at
presentation skills also. They can write and speak well,
and they are able to take the process of organizing and adopting a
perspective on lots of information and communicate to others
the same perspective. They are able to take the
big ideas in their minds and put them into other minds.
Philosophy teaches these same valuable skills. You are
constantly encouraged not only to understand big ideas and to
critically evaluate those ideas, but also to communicate your
thoughts to others, especially in writing. So, as the
author of our textbook notes, recent studies show that studying
philosophy is actually very valuable for careers in business.
See the article, "I Think, Therefore I Earn."
3. Clarification of your beliefs and values
Consider that your philosophy is simply your package of
beliefs. Hence, you cannot escape being a
philosopher! Even if you believe that philosophy is a
waste of time, that is still a philosophy and requires an
argument to be supported. Believe it or not there have
been philosophers who believed that most traditional
philosophical questions and issues were a waste of time, and
that humanity would be much better served by just concentrating
on science. Read about the philosophers known as Logical
But many students do not even
know what they believe and they need to put some time into clarifying what
they believe. Notice obviously one must do this
first BEFORE one can take aim with one's critical
thinking skills to see if there are good reasons for the
beliefs. It is also very difficult to maintain
consistency in belief unless one thinks hard about one's
beliefs. Typically, as we grow up we pick up one belief in
one situation and another belief in another situation, and only
later might realize that the beliefs conflict. For
instance, many students in our age will believe that women
should be treated equally to men and that men and women should
have the same rights. Also, generally many students will
believe it is wrong to kill children. But what about
abortion? For some people the issue of abortion reveals a
conflict between the right of a women to choose what takes place
in her body and the rights of a fetus to life. For another
example, suppose you are a devout Christian and you believe that
all people are created equal from God's perspective. But
you have been taught that homosexuality is wrong and you oppose
gay marriage. Gay couples who are not legally married are
deprived of many benefits (tax, inheritance, health coverage,
etc.) granted to heterosexual couples. Are they being
treated equally? Are your beliefs consistent? They
might be, but thinking and explanation would be required from a
philosophical point of view.
Philosophy forces you to clarify
your beliefs and examine them for consistency by constantly
providing you with challenging but conflicting opinions on the
big questions of life.
4. Global Awareness
In our age business leaders tell us every day that in addition
to critical thinking and communication skills understanding other
cultures is vital for our economy. One can even
find statements like this in the Want Ads, "Must be able to work
in a multicultural setting."
In studying philosophy we not only prepare our minds for being open enough to understand the views of others, but we also study the details of intellectual history. By studying the history of philosophical ideas we study not only past cultures, but also the origin of the beliefs that people have today. So, in many ways philosophy trains one to be open to understanding prior to judging. Philosophy is critical, so it will train you not to accept the beliefs of just anyone. But it will train you to always make an attempt to fully understand the beliefs of others BEFORE you judge them.
5. Tolerance and Understanding
It can be confusing to think hard about life. Studying
and hearing about so many different beliefs can indeed make one
insecure about his or her own beliefs. But this
uncertainty can have a very positive spin-off: humility and less violence.
Comparing ideas casts a little doubt on the certainty of your
own beliefs and usually makes one more openminded. With
a little doubt a person is less likely to push ideas on others
and will at least take a lot more time before he or she is
willing to fight over belief differences.
CEOs and the Liberal Arts