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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 50% off!

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 thinker.

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 Peloponnesian war.

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 information correctly.

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 growth.  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 process 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 Positivists.

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.
 

For more on the value of the Liberal Arts and Philosophy see:

Liberal Arts and the World of Work

CEOs and the Liberal Arts