Over the past 25 years, I have been asked with some frequency by students, parents, colleagues from other disciplines, friends, and strangers at parties what I think the value of philosophy is, why I devote myself to it, and why it matters.
I've been asked to defend it against charges that it amounts to narcissistic navel-gazing, and is a waste of time. I've been told that it is just competitive sparring about nothing, fueled by ego-trips and attempts to overpower others. I’ve heard that it is too abstract, too exclusive, too disconnected from real world problems, and overly intellectual BS.
When I hear these charges, I usually have to say: “Yeah, I’ve met that guy too.” Philosophy can turn into any one of those things, and I also get frustrated when I see self-proclaimed philosophers behaving in these ways. But at its best – actually, with even a moderate amount of experience with it – philosophy can become an indispensable process for finding direction on the uncharted waters of our lives. It can help us to navigate the struggles, confusions, and suffering we inevitably face as we grapple with the human condition.
Philosophy’s Practical Relevance
First of all, philosophy is far more than some abstract, intellectual exercise. In fact, it is about far more than just thinking. Our ways of thinking affect our ways of feeling, choosing, doing, creating, relating, and being in the world. Philosophy has the power to examine and transform all of these things.
Consider, for instance, how your feelings change when you understand the world to be a place of abundance versus a place of scarcity. Consider how these different perspectives might affect your desires, your core pursuits, your actions, and your relationships with others. Or, consider the changes that happen in you when you shift from seeing, say, an employee as a tool that will help you fulfill your projects, to seeing them as another subject with their own projects, struggles, family life, and wisdom beyond what the job asks. How do your attitudes and actions change when this shift occurs?
Different ways of thinking can set off profound chain reactions that rock our world. It seems pretty important that we examine our perspectives, worldviews, first premises, or claims to truth with care, and see what support they have on their side.
So, I see philosophy’s relevance for our practical lives to be quite broad. We can think of philosophy itself as a way of life or an art of living. Socrates called it “the examined life.” Thoreau called it “living deliberately.” Existentialists use the language of “authenticity.” Communities around the world refer to their philosophical experiments as “intentional living.” All these phrases indicate that the philosophical life is one that is reflective, critical, creative, and empowered.
So, what can the process of philosophy do for us?
10 Benefits of Philosophy
1. Philosophy teaches us to ask good questions and examine popular opinions, core beliefs, and values. It helps us to consider alternative points of view, expand the horizons of our understanding, and think critically about what’s true.
2. Philosophy trains us to think with clarity, consistency, subtlety, and depth. It teaches us to recognize fallacious thinking, assertions without support, and contradictions. It trains us to be skeptical of claims without reasons and evidence, and it encourages us to withhold judgment until we have the reasons and evidence necessary to make a well-grounded judgment.
3. Philosophy leads us to examine what is really good for us. It encourages us to align our desires, pursuits, and creations with what we understand to be good, and to let go of our attachments to ideas, identities, habits, and things that are unhealthy and do not serve our well-being.
4. Philosophy helps us to learn to communicate effectively with others, to listen and learn from others, to ask and answer questions, to give support for our assertions, to problem solve together, to find common ground, and to respect difference.
5. Philosophy leads us to choose deliberately, rather than haphazardly, and line up our actions with our core truths and values. Philosophy teaches us to notice when we are at cross-purposes with ourselves, and encourages us to walk our talk.
6. Philosophy helps us to consider the relationship between reason and passion, manage our emotional life, and moderate those feelings that cause us suffering – like anxiety, fear, anger, hate, excessive desire, greed, jealousy, resentment, and guilt.
7. Philosophy teaches us how to handle open-ended inquiries and experiments, adapt, and navigate uncertainty. Philosophy leads us to explore new ideas and experiment with new practices when our old ones no longer seem coherent or cause us problems. Philosophy helps us to search for meaning when we face the void.
8. Philosophy leads us to examine social structures and power relations, and it teaches us how to pursue justice. Philosophy also helps us to consider our human relationship to non-human beings, and figure out how to improve it.
9. Philosophy empowers us to direct our own lives, and to take responsibility for ourselves and our world. It encourages us to create a way of existing that we can call our own.
10. Philosophy activates the powers that human beings already have within them – for inquiry, rational thought, imagination, desire, empathy, self-determination, and creativity – and puts them to work to improve understanding, ease suffering, create justice, and develop freedom.
Philosophy is educative, therapeutic, and empowering.
Perhaps I will be criticized for making philosophy sound like a series of self-help books, rather than the mother of the sciences. Certainly not all self-help strategies are philosophic. But nothing has allowed me to help myself and others more than the tools developed through a long engagement with philosophy.
Monica Vilhauer, Ph.D., philosophy teacher, writer, and founder of Curious Soul Philosophy in Portland, OR.
Monica Vilhauer, founder of Curious Soul Philosophy, designs and leads workshops and retreats that approach philosophy as a way of life. She also offers one-on-one philosophical counseling for adults.