How will learning about philosophy impact real-life?

  • Examining the practical, impactful, real-life benefits of getting a degree in philosophy

    It is often asked, "What is the practical use of philosophy?" or "How will learning about philosophy impact real-life?"

    It is easy to see why there is such mystery surrounding the topic. Most schools up through high school may only offer 1 or 2 courses on it, if any. It is also often talked about in general conversation as a "wishy-washy" subject, often negatively, as though it contains no answers but only raises an endless series of questions.

    To add to this, those who hear of the subject but know very little of it may be surprised to see it offered at their university as a major. It is clear to most why some people would want to major in Computer science, Mathematics, or Physics. But what would a degree in philosophy get you?

    I believe that philosophy is impractical fun with (very) informal and unformalised ideas. And that there's is no more practical use from philosophy than from other creativity rich activity. (Critical thinking, imo, is part of logic from mathematics and knowledge of human bias from psychology/neuroscience. No more philosophy.)

    @zaarcis - While this is somewhat of a trivial point, it seems patently clear to me that "philosophy" — the very love of wisdom itself — is the source of critical thinking. Forged when people said, "Hey, let's organize the world in a way that makes sense", whereupon they formed logic, which form the basic axioms math rests upon. While the order is perhaps — as I said — trivial, I think that it is important to recognize the role philosophy (and *philosophers*) have played in developing modern mathematics and that critical thinking skills can still be harnessed through philosophical study alone.

    What is the practical use of knowledge? What is the practical use of wisdom? What is the practical use of learning not to be fooled? But beware that LOTS of texts in philosophy are only waste of time. After learning to read, you must learn what not to read. I love philosophy, but thought wiser pursue a degree in biology. Knowing biology I can detect the nonsense from others in other fields.

    Is raising more question necessarily a bad thing? Questions might not be a definitive answer, but they definitely get you closer to the answer. To me, questions are the inverse of an answer indeed, but they are quantified. As a construct of words, they have meaning. By formulating the question, one can already exclude 'false' answers.

    @stoicfury Yes, good thinking is good. :) All thanks to good thinkers. But that isn't unique or necessary trait of philosophers, no matter if academic or called a philosopher by someone. Philosophers are like hipsters who like to think about ideas. :P

    So the joke goes, "Q: How do you get a philosophy major off your front porch? A: Pay for the pizza!" har har har. Srsly tho, philosophy is heuristic and knowing how to obtain knowledge is practical. The study of logic, rhetoric and reason are also skills applicable in any endeavor.

  • The Practical Use of Anything

    It is difficult to talk about the "practical use" of almost any piece of knowledge out of context. In fact, I can conceive of no single piece of knowledge is universally beneficial. For example, on the face of it you might think that mathematics is a more practical area of study than philosophy, but can you honestly say that you've actually ever used the formula for the volume of a cylinder in real-life? Did you ever whip out the quadratic formula on a napkin in a restaurant to help calculate the tip? Most knowledge in every discipline is helpful only in specific contexts, so we must be careful when we talk about the "practical use" of any field of study. The only relevant distinction here is which pieces of knowledge are more helpful in everyday life vs. those which are less so. From this perspective, both mathematics and physics—which are in some senses seen as the foundational/core sciences—are probably among the least practical. Ranking up there would be psychology and sociology if you interact with other humans on any regular basis, biology if you want to know how your own body works, heck, maybe your understanding can be used to save people's lives. As you can probably see this is somewhat of a subjective judgement, but if you were to ask me I would hold that there is one field that rises above them all, and that is philosophy.

    What in the world does philosophy teach you that could possibly be so useful, you wonder. That's a good question, and I will elaborate below, but there is another important distinction to remember:

    Skills vs. Facts

    I think it's important to remember—as it is also true in many other fields—that learning in philosophy can be distinguished between skill knowledge and factual knowledge. That is, there is a big difference between philosophy as in critical thinking skills and reasoning ability, versus philosophy as in facts regarding the history of philosophy and conceptual ideas. Virtually all philosophy courses address both sides of this coin (they encourage and help develop good reasoning in the context of popular concepts or the history of philosophy), but where I think philosophy is most useful (when it comes to real life) is the former notion. As a college graduate who has taken multiple courses in a wide range of disciplines, one of the skills that philosophy seems to emphasize most is critical thinking. Of course, I can only speak from the perspective of one university (others may not emphasize this as much), but I would wager that many people who have studied philosophy at the college level would concur with this statement. And having this ability to think critically is of immense benefit for a number of real-life situations such that it's not even reasonable to begin listing them all, because it would otherwise be disingenuous to the entire scope of benefits. At any moment in life where you have to make a decision about something, that decision will always depend on your reasoning abilities. In this way, being a good thinker can help you become a better manager, a better consumer, a better writer, a better reader, a better voter, a better leader, a better father or mother, brother or sister, a better friend...

    Outside of the critical thinking skills you learn in philosophy, you have the history of philosophy. Knowing that René Descartes was born on March 31st or the definition of determinism is as equally useful and domain specific as just about any other piece of knowledge. I can honestly say that I have never needed to know that the American Revolutionary War went from 1775–1783 after learning it in 11th grade AP US History. Lots of random pieces of knowledge like this don't often present any particular use in our daily lives, but that's to be expected. When you decide that you want to learn something, you have to ask yourself why you want to learn. Is it for a job? Is it to increase your knowledge about the world? It is these questions which help you decide what to learn. You have to figure out your goals before you can decide what to learn and how useful it will be for you.

    Uses of a Philosophy Degree

    These days, typically the only people who get advanced degrees in philosophy are those who want to teach philosophy (become professors). I'm sorry if this comes as bad news to some people, but alas, there aren't very many jobs available for those of us who would like to just sit around and philosophize. If you have no plans on becoming a philosophy professor, I would not recommend making philosophy your sole major (either double major or take philosophy as a minor). That said, I know many people who solely have a degree in philosophy. This is not the end of the world by any means, and many great jobs require no specific degree, and that's assuming you don't plan on going back to school.

    In terms of graduate school, a lot of people who plan on going into law start with philosophy degrees, and many schools will offer a philosophy of law program in addition to the standard philosophy track. People with philosophy degrees also seem to have no trouble getting into business or journalism programs.

    In the end, you should learn what interests you, but it's appropriate to keep your future in mind as well. If you are concerned, consider double-majoring so you can keep your options open. Double-majoring wasn't hard as I had to take many electives/humanities anyways, and philosophy courses often filled those gaps. With decent planning you should be able to finish a double major for two Bachelor's degrees in the normal time frame (4 years) without taking too many more extra courses at most schools (I completed a double-major and a minor in 4 years with no summer or winter classes).

    Further Reading:

    Why study philosophy?

    A very good overall guide for why philosophy can help you in everyday life, and what you can do with a philosophy degree.

    Philosophy majors outperform all other majors

    A great collection of articles and statistics which show the benefit of studying philosophy.

    "In the US, where the number of philosophy graduates has increased by 5 per cent a year during the 1990's, only a very few go on to become philosophers. Their employability, at 98.9 per cent, is impressive by any standard....Philosophy is, in commercial jargon, the ultimate 'transferable work skill'."

    The Philosophy Major's Career Book

    The aim of this handbook is to help you think about the relation between your degree in philosophy and getting a job or planning a career (or life) after graduation, and to help you to prepare intelligently for it.

    USA Today: What can you do with a philosophy degree?

    "So many people think philosophy isn't practical," says Shoener, who also is studying biomathematics for a double major and plans to be a women's health advocate. "It's the most practical thing I've ever done."

    Good summary! But I've used the formula for the volume of a cylinder multiple times when cooking or gardening (to great use, though one can muddle through by just buying a bit of extra potting mix, or making an extra trip to a store); and tipping is a linear process and thus wouldn't involve a quadratic formula. (Cheese on pizza plus breadsticks could involve the quadratic formula.) Likewise with physics. These things are foundational; your appreciation of biology or medicine or whatnot suffers if you are insufficiently familiar. (Philosophy teaches reasoning which is also foundational.)

    Yes, I agree! That's why I tried to take a lot of foundational courses as my electives as opposed to filling my schedule up with courses that are more specific and perhaps less applicable across domains. But yes, as you no doubt recognize, the point was that lots of knowledge is very domain specific, so this whole idea of "practical use" can be very misleading. ^_^

    I would say that the knowledge used in a quotidian sense depends on an individuals interests and pursuits. If one studies math and science, they are likely to use it regularly; the same is true of philosopy.

    @RexKerr I think programming (telling a computer how to reason) teaches more reasoning than philosophy, and does also provide feedback about the correctness of the reasoning (when testing the software). In contrast, all that is written in this page could be wrong and everybody could be agreeing on a mistake.

    @Trylks - Philosophy and programming teach different aspects of reasoning: the central part of philosophy is about getting logic and framework right, whereas that's something sort of implicit in worrying about how to get a computer to do what you want. Programming focuses a lot of algorithms and control flow and corner cases, things which are much less central to philosophy. To build erudition, both are advisable.

    @RexKerr that's a good point. I think artificial intelligence may be useful in terms of logic and the framework too. In AI you can find many approaches focusing on heuristics and meta-heuristics, which are exactly the opposite to corner cases ;) You can also find (sort of foundational) work on knowledge representation (framework, usually wrt logics) and of course reasoning with that knowledge. The control flow may also be emergent or variable in swarm algorithms and decision support systems.

    @RexKerr (continuing from previous comment) AI is slightly more complex than regular programming, but still about "thinking machines" that have to be tested and debugged. Once someone is familiar with that and has some practice, it's a matter of introspection.

    @Trylks - I'm quite familiar with machine learning (the term "AI" is still not fully back in fashion yet after its overhyping and subsequent discrediting in the 80s). It gives you yet more insight into the intermediate level between the weeds of how to get an algorithm to run and the high-level frameworks for knowledge. But it very much is an intermediate level. It's another good thing to know, but does not (yet, anyway) substitute for a good grounding in epistemology.

    @RexKerr not yet ;)

    Disagree about mathematics & physics being least useful: these subjects are not limited to being the foundation of scientific knowledge, they extend into practical applications as well.

    My point was that the usefulness or "practicalness" of knowledge is not easy to measure objectively, and will vary based on how each individual goes about their life. Of course, there are esoteric areas of almost any discipline that have little practical (life-applicable) value to the average person. :)

    The second link, about philosophy students outperforming everyone, is an incorrect reason for studying philosophy. Correlation does not equal causation; it may be the case that studying philosophy does not affect how well *you* perform at all, or affects it adversely. There is also a conflict of interest because it contains subjective judgements made by staff of the department that teaches philosophy.

    @Superbest - Everything outside of deductive proof is correlation according to some philosophers. :P But regardless, I think you are reading too deeply into the article. I don't think the author intended to make any particularly strong claims of ecological validity.

    "It is difficult to talk about the "practical use" of almost any piece of knowledge out of context. In fact, I can conceive of no single piece of knowledge is universally beneficial." I forgot I was on the philosophy board for a second, thanks for the reminder...

  • Gilles Deleuze's thoughts on this, from Nietzsche and Philosophy (my emphasis):

    When someone asks “what’s the use of philosophy?” the reply must be aggressive, since the question tries to be ironic and caustic. Philosophy does not serve the State or the Church, who have other concerns. It serves no established power. The use of philosophy is to sadden. A philosophy that saddens no one, that annoys no one, is not a philosophy. It is useful for harming stupidity, for turning stupidity into something shameful. Its only use is the exposure of all forms of baseness of thought. Is there any discipline apart from philosophy that sets out to criticise all mystifications, whatever their source and aim, to expose all the fictions without which reactive forces would not prevail? Exposing as a mystification the mixture of baseness and stupidity that creates the astonishing complicity of both victims and perpetrators. Finally, turning thought into something aggressive, active and affirmative. Creating free men, that is to say men who do not confuse the aims of culture with the benefit of the State, morality or religion. Fighting the ressentiment and bad conscience, which have replaced thought for us. Conquering the negative and its false glamour. Who has an interest in all this but philosophy? Philosophy is at its most positive as critique, as an enterprise of demystification.

    Nietzsche really annoys me. But most philosophy delights my soul. I don't really know how to vote on this answer since it carries some truth, but I find it utterly wrong. It clashes totally with my sense of the proper use of skepticism.

    @Jon, You *could* upvote to counter the -1, as OP hasn't responded and it's least a proper answer now. It doesn't have to imply you agree with the sentiment :)

    I do happen to think Deleuze is on the money that (generally) when someone asks asks after "the use" of philosophy, they are trying to be caustic/ironic.

    Tempting. Well, why not!

    I did like that part of the answer. Too true!

    This is a fantastic answer, but I might be somewhat biased given my critical theory bent. Further reading might include Deleuze & Guattari's aptly entitled book, *What Is Philosophy?* It sort of fleshes out what's hinted at here, namely that philosophy is involved in the creation of concepts and is unique among all the other sciences in doing so. It's a little dense, but that's par for the course.

    That raises another question, who watches the watchers?, what demystifies philosophy? :)

    @Trylks u are apparently falling into the inevitable "infinite regress" chain described in epistemology, philosophy or any complete-wisdom theory is trying to essentially break up this chain which permeates every other field which can be replaced by machines sooner or later...

  • The practical use of philosophy of ethics:

    To provide a new reference frame for the negotiation of basic values in a society where "because God wants it" or "because it is unnatural" or "because we have always done it this way" is not convincing to many people.

    The practical use of philosophy of science:

    Most scientists don't want to waste too much of their precious research time on philosophical issues which leads to many scientists practicing a different point of view than they preach. Having philosophers exploring the discrepancies can lead to scientists who are actually aware of what they do which will improve their science overall.

    It is similar for other branches for philosophy. And just as in other domains, the practical use does not turn up by focussing on the practical use, but by focussing on what is interesting.

    What differend point of view are You referring to? Do You mean some how-to-get-new-idea, how-to-find-errors, i-came-here-to-help-You-fix-Your-theory or is-it-ethical-to-work-on-it? I as a programmer have never had a need for philosopher, I have my doubt that a philosopher are invited to help for example some to some biology research. It sounds somewhat realistic that they could analyze a problems but there AFAIK specialists in each profession. Could You provide me with examples of such cooperation?

    Yes, there is a chance that You may find something interesting and useful even in not interesting topic.

    @user712092 philosophy helps to live a better life through exploring the share of mysteries in it. Take a walk, try to find a place you are used to and there find a point of view an image or an object you have never noticed. It is of practical nature. For example I found mysterious the way you cluster people and assign properties to cluster. I found it a bit abstract, or at least mysterious. I guess philosophy would ask what is a biology researcher. Would you care about that ?

    I would argue that religion, natural ethics, and tradition were thoroughly convincing to nearly everyone before philosophers came along and rocked the boat. In some ways this would be an example of philosophy messing things up. But who knows? Perhaps we will land on a better answer in time.

    @JonEricson I would argue that religion (and all those other things you mentioned), as epistemological approaches, *are* philosophies; just not very rational ones. And that's not a slight to your religion; it simply does not solely require reason. *Faith* is used as a reliable source of truth whereas other epistemological approaches (e.g., *rationalism*) rely only on reason. This is part of the issue with the modern masses of Christians today — they forget this and try to *rationally* justify their beliefs in the ever-growing shadow of science, ultimately finding great difficulty in doing so.

  • I have only taken a few philosophy classes and the reason I took them was to learn more about the subject of philosophy and about their current areas of expertise and especially about famous classical writers of philosophy--Ayn Rand, Nietzsche, Engels, Friedman, Aquinas, Hobbes, Musashi, Michael Ruse (recently about Biology). Many of the well-known philosophers were/are influential during their lives or afterward. Most of them have made their name by writing specifically about a question and the possible answers that may arise.

    Philosophy is quite a bit like mathematics or computer science except the questions addressed are not as easily formed as in those subjects. For mathematics and computer science, set theory and proofs rely on definitions of objects and the applicability of operations on those sets. One can easily examine mathematical and computing objects and operations and determine the truth or falseness of the statements.

    In my work in computing, test theories, processes and procedures relied heavily on examining a set of objects, determining the operations that were applied to them, and providing a set of data that would examine each operation for any possible situation.

    One of the most complicated cases of test occurred in the avionics "fly-by-wire" modules. These "black boxes" were safety critical features that were regulated by government bodies and potential sources of future liability suits (law). Many black boxes on government projects were sealed after being certified as a specific tested release of a requirements traceable functionality governed by a contractual agreement. Testing these items had to examine the code, the assumptions, the requirements, the given configuration, who certified it.

    Customer Service Engineering, (as a different field), likewise, had to write test procedures for any item on an airplane that could fail and would require replacement.

    As you can see from my examples, everything I said was subject to interpretation, not all of it subject to computer programs, computer systems, or mathematical logic. This is where philosophy comes in, especially in areas like the law. Sets of words can be tested for their legality and past decisions. Failures can cross organizations, systems, contracts, and ethics, cost lives, cost millions of dollars.

    The ability to uncoil a nested set of all of these things is the realm of rational thinking and philosophy.

    Philosophical thinking often deals with human beings and how they think rather than man made objects--now we're off on biological subjects too, and psychological.

    Innovations often relies on philosophical thinking because most innovations involves the ability to step outside of a closed system and ask, "could anything else be considered?"

    When humans get stuck -- think war, think unknown phenomena like ghosts or the Higgs particle, think global warming, or hunger, or poverty, or applicability of religion, or biased reactions, rational thinking and philosophy can offer the mental rigor to propose different, unconsidered solutions.

    Philosophical questions are addressed relating to education, economics, political science, psychology, medicine, physics, biology, organizational behavior, military strategy, etc. Wisdom is the realm of philosophy--the fabled double-edge sword of the seers that offered advice came from the many interpretations that advice could potentially offer. Like the solution set, the problem set often has hidden, unexamined states that need to be considered.

  • My answer to "What is Philosophy?" hints at some practical ideas philosopher have been able to discover (or if you prefer: invent). The list of names barely touches the first layer of philosophers and yet the mathematical discoveries made be these few men would likely keep students busy for a hundred years. Now you might think that these mathematicians would have made even greater advances but for their dabbling in esoteric, i.e. impractical, ideas. Perhaps you are correct, but you've not given us any reason to believe you. My gut says that if these men focused only on the immediately practical, they would not have discovered as much.

    Another claim you've made is that all the interesting bits of philosophy have been pealed off and moved to practical departments, such as math and science. My answer tends to agree with the idea, but I find no evidence that we've run out of potential new applications of philosophy. In fact, the field of Computer Science owes much of its foundation to philosophy. The true geniuses of our field (Donald Knuth, Larry Wall, Richard Stallman, etc.) seem insistent on thinking impractical thoughts. But they seem more insistent on claiming their philosophical thoughts are important to their work. Why should we argue.

    Reading into your question a little bit, I think you are asking why should we continue to study the impractical bits of philosophy. The answer, I think, is similar to why I'm currently reading The Aeneid and a really low-brow thriller: I like reading books. It's sort of pointless to ask why I don't focus on the classics or on practical non-fiction. That's like asking why I have sex with my wife on days we can't get pregnant! Maybe philosophy is as uninteresting to you as professional wrestling is to me. But like me, you have a choice: steer clear of what you don't care for.

    But you just watch: the impractical thoughts of philosophy today will become the foundations for some practical field of study tomorrow.

    By impractical You mean Fermi Problems or just some day to day thoughts?

    @user712092: The beauty of philosophy is that we won't know until it happens. I have a feeling that Alan Turing, Alonzo Church and John von Neumann were probably as surprised as anyone when their impractical ideas suddenly became useful.

  • Cicero's Hortensius, though effectively lost to us, appears to have been an answer to this very question. Hortensius was a contemporary of Cicero who suggested that Philosophy was useless because it had no practical value. Cicero's reply? From what we know, he argued (in only a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner):

    In order to determine whether philosophy (or anything) has practical value, one must use philosophy.

    Seriously. Just look at stoicfury's answer and tell me there's no philosophy (read: critical thinking and rational analysis) in it. It is futile to argue that philosophy has no practical use, because to do so you'd have to use philosophy (and in the process contradict yourself, proving that you just used philosophy for a practical purpose).

    So, the next time someone says that philosophy (or anything) is useless, ask them this: How do you know?

    You'll have them using philosophy in an instant.

    Wait, how did this end up CW? :/

    When stoicfury posted the question, he marked it as community wiki. Making *questions* community wiki is a moderator-only feature (although anyone can make their own answer community wiki), and when a question is community wiki, that means that all answers to that question will automatically be made community wiki. I assume this was made community wiki because it was intended as a "FAQ" question, one that we want people to be able to collaboratively edit, partly because this type of question isn't really a good fit for our site, but a lot of people have it anyway.

    The confusing thing is that a couple of the *other* answers to this question *didn't* get the community treatment, like Joseph's. That's because I merged them into this question from a duplicate question, and apparently that didn't mark them community wiki to fit the destination question. (Did that make sense? You can see evidence of the merge in the revision history for each answer.) Anyway, I've corrected the problem now by marking them community wiki manually. :-)

    @CodyGray Oh ok. I figured it was because the question was wiki (I'm not a newbie anymore :P) but yeah, the non wiki answers threw me off. Thanks!

  • I would be interested in reading your thoughts on philosophical counseling.

    Here's a quote from a book review I quickly googled, and that shows a small example

    "Larry and Carol were married for twenty five years, had brought up two children, and both had successful careers. After the children had left home, Larry found that he no longer had much in common with his wife, and wondered whether to leave the relationship. Carol refused to even to talk with him about their relationship. Larry had no interest in meeting with a psychotherapist or psychiatrist, so Carol suggested he try a philosophical counselor. Larry met with Marinoff to discuss his quandary, and as a result of their conversations, Larry and his wife decided to end their marriage. Marinoff characterizes Larry’s problem as essentially philosophical: he was unsure what value to place upon his marriage vows, what value he should place upon his now unrewarding marriage, and how to balance those with his desire for fulfillment in life. For most of his clients, Marinoff does not assign readings. Instead he simply explains to them in lay terms some of the philosophical ideas relevant to their problems. Marinoff judges that Larry is a very logical sort of thinker, and so he explains the Kantian theory of perfect and imperfect duties, which he judges is closer to Larry’s implicit moral approach. He explains that it is possible to have duties to oneself as well as to others, and thus it may be morally permissible, or indeed morally required, now that his children are grown, for Larry to foster his own emotional growth by leaving the marriage."

  • There is no need in philosophy, if you don't apply it in your everyday life.

    Philosophy is like lenses through which we can look at the world around us, judge them, and make decisions about our future actions. We can use other lenses like - "other people", "rules", "myths" or "religion" - but philosophy is often more beneficial to its user than all alternatives.

  • In short, philosophy teaches us about thinking, and the cognitive building blocks that must be at work to think deeply, carefully, and yes, critically. Logic, yes. But also semantics (language & meaning), epistemology (rule frameworks) and value systems (think ethics).

    In the vernacular, philosophy can usefully be described as 'thinking about thinking'.

    It is also at the core of how we learn.

    Asking more specifically about obtaining a philosophy degree is a more difficult question, because the answer tracks with economic and ROI ('return on investment') issues facing liberal arts and undergraduate degrees in general. That being? Investing lots of money in a 4-year degree from any school (be it average, above average or possibly even excellent) is no longer a guarantee of a good job.

    That said, I think it is important to advocate and promote the study of philosophy, which in the Socratic approach implies asking successively 'deeper' questions, or in the more modern context of Peter Block, focusing on asking the 'right' questions. Becoming better and more intentional thinkers is critical for our survival and advancement, is it not? Not sure how we get there without an strong underpinning of philosophy.

  • To be able to think critically and outwardly about ones own existence rather than simple animalistic, raw basic survival needs is hallmark to a sophisticated society. The mere fact that we are even arguing about whether or not philosophy is useful just goes to show how extremely important it is to the continuation of our evolution as a species. If we stop thinking and questioning the world around us, then we will simply revert back to a more basic form of society.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM