Why Philosophy Matters: Let's Think Clearly About Our Lives


It's back-to-school time and millions of young Americans are off to participate in the ritual of taking required classes for four years and somehow becoming a more well-rounded person and a better citizen once they are done. Don't ask how -- just somehow. With this season comes the traditional articles from business magazines and liberal arts professors advertising or decrying what appears to be a new focus on STEM or business majors. The latter go as far as to pose a conspiracy about how colleges have "sold their souls to the market," and that college is just a mere commodity and that students are selling themselves short by ignoring the liberal arts.

I actually agree with the latter, at least in part. Philosophy, usually lumped into "the liberal arts," is probably the most important skill set a young person can learn before going off into the marketplace. In fact, philosophy is so important that it should not be relegated to the dusty halls of college offices. Instead, philosophy ought to be embraced daily in the workplace, the living space, and throughout our lives as a practical way to sort through disagreements, order our priorities, and help us guide our lives according to our values.

What Is Philosophy?

The question of what philosophy even is should be considered before telling somebody they should care about philosophy. For most people, talking about "philosophy" likely conjures up images of dead Greek men walking around a forum or of Nietzsche talking about an Uebermensch. While both the classical Greeks and Friedrich Nietzsche were philosophers, "philosophy" as a discipline and as a way of thinking goes far beyond Plato's Allegory of the Cave or Sartre's observation that "Hell is other people."

The discipline of philosophy moves far beyond the simple (although insightful) conversations of the Greeks and the novel approaches of Continental philosophers. Instead, philosophy can be thought of as a science of clear thinking. At its very basic, philosophy is taking the logic that we use to arrive at clear, obvious conclusions and applying it throughout our thinking. The use of examples and experiments, from the Allegory of the Cave to the Trolley Problem, allows us to illustrate what our stated beliefs and pre-theoretical intuitions of the world are and force us to either apply them consistently or tease out inconsistencies.

Using Philosophy in Our Lives

To simply say that "philosophy helps us think clearly!" sounds nice, but how exactly does it do this? How can studying thought experiments and conceptual analysis and reading papers on metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics help us think more clearly?

Reading and discussing these things helps expose us to certain heuristics that can be used while thinking. I like to think of these heuristics as "analytic tools" to be put in one's mental toolbox. Whenever you run into a kink in your own or another's thinking, you go to your mental toolbox and pull out one of your analytic tools to help clarify or change the thought.

Conceptual analysis is one of the broadest and most applicable tools. It is simply the act of taking an idea and breaking it down into different concepts or propositions. To better understand the idea, you break it down into a set of smaller ideas or concepts and can examine the truth of a given concept, the validity of a statement (a series of concepts), or can use an understanding of the foundational concepts to better parse out whether or not a debate or disagreement makes sense.

To give a recent example from my own life, a friend of mine engaged me in a discussion on energy policy. She and I take what are essentially opposite stances on the issues of fossil fuel use, hydraulic fracturing, and subsidizing solar energy. Throughout the discussion, we went back and forth with different points trying to reinforce our own claims or prove the other's claims wrong. This proved to be, unsurprisingly, a waste of time.

Midway through the discussion, I realized that we were not making progress because we fundamentally disagreed with what the purpose of energy policy ought to be. By taking my own statements about policy and breaking them down, (e.g., "fracking shouldn't be banned because the good it does by lowering energy costs easily outweighs potential harm," or "changing the environment isn't inherently good or bad, but the goodness or badness is determined by how it serves people") and doing the same to her statements (e.g., human beings have caused X many species to go extinct, it'd be better to downgrade human quality of life if it meant protecting more non-human species) we see a disagreement in what motivates our discussion. While I was trying to make the point that a certain energy policy best promotes human flourishing (what defines this is the point of another post), she was making the point that another energy policy best promotes non-impact on the environment. We were talking past each other the entire time (more on the importance of checking your premises in a future post).

To give a less-obvious example, using this kind of analysis with one's own actions and comparing these actions against what would stem from a given set of values can help us better guide our own decisions. It is through this act of sitting back, looking at a set of options and asking, "Which of these aligns most closely with what I want from my life?" that we move from going through life asleep or on auto-pilot to living consciously.

For me, this was what motivated me to take control of my own education. Since doing so, I've read 5x as many books as I did my freshman year of college, wrote at least 10x as many words, and have contributed to (at least) two book projects. I took the time to sit back, accept my values that I had known were my own since a young age, and remove those things from my life which ran counter to those values.

It was through a science of clear thinking that I was really able to grapple with any disagreements I found when comparing my values against my decisions. At the very least, the analytic tools that philosophy gives a thinker are worth the time to read up.

Anybody who wants to be in charge of their own actions and not merely go through discussions, debates, disagreements, and life on autopilot needs philosophy.

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I'm Zak. School should have taught you how to succeed at work and build a great career. Instead, it taught you that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. Thankfully, I teach what school never taught.

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