Philosophy’s Debt to Society

Barrels of Money, oil on canvas painting by Victor Dubreuil, c. 1897

Spare a thought for Jim. Who’s Jim, you ask? Jim is a man with dreams, dreams which we of all people should be able to relate to. After losing his job in the public sector, Jim now has to decide what to do with his future. As a student he took his degree in Philosophy and English, and has since then continued to pursue philosophy in his spare time. Now he has the opportunity to make philosophy his career, by going back to university and with time, effort and money, one day become a philosopher by trade. But, Jim worries, is chasing after his dream worth it in this most cynically materialistic of ages? Is combining the best of both worlds – the fabled “job satisfaction” – really tenable for Jim? With the help of the Guardian, Jim called upon the nation for advice about his dilemma – who in turn seem to have encouraged him to follow his heart.

Of the many elements of Jim’s quandary, one is this: How does philosophy – perhaps the arts and humanities in general – find a place in a world that values production and material things? Where the engine room is economic and technological, is the contemplative life a self-indulgent, even foolish, pursuit of old? University cuts in humanities and the arts have prompted defences from public intellectuals, such as Alain de Botton and Martha Nussbaum, hoping to situate the tired and flagging Philosophy back into a position of cultural and public value. The problem they face is that it’s hard to see how philosophy can pay its way in society, what use it can serve, and this is not a wholly unfair point to make. The scientific research coming out of universities is palpably changing the face of modern medicine and technology, and even in the arts (who have also been forced to justify themselves) the public can see something they stand to gain in the galleries and theatres and, if needs must, the huge revenue art institutions bring in. What possible way does philosophy contribute?

There are two general ways to go here; 1.) show that Philosophy does in fact have material benefits, or 2.) show that not all worthwhile benefits are material, and that this other kind of benefit is the one which Philosophy comes under. The second line is Nussbaum’s, as Julian Baggini explains in his review linked above:

Nussbaum’s argument is a simple one. The good life is a full life, one which is engaged with more than just generating profit and achieving practical goals.

And de Botton, quoting Mill, says:

The object of universities is not to make skillful lawyers, physicians or engineers. It is to make capable and cultivated human beings.

This seems sensible. A hard job lies ahead of anyone who sets him or herself the task of convincing the world that philosophy is a highly lucrative pursuit. Instead it is rewarding in a different, perhaps higher way; giving us the wisdom of the good life, enlightening us into sophisticated, thoughtful human beings.

But is even this enough? So far we have argued only for the benefits that the student of philosophy can expect to gain – this is all well and good, and perhaps enough to persuade Jim to return to schooling, but the outstretched arms of society still loom. What is Philosophy to give? That is, in lieu of the universal material benefits that the sciences can boast, how are Philosophy’s non-material benefits – spiritual, edifying, enriching, we might call them – distributed and enjoyed beyond its immediate practitioners, the philosophers and philosophy students?

If it is true that only those who commit themselves to the practice of philosophy can benefit from it, is the next step (the only step?) for Philosophy in paying its debt to society to finally help the public to make philosophers of themselves?


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5 thoughts on “Philosophy’s Debt to Society”

  1. I very much disagree that philosophy only benefits the individual and not society. If that were true, then it seems that Western society would not have evolved to be what it is today. Perhaps we would still be under to the authority of the church rather than having the liberty to form our own beliefs and values – or worse, we’d still be in a primitive state.

    Who shaped the ideas of democracy, justice, and autonomy? Philosophers. Philosophy changes society, and often aims to make it better. Of course, sometimes it fails (e.g. communism). But philosophy has been one of the shapers of society, so I disagree.

    Philosophical questions also emerge in professions. For instance, the metaphysical question, “what an event?” emerged when lawyers were evaluating the insurance claims of the World Trade Center. The question was whether 9-11 was considered a single event or two events.

    Several Fortune 500 CEO’s were philosophy majors too. That’s because they have the capacity to think well and make intelligent decisions as a result of their philosophical training.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Lorraine.

      I, too, believe that material benefits are not the be all and end all of life, though of course we all labour under certain material necessities and to this extent it is not surprising that material benefits are a central concern of society. I suppose the problem is *excessive* material concerns.

      You make good points about how philosophy can benefit society at large, and I do take them on board. A particularly strong example, as you point out, is in political philosophy, although I am sceptical about the extent to which concepts like democracy, justice, and autonomous are in practices first theorised in the abstract and then latterly applied. But you rightly point out that there are some historical cases where this was arguably the case, such as the malformed Marxist politics of the 20th century and perhaps we could also add the influence of Locke’s political writings on the American constitution.

      However my main point, which perhaps I didn’t make clear enough, was that the primary asset philosophy boasts is the non-material benefit which it gives to the direct practitioners of philosophy that is simply to make them contemplative, reasonable, thoughtful, perhaps even good and fulfilled, human beings. It is from this perspective that the writers I mentioned, de Botton and Nussbaum, make their cases (or at least one perspective from which they make one of their cases). The trouble, as I pointed out, is that those who argue for the need for philosophy along these lines then have neglected to point out that there is therefore a greater job of how this benefit is spread amongst society. The sciences, for examples, by manifesting in modern technology and medicine, do not require that the public themselves become scientists in order for the public to feel the benefit of science, but for philosophy it may be different – for philosophy, to feel the benefit one must DO philosophy. If anything, this piece was a call to arms; the spread of philosophy from individual to individual is of central importance, and it is by this method alone that the progression you indicate, such as cultural depth and diversity, can become operative. Unlike scientists, a philosophers does not philosophise so you don’t have to; it is, or ought to be, a philosophers further duty to compel others, all of us, to philosophise.

      1. *I apologise for grammatical errors and awkwardly worded sentences, having now read that back. I hope you can make sense of it.

  2. First of all, I agree with you that philosophy is something that everyone can and should practice, even if it turns out to be a logic course in public high school and a glance at political and moral philosophy before moving on to other areas. The world would be a better place if everyone took a little philosophy. These are not something so esoteric that the world needs to run away in fear, but this is what they do. The fundamental questions are what most people do think about from time to time, although they don’t have the tools to talk much about it. Instead they go about their lives as if these questions have been answered.

    There are a great number of professional philosophers who take it upon themselves to make philosophy popular (the ones you mention are good examples. I saw Nussbaum draw a large crowd here in Tucson, same with Penrose…for him it was “sold out”) but there’s also an aspect of philosophy that the public will never “get”…there’s a part that I will never “get”. The work has become very specialized, but some of this specialization is so esoteric I’m not sure it bears fruits for anyone, not even the ones involved in it who seem to be playing some kind of game, their arguments and thesis not daring enough to tackle questions of great value. Usually their writing is absolutely atrocious and obscurantist. Of course what I’m talking about is the stereotypical complaint against academia and I’m not saying here that nothing of value comes from professionalization, but there is enough vacuity to make the public raise an eyebrow. (And they are likely to raise an eyebrow before I would.) Then comes the public’s throwing out the baby with the bath water.

    For a lot of the public this whole anti-philosophical attitude is subconscious. They would likely give lip service to philosophy without really appreciating it enough to DO it. If pressed, they might say it’s just over their heads. (The ones who wouldn’t give lip service are already far too philosophical and are therefore thoroughly IN it, whether they want to admit it or not.)

    I’ve noticed that the situation in France is different. The bookstores have enormous philosophy sections and people in general appreciate it more than they do here in the States. There may not be a majority of people really engaging in it there, but the respect for it is obvious.

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