What is the point of philosophy?

It is a question that every philosophy student is faced with when they tell someone what subject they study. What is the point of philosophy, if there is one at all?

The question is fair enough. Some of the big questions in the field of philosophy have been constantly asked and debated over since the times of Ancient Greece, and yet the modern philosopher continues to discover new arguments and angles from which to view these issues. It can seem as though there will never be an end to the ongoing endeavour that is the discipline of philosophy, and to some people this may be a thoroughly depressing thought. If there is no way for us to reach answers and certainty, why continue the search?

If one was to assemble a compilation of unresolved philosophical issues, that list would be unending. For instance, philosophers still puzzle over the mind-body problem, and the controversy regarding the nature of the mind continues. How would the dualist, who believes in an immaterial mind, convince the neurobiologist that the mind is more than synapses in the brain? In return, how would the mind-body identity theorist explain away qualia, our private and subjective experiences of the world? Another example is regarding our understanding of ethics. There is no single guide to morally good behaviour that we all agree with and rely on, and our conceptions of what is good and bad can differ vastly. Opinions diverge even on the matter of what terms such as “good” and “bad” refer to exactly. The study of philosophy invites one to consider these varying sides of the debate, and yet at the end of philosophical activity, it is rare that one reaches certainty.

Despite this, there is no doubt that a major function of philosophy that we aim for is to zero in on the answers and accurate definitions of things. The philosopher must take care to be precise in their use of language for this very reason, as coming to the definitions of things is a more difficult undertaking than one may imagine. Take the definition of a chair, for instance. What constitutes chair-ness? We could simply consider a chair to be something that is sat on, but this broad definition could apply to a far greater number of things, including the things that we would not consider to be a chair. Someone could sit on a table, but we would still not indicate to this table and call it a chair. The definition of a chair must be narrowed down to something more specific, such as “something that was created for the purpose of being sat on”. In this way given that clarity is what is prized in philosophy, the discipline is sometimes criticised for failing to gain what it strives to achieve.

What, then, is the point of doing philosophy? For a subject that seeks answers to the big questions it seems to yield more questions than conclusions, but contrary to what some people may think, this hardly makes philosophy a fruitless, futile endeavour. The experience of philosophical activity, even if it may not always give us clarity, is far from depressing, and rather is stimulating as it broadens one’s perspective and gives greater scope to explore. Perhaps the motivation to do philosophy ought to be for the personal goal of bettering our minds and thinking abilities, as opposed to a collective effort to uncover the truths of the universe.

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