Philosophy isn't useful

19 Mar 2015

If philosophy is useful, then it would be widely taught in schools.
Philosophy is not widely taught in schools.
Therefore, philosophy isn’t useful.

That was an argument. Argument is the bread and butter of philosophy and philosophers love to argue 1. We argue because argument has epistemic value. Argument help us find the truth - if we know the truth of some statements, then a valid argument based on those statements allows us to infer the truth of other statements - our conclusions. And we can do this with confidence because the rules of inference described in different logics, have been proven to be sound - the rules are correct - and complete - no further rules are needed.

This is terribly useful because it gives us solid reasons for holding beliefs. Should I believe in gravity, the Tooth Fairy, arithmetic, anthropogenic climate change? Argument - as a method of reasoning - tells us which beliefs we might be justified in holding, and in which circumstances we are justified in holding them. Argument is so useful, and so essential to philosophy that philosophy without argument is, well … not philosophy.

But philosophy is much more than argument. It’s a love of wisdom, an intellectual curiosity, a body of knowledge documenting human attempts to answer the big questions of life - what can we know, what exists, and how should be act? In short, it is the embodiment of intellectual virtue. And it’s not like philosophy foreign to us, like some mythical creature of the ivory tower. We are all born philosophers - for proof, one just needs to observe a five year old asking why - where does the rain come from? How does Santa know which houses to visit? If a fly doesn’t have wings is it still a fly?

Yet there is a problem with all this. If philosophy is so useful, then why isn’t it a key feature of our education system? If philosophy is the embodiment of intellectual virtue, then why don’t we teach it in more than a handful of schools and universities. We praise reason and we laud rigour, but we rarely teach it. How can this be? It’s not like philosophers haven’t been trying to get philosophy into schools. Every country with universities teaching philosophy has some kind of organisation promoting it’s conclusion into school curricula.

If philosophy is so useful, if argument is so effective, then why isn’t philosophy, or even logic or critical reasoning, taught widely in school?

  1. Careful now. When most people say argument they mean debate or confrontation but when philosophers say argument, they mean a logically connected series of statements that advance a particular claim.