How relevant is Philosophy?

On the surface, philosophy is irrelevant and boring, it holds no real meaning. A person can ponder if there is a god, or if humans have free will, but what does it matter? Say a person discovers he has free will, well then good for him. He still goes to work every morning, eats at the same restaurants, and watches the same shows but only now he knows it’s all his own will to do so.

This can be applied to other philosophical questions. Everyone has heard the Marx quote “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” But very few have done this. It also seems very few have desired to do this. In many ways it seems like philosophy is just back and forth between philosophers and isn’t relevant for the vast majority of people at all.

Quotations from the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Credit goes to Buzzquotes.com
Quotations from the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Credit goes to Buzzquotes.com

Philosophers have often told people the way they’re supposed to live their lives. This can be useful to people in many ways. For instance Epicurus tells us what it is that makes us happy. This is an example of a useful form of philosophy. Epicurus has broken his wisdom down into a few simple methods for people to live a happier life. Although most of his writing was lost, the bulk of his writing was on this subject. But then you have philosophers that deal with things like metaphysics or interpretations of history. Things that really only matter to other philosophers. To anyone else it looks like an intellectual pissing contest.

Philosophy does have some relevance in the fact that it helps us understand ourselves better, which is one of the best things you can do for a person. Although many of the things philosophers fuss over seem important, it’s on a more superficial level than you would think. My best advice would be to find a philosopher or a branch of philosophy that holds some meaning to you. There really is something for everyone; themes that deal with love, happiness, sorrow, government, nature, feminism, death, and life. You don’t have to suddenly devote your life to this or read every book you can about it, just a single book can open your eyes and allow you to look at the world in a different way. After that you can start developing ideas for yourself.

So back to the example of the man going to work and shuffling through life. The knowledge of free will might not make a difference to him, but theories on what makes a good relationship might, or lessons on how to find meaningful work. The things that could help him to improve his condition is what has meaning.

So what stops people from diving into philosophy? There is a portion of it that has relevance to the normal person so why not? Well I think it’s the same reasons that people don’t read books in general: 1) Don’t have the time 2) Don’t know where to start 3) It’s too daunting. These are all valid reasons actually.

A person can say they don’t have time to read, but what they really mean is they’d rather be doing something else. That’s a fair thing to say. If you would rather be watching T.V. or browsing Youtube then go right ahead if you truly enjoy it, but I implore just ten minutes a day. Ten minutes a day devoted to reading without the distraction of texting or noise from the T.V. It can even be before bed so you’ll fall asleep easier. It’s a little change such as this that can improve your life.

Not knowing where to begin is justified in the fact that most people don’t know where to start either. The first thing you can do is ask yourself “What do I want to understand better?” and go from there. For instance say a person picked the subject of happiness. All you have to do is google “Philosophers that deal with happiness” and the first result is a wikipedia page with a full list of names and summaries of their beliefs. It’s as simple as that. Anything that has meaning to you can be explored.

The actual text itself being too complicated is another issue. Even if you do find a philosopher you’re interested it doesn’t do much good if you can’t understand their writing. This is where it begins to seem more like a chore than a beneficial experience. It seems ridiculous to have to start from the beginning in the history of philosophy and read onward just to understand a single person. You can find a way around this with a few internet study guides and a dictionary. There are tons of resources on the internet ready to help you understand ideas and terminology. Off the top of my head there is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the School of Life. School of life doesn’t go into much detail and often has inaccuracies but it’s a good place to start and understand ideas. And for the meaning of specific terminology another quick google search is the remedy.

So as always it’s best to know yourself and know what you want. A good majority of philosophy is irrelevant but that doesn’t discredit the whole profession. Philosophy shouldn’t be for the uptight college professors or the snobby people that read it to say they have. It should be aimed for all people because that’s who it will benefit.

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33 thoughts on “How relevant is Philosophy?

  1. Nietzsche and Sartre are fascinating thinkers. Marx was correct, for each of us has our own perspective on life, thus, a multitude of opinions have risen as a result. What is useful though, is how one can gain a better knowledge of oneself. That, I believe is the fuel in which personal freedom and success can be achieved.

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  2. You make good points. If people are going to read philosophy, then they should choose things relevant to their lives and interests. And you are also right that most of what passes for philosophy is junk.

    Sadly, the junk convinced many people that philosophy has nothing to offer them. When I was a writer for a computer magazine, the editor usually asked us to interview prospective new hires. I always asked them if they liked solving puzzles. That’s essential to enjoy technology, and also to enjoy philosophy: both involve “figuring things out.” If you like figuring things out, then you can enjoy philosophy even if it has no obvious connection to your life. And if there’s a connection, you enjoy it even more.

    The junk is usually very badly written, but some great philosophers write well and deal with real issues.

    Brand Blanshard was one of the clearest writers, as were Bertrand Russell and Mortimer J. Adler, though the three of them didn’t agree about much. Blanshard’s “The Uses of a Liberal Education” is the best book about what you can get from college. Adler’s “The Time of Our Lives” is an accessible update of Aristotelian ethics. Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy” is like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” in that it’s immensely informative and entertaining, but is occasionally inaccurate. John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” is well written and popular among libertarians, though many people suspect it was actually written by his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill. I’m also a pretty big fan of Marcus Aurelius, but you need to get a good translation of his “Meditations.” With the older writers, a lot of the translations are awful.

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    • I’ve always been interested in philosophy, but sadly I don’t have the same knack for technology. I’ve also had a lot of interest in “Meditations” lately but don’t have much of a background in translations. Which one would you recommend for the best reading?

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      • I don’t have a problem with any of the Aurelius translations. Some people like the Hays translation because it’s more direct and concise. Other people like the Hicks translation because it’s more like how we talk in 21st-century America. My own copy is the Long translation, which I think is fine; it’s older, but my copy of the book was published in 1937 and I’m not sure that Hays or Hicks had been born yet. 🙂

        It might be more important with other ancient works. A lot of people find the Jowett translations of Plato difficult, and the Cornford translation of Plato’s “Republic” is considered one of the most accessible. Jowett usually seems fine to me, but I’m not the best judge of such things because I already know what the books say.

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  3. I really loved your take on this. Very inspiring. I had to take a few classes in college so i always used to look at philosophy like it was a chore.

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  4. I find Bertrand Russell to be a good philosopher, witty and still pretty relevant in some of his works. I first came by Plato when I was 18 because I thought I should read him as everybody knows his name. These days they are more of a curiosity but I find it interesting to know the history of our races thought progression. You’re right about it seeming daunting, some of the writers are pretty impenetrable which would ruin a keen novices excitement for the subject.

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  5. You would really, really enjoy the book Plato at the Gooleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. I was not even a Plato fan before I read it and I was literally moved to both laughter and tears. If Plato is already one of your favorites, I can’t imagine the effect it will have on you. Really, you must read it.

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  6. I agree with you, WFTM. Philosophy empowers the mind first by helping us describe and categorize our experience so that we can understand it. It is only from a place of clear perception (a la Buddhism) that we can change ourselves, thus our experience, and finally the world. All of science and engineering has that practice as its root.

    So to elaborate regarding your advice: just to read each day the clear thinking of an author that had no goal but to benefit humanity – no manipulation for personal or commercial benefit – it may seem boring and impractical, but you’re pouring a little bit of the best of humanity into your mind. As for the comment by Marx: it has a polemical cant, don’t you think?

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    • It truly is emulating the best of humanity. As for the comment by Marx, it may be cant, but Marx did definitely do a lot to change the world, whether you agree or not with the politics or not. It was his willingness to action that I admire.

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      • If you haven’t read “The Grand Pursuit”, I’d highly recommend it. One of the critical aspects of relevance is actually getting out and seeing how things get done. Marx apparently was something of an armchair theorist. The problems that he decried were real enough (and date back to Malthus), but his prescription for change (violent revolution) was derived from a concept of class struggle that failed to capture the nuances of economic and social development.

        The general point is: it is far easier to create change by breaking something than it is to figure out how to fix it. Marx tends to the former end of the spectrum, and so has served largely as a fig-leaf for tyranny. I don’t see that he brings us the “best” of humanity.

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      • Well written – When you go hungry, all the wishful thinking in the world becomes irrelevant… I would argue Marx, the essence of his ideas are still at play…

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  7. Or perhaps, don’t obsess with absorbing the thoughts of others and take time for some self-reflection, to tap into your very own pure, innate, untainted essence and allow clarity of mind to provide the answers you’re seeking. 😉

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  8. Reblogged this on Daily Observation and commented:
    ‘You don’t have to suddenly devote your life to this or read every book you can about it, just a single book can open your eyes and allow you to look at the world in a different way. After that you can start developing ideas for yourself.’

    Precisely & thanks… takes a weight off our shoulders @}}-

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Enjoyed the post. To me philosophy is important because it deals with the roots of thoughts. There’s always a history to any tenet held by a society. Where does it come from and how has the thought evolve over time–these questions have always fascinated me. It also is an exercise to evaluate whether certain thoughts are compatible with each other or not.

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  10. Mmmm! I wish I wasn’t so tired so I can given a more thoughtful response.
    I like that philosophy is one of the few subjects that questions its own existence and purpose. My first formal introduction to philosophy was an environmental ethics class. It was ideal for me because I had a background in conservation biology. To me, philosophy overlaps with every single possible subject out there! It’s funny it’s seen as separate. It seems like people from all wakes of life could benefit in their chosen field with more reflective thinking. I like your writing style a lot. It flows so beautifully.

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  11. If you truly understood philosophy, you would see that everything mankind does is just applied philosophy of one type or another. Engineering is based on science and logic, which are both based on philosophy. Math is just applied logic, which again is based on philosophy. Capitalism, socialism, communism, fascism — all applied philosophy. Libertarian, conservative, liberal, radical, moderate, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Muslim — all applied philosophy. To say that philosophy is irrelevant just shows that you were never taught it properly, as it underlies and explains the connections between everything.

    Of course, as it was one of my two majors in college, perhaps I am biased. But since I took it as one course in a freshman honors program and immediately got hooked on how it answered all those big questions that were asked by religion and culture but that they were incapable of answering, I don’t think so.

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  12. Knowledge of a Free will should vastly alter a persons worldview and thus, his lifestyle… And who is to say that Joe Smo has to get up and go to work the next day? Free will says he can go jungle jump off a mammoth cliff. And philosophy should be of interest to anyone in the science field as well. What happens when contemplated theories are put to the test? So really, there is a small remnent present in every science project properly utilizing the scientific method…

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  13. Hey, “writeforthemasses,” just fell into your blog, and I find it refreshing. Most people who speak of philosophy do so to hear themselves speak and to regurgitate the mimes of other philosophers, but I like that you’re getting originality out of this age-old art form. Nice stuff, if you don’t mind my saying.

    Taylor

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  14. I appreciated the reading of my blog by “writeforthemasses” (“Heirs and graces”). As far as his article on philosophy is concerned, let me say how relevant is the explanation of and discussion on any of the topics with which philosophy is involved – and is that not all of life? However, in our contemporary world it is also of major importance to enhance the discussion of moral philosophy, that is ethics! Of course, there is also the interesting, indeed very important, discussion of what comes first, ethics or philosophy? Thought is one thing, action is then a consequence of thought – but why do we act in the first place, from whence comes the stimulus to think about what action to take, if not from our ethics?

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  15. Good article.
    I would add that philosophy means the love of knowledge and the seeking thereof.
    Philosophy is the very base of all the sciences. Physics has come to a point now at which it has plateau’d and is beginning to merge with the very philosophy it was based on. It is coming full circle.
    Even math’s treatment of infinity is philosophical.
    Everybody has their own philosophy, even if they aren’t very critical about it; in much the same way as everybody reads (captions, ingredients, instructions, ads, et al.) but most dislike picking up a book.
    What this says about people is a philosophical question indeed.
    It is difficult to understand logic if one doesn’t understand the basics of philosophy – rhetoric and sophistry make the ignorant in this field easy marks, and so it is not in most people’s best interest if we understand everything on the basis of right reason. People who do understand logic tend to specialize in their own fields of study, and the rest of us often look to them for advice. In the same way that one won’t learn to be a mechanic in order to service their car, most tend to have their opinions by proxy. Some basic philosophy would help liberate people more than they probably know.
    n.b. Marx plagiarised much of his writing, too.

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  16. It may have been fruitful to show that the conclusion that philosophy is useless is itself founded on assumptions about man and the world which are philosophical in nature. The relevance of philosophy lies precisely in the fact that we cannot escape it. Even science cannot escape it.

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  17. Philosophy 101 by Paul Kleinman is a book I’d recommend if you don’t know where to start but are interested in philosophy. Personally, I got interested in philosophy because of discussions on Sartre and Heidegger in college (architecture) and went on to explore more thinkers and concepts by reading this book and watching YouTube videos on each philosopher. Some amazing channels are School of Life as you mentioned, Wireless Philosophy, BBC Radio 4 and Wisecrack. Philosophy doesn’t have to be boring. The videos use humour and relate it to everyday life and actually make sense of theories that in written text might be incomprehensible. If you like my recommendations let me know!

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    • Philosophy deals with fundamental questions that usually have no cash value: “What exists? How do we know? Therefore, how should we live?” If those questions hold no interest for you, then neither will philosophy.

      However, the act of living — including the decisions that involves — is based on your answers to those questions. If you don’t think about philosophy explicitly, then you will follow an implicit philosophy that you’ve absorbed unconsciously from the media, your peer group, and other influences. It might serve you well, or it might not. If you ignore philosophical questions, then you’ll get pot luck as the answers.

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