What is Philosophy?

How is a philosopher supposed to answer this question when asked by the non-practitioner?

My brother is in Washington DC this weekend on a business trip, and he is staying at my seminary.  I took him out to dinner last night with a bunch of my philosophy friends.  In good humor, he mocked us.  Being a computer science major, he just doesn’t understand what philosophy is, or why anyone would want to be a philosopher.  My brother’s reaction is common, but why is that so?

Any dictionary entry will give a concise definition of what philosophy is.  Dictionary.com defines ‘philosophy’ as “the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.”  Furthermore, any dictionary entry can give a definition for what other disciplines are.  Therefore, the problem can’t be that people can’t get an understanding of philosophy at that basic level.

I also don’t think people have trouble grasping what philosophy is because they don’t understand what philosophers do all day when they go to work.  If that were the case, then all technical disciplines should be mocked as well.  I know that my dad is an engineer, and I know that engineering is the application of the hard sciences; however, I have no idea what he does all day.  If he tried to explain it to me, I wouldn’t understand him because the discipline is too technical.  But philosophy is the same way.  So I don’t think people can fairly criticize philosophers because they don’t understand what philosophers do all day.

I think most Americans criticize philosophers because they confuse “value” with “usefulness”.  Americans are pragmatic people, and they want results.  The practitioners of the hard sciences–even the ones who are academics like philosophers–are never teased, IMO, because these sciences produce all sorts of cool widgets.  Even if the non-practitioner does not understand what the scientist does all day, he can see that he is doing something valuable because the results are tangible.

Philosophers are deemed worthless by many because their profession does not produce tangible results.  But in defense of philosophy, and following Josef Pieper, the realm of the common good is not reducible to the realm of the common need.  While all of a society’s needs fall under the umbrella of “the common good,” they do not exhaust the common good.  I think most people would agree that love is valuable, but once love is used for pragmatic ends, it is no longer love.  In fact, love often demands that we sacrifice our own good for the sake of others.  Literature, art, music, and many other things do not fall under the realm of the common need, either; and yet, all of these things have value, and none of these things are aimed at making society run more efficiently.

Presumably, the truth has value.  In short, if philosophy seeks the truth, then it is valuable insofar as its final cause is valuable.  If someone argues that philosophy cannot acheive certain results, I would just ask them if they know of a more “scientific” way of answering life’s ultimate questions e.g. why am I here?, what is the meaning of life?, how should I live my life?  Paraphrasing St. Thomas, the smallest bit of knowledge of the highest things is more valuable than much knowledge of lower things.

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