Should you study philosophy at some time in your life? Yes, you should. You should ignore detractors like Neil deGrasse Tyson, who are undoubtedly brilliant in their own fields but may never have read a line of philosophy. Here are nine reasons you should study philosophy.
1. To become a better thinker and reasoner. Once you’ve mastered basic principles of logic you will be able to recognize an argument when you see one—not in the sense of disagreement but whether sound reasons are being offered for some claim. You will learn to figure out pretty quickly when someone is trying to sell you a bill of goods. You’ll know what fallacies are and be able to spot one. You’ll see through people’s stated views to their unstated assumptions. You’ll note, finally, when someone doesn’t care what is true at all and is just jerking your chain. You can avoid them.
2. To understand the influential political tendencies of our time, whether of the so-called Right or the so-called Left. You’ll be able to trace them to their origins, where you’ll find major political philosophers such as Leo Strauss (in the case of the so-called Right) or Herbert Marcuse (in the case of the so-called Left)–or perhaps Saul Alinsky, whose well-known tactics can be used by either Right or Left, because they are so effective on unprepared minds not schooled in logical reasoning.
3. To be able to articulate what your values are, and why you believe what you believe. In other words, to begin to put together your soundest arguments on what you care about—scientific, moral, political, or otherwise.
4. To think really well about whether you should believe in a God or Supreme Being, and why—based on the efforts and failures of the great philosophers who have addressed the question.
5. To articulate your worldview: your most basic beliefs about what kind of world this is, including how or whether a God fits into your particular answers, and what is of greatest value in life or most worth pursuing.
6. To gain patience and appreciate the need for attention to details. The great works of philosophy—from Plato down through Kant and Sartre—are difficult but not impossible to understand. By reading with a pen (or highlighter or the electronic equivalent) you’ll master the details of complex reasoning and have a sense of accomplishment: not to mention being better at all of (1) through (5) above. And this is a skill transferable to a lot of other endeavors, obviously.
7. To improve the health of your brain, especially if you are older. The use of your brain to set goals, work out strategies to achieve them, solve problems that come along the way, tackle new tasks (learning a new language or mastering a philosophical topic) is a known guard against Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of late-life mental deterioration. Intellectual challenges are everywhere. Make use of them.
8. To guide us into the future. We live in an incipient global civilization now. Technology is the reason. We all know this. At present, though, we’re still a bit bewildered by it. Some understandably fear a coming ‘new world order.’ But global civilization doesn’t have to be a top-down affair, dominated by a ‘one percent.’ We can build it from the bottom up—by assuming ownership of it, having assumed responsibility for our lives, our families, our educations, our communities, our nations. This is a daunting task. It may put our values to test. On the basis of new evidence and new perspectives, we may want to change some of them. We may have to cease making money the central concern of our lives. Then what? We start to value the people in our lives for who they are, and the experiences we have for what they teach. We’re on a journey. Let’s enjoy it.
9. To appreciate the central fact of the human condition: mortality. Our days are numbered, and the clock is ticking. We don’t know when the sand in our hourglass will run out, but know this: nothing entitles anyone to a given number of days.
Realize this, and you see the need to make each day count. You’ll understand the reason for cherished time spent with elderly parents: they won’t be here forever. You’ll value the moments in your lives, whether alone (giving you time to read or meditate) or with family and friends. Because in the final analysis, these are the things we know for sure we have. You’ll recognize that we have to care for one another—strangers, too (including the homeless man in the street); animals as well; the planet itself (it’s the only one we have).
This is a process—that of gaining wisdom, knowing what we don’t know and valuing the time we have. That was the original, etymological meaning of philosophy: the love of wisdom.