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What’s the purpose of Philosophy?

When I was 18 years of age, I left my home in an ex-mining town, and went to university. This in and of itself was nothing unusual, especially given that my parents are both graduates, and my father has a postgraduate degree.

What was unusual was that, having been to, let’s say, not the best school, I felt that this would be a good use of the next three years of my life. After all, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do afterwards.

Even more unusual, especially given the patriarchal culture of the north east of England at the time, was that my father fully supported me in this. Even now, he says it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Perhaps it was the influence of my mother, a graduate in Theology, but I’ve always been interested in life’s big questions. We’re here on Earth for too short a time not to wonder about everything and everyone around us.

Still, some people look at my CV and wonder how my academic history has led to my job history. They wonder about the value and purpose of Philosophy. What’s it for, they ask?

To ask what philosophy is for is to ask, implicitly or otherwise, about its value. The anxious parents asking what their child could ‘do’ with a philosophy degree are really asking what value that degree will bring to their child’s life and career. But as soon as you ask about value, you’re only one or two well-placed questions away from falling into philosophical inquiry. If philosophy is useless or a waste of time, what things are useful, or a good use of time? What makes those things preferable to philosophy? What measure of value are we using to compare these things? Are there other types of value? Which is the right one, and why? Don’t look now, but we’re doing philosophy.

Patrick Stokes, ‘What’s philosophy for?’, New Philosopher #29

The latest issue of New Philosopher, a magazine to which I subscribe and eagerly anticipate every quarter, focuses on ‘the purpose of life’. For me, philosophy, or at least a philosophical approach to life, helps me figure out that purpose.

One common, incomplete definition of philosophy is that it deals with certain types of problems that other disciplines generate but do not solve themselves. Mathematicians or doctors might run into questions like ‘Do numbers exist independently of human thought?’ or ‘Do people have a moral right to refuse medical treatment?’, but these are not, strictly speaking, mathematical or medical science questions. They’re problems for philosophers of mathematics and medical ethicists, respectively.

Patrick Stokes, ‘What’s philosophy for?’, New Philosopher #29

I’d agree with my father in saying that my Philosophy degree was a great decision. It comes with lots of upsides, including a resistance to the hedonic treadmill, and clarity of thought.

There are downsides, though. The main one is that you can’t just switch all of this off. The questions and analysis keep on coming no matter where you are or what situation you’re in. That’s more useful in my professional than my personal life, I’d say.

But for anyone thinking about studying Philosophy, in any form, I’d strongly endorse the idea. Anything which gets us question why we do the things we do is alright by me.

Where to start? I’d point you to the work.of Alain de Botton, and in particular The School of Life. Many of their books are excellent. It’s far too easy to get stuck in the ‘history of ideas’ approach to Philosophy, which, while interesting, isn’t always immediately applicable to your own life.


This post is Day 41 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

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