Utility of academic philosophy

The philosopher of science and prominent blogger Massimo Pigliucci suggests that there are at least three practical uses to which academic philosophy can be put: ethics, logic, and philosophical counseling. Of the last, he writes, ‘In a sense, philosophical counseling is a return to what Socrates was doing back in the streets of Athens two and a half millennia ago.’

Ask a Philosopher

Joyce asked:

Give three examples of how academic philosophy is useful in the contemporary world.

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

Let me begin by questioning the question (just like any good philosopher would do!). Why should academic philosophy be useful, and what do we mean by useful anyway? It is curious that the question of utility comes up in the context of philosophy, but not of most other — arguably equally ‘useless’ — academic fields. What is the usefulness to contemporary society of, say, studying literature, or music? Indeed, even much of the research in mathematics and science (those paragons of utility) conducted within the academy, is useless, in the sense of having no practical application. Yes, scientists’ excuse for getting multi-million dollar grants is that their research may, one day, as yet yield unforeseeable pragmatic payoffs. But as a matter of historical record, it doesn’t, and at any rate…

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The Fall of the Warrior and the the Idea of the Noble

In The Good Life and Sustaining Life: An Inquiry into Our Great Vexation (in progress), I write, 

I have included the figure of the warrior in the schema but not without some reservations since I am not at all sure whether the heroic life is possible in modernity. Many societies have held the aristocrat-warrior in special high regard. Epic heroes such as Alexander the Great and Tamburlaine in Christopher Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine both strove to achieve glory and immortality. And even after the heroic societies were supplanted by more humane civilizations (such as in 5th and 4th C. Athens), the warrior figure was still highly honored. In Plato’s Republic, for example, the guardian figure, who embodies thumos (passion, spiritedness), protects the city-state from its enemies. The guardian stands beside the philosopher-king who rules and the craftsmen, fishermen, and farm workers, all of whom labor to meet everyone’s needs. During the medieval period, the reigning motto was that there were those who pray, those who fought, and those who worked. The clergymen, the arisocrat-knights, and the laborers were all necessary even if the men of the cloth were regarded as the most venerable.

What the warrior shows us is how to be so courageous that death fails to become what is ultimate for us. He is like a metaphysician of life, revealing by example that there is more in or about human life than mere death. 

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Somehow or other, the concept of the noble has been transposed into our time, yet it now occupies much different milieu. There is still, whether said or unsaid, ideas about the noble thing to do with one’s life. What has been taken, in the modern age, as the noble thing to do? What orientation, I mean? I take it the twin aims of doing what is noble have been (a) the eradication of inequality (the question of injustice) and (b) the eradication of unwanted death (the question of mortality). 

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The Good Life and Sustaining Life: Vague Words and Well-specified Questions

Certain philosophical terms have been slowly creeping into business culture and everyday speech, terms such as ‘meaning,’ ‘value,’ ‘direction,’ and ‘purpose,’ without its being possible, with any clarity or analytical rigor, to pin down their meanings. Calling a project ‘meaningful’ implies that one is drawing a line between projects that are not meaningful and those that are. Suggesting that one’s life is headed in the ‘right direction’ may, albeit only obliquely, suggest that there are right or wrong ways in which your life could head and thankfully, in this case, it is going the right way. And though it may sound good to say that one is doing something of ‘value’ with one’s life or that one ‘has a sense of purpose,’ the listener invariably has to crane his neck and work his ears in order to squeeze out any genuine content from these utterances.

Much of this talk, I suggest, suffers from vagueness and nominalism and quickly results in conversation-stopping. The adjective ‘meaningful,’ for instance, is vague in the sense that it is difficult to pin down what it is referring to in any given context. Yet it is as if the one making such a claim were a nominalist, believing that calling something X were enough to make it so. If I say something has a purpose, then the error is to think that, as a matter of fact, it has a purpose. It may or it may not; quite possibly, the claim may be well wide of the mark.

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The Good Life and Sustaining Life: Definitions (Excerpt)

Preliminary Remark

The good life and sustaining life are two separate, albeit connected, concepts. How they are connected, when they are connected properly, is the subject of this philosophical investigation.

Definitions and Distinctions

 1. By ‘the good life,’ I mean that for the sake of which one ultimately lives.

 2. Throughout the course of this guide, I will often distinguish between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ in order to bring out the distinction between various viable conceptions of the good life (the higher) and various mistaken conceptions of the good life (the lower). 

Remark: I will claim that the bourgeois and hedonistic ways of life are chief examples of ‘the lower.’ Plato delightfully refers to hedonists as the ‘lovers of sights and sounds.’

3. By ‘wasting one’s life,’ I mean not living out a viable conception of the good life either (a) because such a form of life is not available to us in the modern world or (b) because such a form of life cannot be defended as a higher form of life. 

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Philosophical Portraiture: Listening Intently and Considering Closely

In Aleksandra’s most recently completed portrait, the subject is in the midst of a philosophical conversation. In the figure on the left, we see a man listening intently. He is either ready to hear another speak or, more likely, is in the middle of hearing someone make a claim. He is listening–but in what manner? Intently, unwaveringly, undistractedly, single-mindedly. ‘Intently’ is meant to capture something of what it is like for him to have these words be ‘his entire world.’

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In the figure on the right (whose head is bowed slightly), we observe him taking this claim in. The claim does not tarry in the air; he does not let it simply pass (or give it a simple pass). It is scrutinized–but, again, how? Closely, with ultimate carefulness. The claim he takes care of, even if the person is not spared this intense examination. As we look on, we note that what is yet unclear is what the statement means or whether it will require modifications, assent, or ultimate rejection. This moment of suspense–a claim suspended, a response suspended–the dramatic element of philosophizing is in evidence.

The artist, I suspect, was also looking intently and considering matters closely as she worked on this portrait. (Well, I know this: I could see her in the other room working day after day.) Hence, the artist exhibits certain virtues while she works, and the work is to be evocative of a life lived according to the beautiful virtues.