Does philosophy matter?

A brief essay on what I think matters about philosophy.

Letter to the editor, The Daily. (Perpetual work in progress – major update forthcoming.)

When I asked my ten-year-old cousin what he thought of the existence of the number zero, he responded bluntly (to my chagrin): “philosophy is stupid, no one agrees and nothing happens.” Although dressed in more docile clothing, this is fundamentally the same objection that I get often from my peers and philosophy faculty from their students (“oh, you study philosophy… why? What’s the point exactly?”).

I admit that it is a question I myself struggle to grapple with.

There are many answers given, and I understand why many don’t find them satisfactory. “Study philosophy to learn the truth” – “I don’t care about your abstract conception of truth, and given how much philosophers argue, I doubt there’s any truth to be found there at all.” “Study philosophy to know yourself” – “I don’t particularly care to know myself any more than I already do.” “Study philosophy to learn the good” – “I can think about and even live the ethical life without entertaining pointless and reactive formalisms.” “Study philosophy to learn critical thinking” – “There are many fields I can study to rigorously exercise my mind, and higher-paying ones at that.” The last-ditch attempt: “Study philosophy because you love wisdom” – “Why should I love wisdom?” – “… why wouldn’t you? It’s natural, isn’t it? Isn’t it?”

I think the problem is that such answers have been formulated as if by car salesmen who, seeing that you do not yet have the object they have to sell, rush to find reasons why you should desire it. And like the disgruntled customer confronted by an obnoxious advertisement, we ignore. Car-salesmen-types unwittingly serve a dual function: in telling you that you should desire an object, they also give you the consciousness that you do not yet have that object. (A basic Freudian observation.) If you decide that your prior objectless life has in fact been pretty good, you might leave the car dealership empty-handed yet more self-sure about your agency (“I know myself, and I said no”) than if you hadn’t gone to the dealership at all. And you surely will say no to any other future car salesmen.

In my view, philosophy is not an object which can be picked up off the shelf, examined for its utility, and placed back when the customer invariably finds shinier objects nearby. (It is, of course, no surprise that philosophy has become this way in the professionalization of academic inquiry, such that philosophy is known as one major out of many.) And to get at what I think matters about philosophy, we need to dilute its rigid boundaries.

The history of philosophy is congealed into every moment of your living. It’s not something which you should want, it’s what you’ve always been doing. There is not a moment of your existence in which you are not in contact with philosophical questions – and, if you pay attention, you will notice that there is not a moment of your existence in which you do not behave as if you had answers to those questions. Let’s take a pertinent example: why are you studying at a university? Maybe you’re an Enlightenment idealist – you believe in the inherent good of knowledge (why?). Maybe you’re a humanist who wants to use the sciences for social good – you believe that there is such a thing as social good (is there?), and moreover that science is a sort of ethically positioned beast (is it?) which you can tame (can you? Why you? How?). Maybe you just like the subject you’re studying and there’s a nice job lined up after you graduate – you believe that you know what you like (do you, really?) and that individuals who can pursue what they enjoy should. Maybe you’re here to have fun – you believe that it’s morally acceptable to have Hedonist parties on Greek Row every week without regard for the homeless several blocks away on the Ave (is it? – maybe it is). Maybe you’re disillusioned and going through the motions to make a living – you believe that your will is fundamentally subjugated under that of the market’s (is it? – maybe it is) and that you in fact can live as a sort of machine (can you?).

We all behave as if we have answers to philosophical questions – questions which are by no means trivial. So does philosophy matter? If you’ve read this letter to the end and thought about the points I’ve raised, then I claim that you’ve acted as if the answer to that question is “yes”.

Philosophy: Who Needs It? Ayn Rand

Delivered at West Point New York, March 6, 1974. I don’t endorse Ayn Rand’s philosophical and political system, and I don’t even think the writing here is always true, but I do think it is clear, effective, and interesting.

Since I am a fiction writer, let us start with a short story.

Suppose that you are an astronaut whose spaceship gets out of control and crashes on an unknown planet. When you regain consciousness and find that you are not hurt badly, the first three questions in or mind would be:

  1. Where am I?
  2. How can I discover it?
  3. What should I do?

You see unfamiliar vegetation outside, and there is air to breathe; the sunlight seems paler than you remember it and colder. You turn to look at the sky, but stop. You are struck by a sudden feeling: it you don’t look, you won’t have to know that you are, perhaps, too far from the earth and no return is possible; so long as you don’t know it, you are free to believe what you wish—and you experience a foggy, pleasant, but somehow guilty, kind of hope.

You turn to your instruments: they may be damaged, you don’t know how seriously. But you stop, struck by a sudden fear: how can you trust these instruments? How can you be sure that they won’t mislead you? How can you know whether they will work in a different world? You turn away from the instruments.

Now you begin to wonder why you have no desire to do anything. It seems so much safer just to wait for something to turn up somehow; it is better, you tell yourself, not to rock the spaceship. Far in the distance, you see some sort of living creatures approaching; you don’t know whether they are human, but they walk on two feet. They, you decide, will tell you what to do.

You are never heard from again.

This is fantasy, you say? You would not act like that and no astronaut ever would? Perhaps not. But this is the way most men live their lives, here, on earth.

Most men spend their days struggling to evade three questions, the answers to which underlie man’s every thought, feeling and action, whether he is consciously aware of it or not:

  1. Where am I?
  2. How do I know it?
  3. What should I do?

By the time they are old enough to understand these questions, men believe that they know the answers.

  • Where am I? Say, in New York City.
  • How do I know it? It’s self-evident.
  • What should I do? Here, they are not too sure - but the usual answer is: whatever everybody does.

The only trouble seems to be that they are not very active, not very confident, not very happy – and they experience, at times, a causeless fear and an undefined guilt, which they cannot explain or get rid of.

They have never discovered the fact that the trouble comes from the three unanswered questions – and that there is only one science that can answer them: philosophy.

Philosophy studies the fundamental nature of existence, of man, and of man’s relationship to existence. As against the special sciences, which deal only with particular aspects, philosophy deals with those aspects of the universe which pertain to everything that exists. In the realm of cognition, the special sciences are the trees, but philosophy is the soil which makes the forest possible.

Philosophy would not tell you, for instance, whether you are in New York City or in Zanzibar (though it would give you the means to find out). But here is what it would tell you: Are you in a universe which is ruled by natural laws and, therefore, is stable, firm, absolute—and knowable? Or are you in an incomprehensible chaos, a realm of inexplicable miracles, an unpredictable, unknowable flux, which your mind is impotent to grasp? Are the things you see around you real—or are they only an illusion? Do they exist independent of any observer—or are they created by the observer? Are they the object or the subject of man’s consciousness? Are they what they are—or can they be changed by a mere act of your consciousness, such as a wish?

The nature of your actions-and of your ambition—will be different, according to which set of answers you come to accept. These answers are the province of metaphysics—the study of existence as such or, in Aristotle’s words, of “being qua being” — the basic branch of philosophy.

No matter what conclusions you reach, you will be confronted by the necessity to answer another, corollary question: How do I know it? Since man is not omniscient or infallible, you have to discover what you can claim as knowledge and how to prove the validity of your conclusions. Does man acquire knowledge by a process of reason—or by sudden revelation from a supernatural power? Is reason a faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses—or is it fed by innate ideas, implanted in man’s mind before he was born? Is reason competent to perceive reality—or does man possess some other cognitive faculty which is superior to reason? Can man achieve certainty—or is he doomed to perpetual doubt?

The extent of your self-confidence – and of your success – will be different, according to which set of answers you accept. These answers are the province of epistemology, the theory of knowledge, which studies man’s means of cognition.

These two branches are the theoretical foundation of philosophy. The third branch—ethics—may be regarded as its technology. Ethics does not apply to everything that exists, only to man, but it applies to every aspect of man’s life: his character, his actions, his values, his relationship to all of existence. Ethics, or morality, defines a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the course of his life.

Just as the astronaut in my story did not know what he should do, because he refused to know where he was and how to discover it, so you cannot know what you should do until you know the nature of the universe you deal with, the nature of your means of cognition—and your own nature. Before you come to ethics, you must answer the questions posed by metaphysics and epistemology: Is man a rational being, able to deal with reality—or is he a helplessly blind misfit, a chip buffeted by the universal flux? Are achievement and enjoyment possible to man on earth—or is he doomed to failure and distaste? Depending on the answers, you can proceed to consider the questions posed by ethics: What is good or evil for man—and why? Should man’s primary concern be a quest for joy—or an escape from suffering? Should man hold self-fulfillment—or self-destruction—as the goal of his life? Should man pursue his values—or should he place the interests of others above his own? Should man seek happiness—or self-sacrifice?

I do not have to point out the different consequences of these two sets of answers. You can see them everywhere—within you and around you.

The answers given by ethics determine how man should treat other men, and this determines the fourth branch of philosophy: politics, which defines the principles of a proper social system. As an example of philosophy’s function, political philosophy will not tell you how mush rationed gas you should be given and on which day of the week—it will tell you whether the government has the right to impose any rationing on anything.

The fifth and last branch of philosophy is esthetics, the study of art, which is based on metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. Art deals with the needs—the refueling—of man’s consciousness.

Now some of you might say, as many people do: “Aw, I never think in such abstract terms—I want to deal with concrete, particular, real-life problems— what do I need philosophy for?”

My answer is: In order to be able to deal with concrete, particular, real-life problems—i.e., in order to be able to live on earth.

You might claim-as most people do—that you have never been influenced by philosophy. I will ask you to check that claim. Have you ever thought or said the following? Don’t be so sure—nobody can be certain of anything. You got that notion from David Hume (and many, many others), even though you might never have heard of him. Or: This may be good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice. You got that from Plato. Or: That was a rotten thing to do, but it’s only human, nobody is perfect in this world. You got that from Augustine. Or: It may be true for you, but it’s not true for me. You got it from William James. Or: I couldn’t help it! Nobody can help anything he does. You got it from Hegel. Or: I can’t prove it, but I feel that it’s true. You got it from Kant. Or: It’s logical, but logic has nothing to do with reality. You got it from Kant. Or: It’s evil, because it’s selfish. You got it from Kant. Have you heard the modern activists say: Act first, think afterward? They got it from John Dewey.

Some people might answer: Sure, I’ve said those things at different times, but I don’t have to believe that stuff all of the time. It may have been true yesterday, but it’s not true today. They got it from Hegel. They might say: Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. They got it from a very little mind, Emerson. They might say: But can’t one compromise and borrow different ideas from different philosophies according to the expediency of the moment? They got it from Richard Nixon – who got it from William James.

Note: Although the specific attribution of ideas to philosophers in this lecture is dubious in my opinion, the general point rings true.

Now ask yourself: if you are not interested in abstract ideas, why do you (and all men) feel compelled to use them? The fact is that abstract ideas are conceptual integrations which subsume an incalculable number of concretes— and that without abstract ideas you would not be able to deal with concrete, particular, real-life problems. You would be in the position of a newborn infant, to whom every object is a unique, unprecedented phenomenon. The difference between his mental state and yours lies in the number of conceptual integrations your mind has performed.

You have no choice about the necessity to integrate your observations, your experiences, your knowledge into abstract ideas, i.e., into principles. Your only choice is whether these principles are true or false, whether they represent your conscious, rational conviction—or a grab-bag of notions snatched at random, whose sources, validity, context and consequences you do not know, notions which, more often than not, you would drop like a hot potato if you knew.

But the principles you accept (consciously or subconsciously) may clash with or contradict one another; they, too, have to be integrated. What integrates them? Philosophy. A philosophic system is an integrated view of existence. As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation— or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified whishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind’s wings should have grown.

You might say, as many people do, that it is not easy always to act on abstract principles. No, it is not easy. But how much harder is it, to have to act on them without knowing what they are?

Your subconscious is like a computer – more complex a computer than men can build—and its main function is the integration of your ideas. Who programs it? Your conscious mind. If you default, if you don’t reach any firm convictions, your subconscious is programmed by chance—and you deliver yourself into the power of ideas you do not know you have accepted. But one way or the other, your computer gives you print-outs, daily and hourly, in the form of emotions—which are lightning-like estimates of the things around you, calculated according to your values. If you programmed your computer by conscious thinking, you know the nature of your values and emotions. If you didn’t, you don’t.

Many people, particularly today, claim that man cannot live by logic alone, that there’s the emotional element of his nature to consider, and that they rely on the guidance of their emotions. Well, so did the astronaut in my story. The joke is on him—and on them: man’s values and emotions are determined by his fundamental view of life. The ultimate programmer of his subconscious is philosophy—the science which, according to the emotionalists, is impotent to affect or penetrate the murky mysteries of their feelings.

The quality of a computer’s output is determined by the quality of its input. If your subconscious is programmed by chance, its output will have a corresponding character. You have probably heard the computer operators’ eloquent term “gigo” – which means: “Garbage in, garbage out.” The same formula applies to the relationship between a man’s thinking and his emotions.

A man who is run by emotions is like a man who is run by a computer whose print-outs he cannot read. He does not know whether its programming is true or false, right or wrong, whether it’s set to lead him to success or destruction, whether it serves his goals or those of some evil, unknowable power. He is blind on two fronts: blind to the world around him and to his own inner world, unable to grasp reality or his own motives, and he is in chronic terror of both. Emotions are not tools of cognition. The men who are not interested in philosophy need it most urgently: they are most helplessly in its power.

The men who are not interested in philosophy absorb its principles from the cultural atmosphere around them – from schools, colleges, books, magazines,newspapers, movies, television, etc. Who sets the tone of a culture? A small handful of men: the philosophers. Others follow their lead, either by conviction or by default. For some two hundred years, under the influence of Immanuel Kant, the dominant trend of philosophy has been directed to a single goal: the destruction of man’s mind, of his confidence in the power of reason. Today, we are seeing the climax of that trend.

When men abandon reason, they find not only that their emotions cannot guide them, but that they can experience no emotions save one: terror. The spread of drug addiction among young people brought up on today’s intellectual fashions, demonstrates the unbearable inner state of men who are deprived of their means of cognition and who seek escape from reality—from the terror of their impotence to deal with existence. Observe these young people’s dread of independence and their frantic desire to “belong,” to attach themselves to some group, clique or gang. Most of them have never heard of philosophy, but they sense that they need some fundamental answers to questions they dare not ask—and they hope that the tribe will tell them how to live. They are ready to be taken over by any witch doctor, guru, or dictator. One of the most dangerous things a man can do is to surrender his moral autonomy to others: like the astronaut in my story, he does not know whether they are human, even though they walk on two feet.

Now you may ask: If philosophy can be that evil, why should one study it? Particularly, why should one study the philosophical theories which are blatantly false, make no sense, and bear no relation to real life?

My answer is: In self-protection—and in defense of truth, justice, freedom, and any value you ever held or may ever hold.

Not all philosophies are evil, though too many of them are, particularly in modern history. On the other hand, at the root of every civilized achievement, such as science, technology, progress, freedom—at the root of every value we enjoy today, including the birth of this country—you will find the achievement of one man, who lived over two thousand years ago: Aristotle.

If you feel nothing but boredom when reading the virtually unintelligible theories of some philosophers, you have my deepest sympathy. But if you brush them aside, saying: “Why should I study that stuff when I know it’s nonsense?”—you are mistaken. It is nonsense, but you don’t know it — not so long as you go on accepting all their conclusions, all the vicious catch phrases generated by those philosophers. And not so long as you are unable to refute them.

That nonsense deals with the most crucial, the life-or-death issues of man’s existence. At the root of every significant philosophic theory, there is a legitimate issue—in the sense that there is an authentic need of man’s consciousness, which some theories struggle to clarify and others struggle to obfuscate, to corrupt, to prevent man from ever discovering. The battle of philosophers is a battle for man’s mind. If you do not understand their theories, you are vulnerable to the worst among them.