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Rob Gressis

The student seems to think you don't really have an answer unless there is near-universal agreement. This seems to be lots of people's view as well. I don't quite get it. Yes, if there's no majority view, then your confidence in your answer may justifiably wane, but it doesn't follow from that that none of the answers is correct.

I think, perhaps, that one of the things philosophy can teach you is how to live with uncertainty. It can teach you that, though I'm not sure it does. Perhaps more philosophers ought to figure out: what should your attitude be to your own beliefs if you're not very sure of them?

Marcus Arvan

Rob: good points! I forgot to mention that I did include something like your latter point in my boilerplate answer -- namely, that philosophy done well can be beneficial precisely insofar as it can make one *less* certain of the philosophical defensibility of answers to philosophical questions, thereby encouraging one to appreciate and grapple with epistemic uncertainty, and perhaps engender greater epistemic humility on contested issues (this was something like Socrates' point in the Apology, right?;) Anyway, I wholeheartedly agree that this can be one of the most important things one can gain from doing philosophy.

Elisa Freschi

I would have answered something like: "We need to study philosophy in order to understand that there are no easy answers". Look at economics, medicine, or even physics (not to speak of history, literature, the arts…): one can say that something is plausible or that ---given these effects--- we can plausibly deduce a certain cause, but this nothing like a solid, concluding answer. The idea that the latter is the only sort of answers one should be satisfied with is just a fairy tale told by some supporters of positivist naturalism (*not* by scientists, who are usually more aware of the uncertainties they are dealing with).


I have a different answer to "that question" (and it's also boilerplate). I tell them that it's impossible for an intelligent person to avoid having "a philosophy" in the broad sense -- some system of beliefs about the most basic or ultimate matters, at least to the extent that those impinge on important choices in life. Since your philosophy is obviously important, at least to that extent, you should want a good one rather than a bad one. For most of us, studying philosophy will significantly improve the philosophy with which we begin. So the choice is not between "doing philosophy" and "not doing philosophy", but only between doing philosophy consciously, reflectively, and well (or better) and doing it unconsciously, unreflectively, and badly (or not as well).

Most students seem to find this fairly compelling. One problem is that philosophical skepticism is a defensible position. If it's the right position, studying philosophy is no more likely to result in a good or better philosophy than an unreflective acceptance of whatever system of philosophical beliefs you started with.

Justin Kalef

"One problem is that philosophical skepticism is a defensible position. If it's the right position, studying philosophy is no more likely to result in a good or better philosophy than an unreflective acceptance of whatever system of philosophical beliefs you started with."

I'm not so sure about that, Ambrose! I think it often happens that, on the road to realizing one can't sort out which view on an issue is correct, one recognizes that certain views are clearly incorrect. And among those views are many that several non-philosophers implicitly hold, often without realizing that they are views (in the sense of being liable to serious doubt) at all!

So even if one has good reason for believing that philosophical training will ultimately leave one without a clear answer to various questions, there are at least two benefits to undertaking that training: first, one will develop useful skills; and second, one will come to recognize and disabuse oneself of false assumptions one doesn't presently see that one has.

Elisa Freschi

I agree with Ambrose and Justin: philosophy is at least useful to become aware of one's "implicit philosophy", i.e., of the assumptions one is not aware of and which, hence, run the risk to give raise to implicit biases, etc.


Hi Justin,
I'm skeptical enough (on some days) to doubt that my philosophical training has even enabled me to figure out which positions are wrong. By now I've been doing philosophy long enough to have undergone more than a few total reversals -- thinking that p is clearly right and not-p is clearly wrong, then after years of thinking about this and that returning to the question of whether p and finding that not-p has begun to seem quite reasonable... then finding that not-p seems clearly right... then thinking about it some more and coming back to p. I've even changed my mind (more than once) about which methods or kinds of evidence or reasons are legitimate in philosophy, or what kinds of topics or problems or objects of thought there might be... So in the end I'm no more confident in my philosophical ability to figure out what's wrong than my ability to figure out what's right. Though like everyone else I'm full of opinions most of the time, which I (irrationally?) take to be rationally justified...

But philosophy does at least seem to deepen your understanding of all kinds of things. Which for some of us is almost as good as being right or non-wrong. (I also think you can have a deep understanding of x while holding many false beliefs about x, the nature of x, etc.)

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