Skip to main content

Use and Uselessness

This isn't the time to make hard and fast decisions; this is a time to make mistakes. Take the wrong train and get stuck somewhere. Fall in love... a lot. Major in philosophy, because there's no way to make a career out of that. Change your mind, and change it again, because nothing's permanent.

Twilight 2

That ^ trite declaration is an instance of a very common idea: philosophy as soft, romantic paddling pool; philosophy as impractical countercultural isolation. Eclipse here allies philosophy with the wilfully whimsical uselessness of teenagers trying to be deep. And this adolescent view actually concords with the mindset behind government budget cuts in the humanities and parental pressure on choice of subject.

Say there are two general sources of anti-philosophical views; the instrumental and the intrinsic.

The instrumental reason is that a philosophy degree doesn't enable one to do anything (in particular, it isn't connected to getting much money*); the intrinsic reason is any of a diverse body of pessimistic common-sense, or scientism, or postmodernism which questions the use, possibility and integrity of the act of philosophising (whether because of the limits of reason and book-learnin', or because philosophy has to be unscientific, or because of the nonexistence or unavailability of transcendental truth). What assumptions does this hyper-practical view rely on?:

  1. Value is identical with mundane (economic) use. The only "use" is "commercial" or "vocational" use.

  2. Skills involved in philosophy cannot be applied practically, are in fact harmful to productivity.

  3. Philosophy is a thing apart from the real world, that is: that philosophy is avoidable. When really ‘The penalty of not doing philosophy is not to transcend it, but to give bad arguments a free pass.’: i.e. Hating, disparaging, and defunding philosophy is itself a philosophical view (worse: a metaphilosophical one).

* Since writing this, I've learned a couple of things that actually do speak against studying philosophy.

1) How deeply messed-up the university system is - particularly the American one, but also in general. Several wise humanities graduates emphasise that the loan situation is unmanageable, and has made enrichment education genuinely ruinous. So the instrumentalist view may be correct, for American arts students who expect an average standard of living afterward. (Or anyone in countries where the credentialism bubble has taken hold without public spending offsets.)

2) Arts degrees conflict with effective altruism: it is very unlikely that you will do the most good you can do the world with an Arts background. So the instrumentalist view is probably correct for students who wish to help the world as much as they can, or anywhere close to that much.


Some specific calumnies about philosophy's intrinsic lack of worth:

  1. Contention: "Philosophy is useless."
    Stock reply: "Define useless."
    Stock reply-reply: [rolls eyes] "I mean, you can't do anything with it. It's a waste of time."
    Stock reply-reply-reply: "What isn't?"

  2. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

  3. PURE KANTIAN OBJECTION: [from Mike Harding's wonderful 'Rambling On':]

    "'You only think you are, you barnpots,' shouted angry farmers from the meadows; 'Shut that row up! You're frightening the chickens, you lot and your bloody philosophy. You can't eat philosophy can you? Where would you be if us farmers went round spouting statements like that, eh? Dead, that's where you'd be! Because there'd be naff all to eat!"

    CREDIBLE?: Well, it's the Categorical Imperative, so it depends on what you think of that.
    REPLY: For myself: not really. It is strange just how survivalist and materialist people temporarily get, when presented with philosophy.

  4. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

  5. LIFELESS OBJECTION: "Philosphy doesnt increase our chance of survival, they generally waste lives and minds that can be use more productively in the feild of agriculture, science, politics, etc, and they add stress to our lives."

    CREDIBLE?: Sort of. "Philosophy bakes no bread but builds no weapons."
    REPLY: 1) Philosophy has done loads even since its separation from natural science. Have you heard of computers? They boost our survival in some endeavours, idjit. 2) Survival is no longer a daily concern for most; we can aim higher than dull pragmatism! (And reach for exciting pragmatism instead!)
    The secret of man's being is not only to live but to have something to live for. - Dostoyevski

  6. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

  7. WELFARE OBJECTION: "Philosophy gets public funding. What do youse do to earn it?"
    CREDIBLE?: Yes, very.
    PARTIAL REPLY: via Julian Lethbridge

  8. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


  9. HAWKING'S OBJECTION: "Philosophy is dead. I'm not looking for the theory of everything anymore. (Which is what philosophy is.)"
    CREDIBLE?: Sounds it at first, but:
    REPLY: Your "model-dependent realism" is just perspectivalism, a well-established metaphysical position.

  10. WOLPERT'S OBJECTION: “It’s clever, but totally irrelevant. Most of it seems to me just nonsense, it’s very hard to know what they’re talking about...philosophy is not successful. It has achieved nothing.”
    Break this in two: the instrumental claim and the historical claim ("It's never found anything out. Every accomplishment attributed to philosophy belongs to another discipline.""). The latter claim relies on sophistry about philosophy's boundaries.

    For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
    In the valley of its own making where executives
    Would never want to tamper
    - Auden

  11. TO LACK OF RESULTS: "Philosophy is not a subject, but an activity." Even granting the dubious caving of any results from natural philosophy: philosophy could be about understanding and creating new approaches, not necessarily adding to the pile of knowledge.

  12. FEYNMAN'S OBJECTION: "My son is taking a course in philosophy, and last night we were looking at something by Spinoza and there was the most childish reasoning! There were all these attributes, and Substances, and all this meaningless chewing around, and we started to laugh. Now how could we do that? Here's this great Dutch philosopher, and we're laughing at him. It's because there's no excuse for it! In the same period there was Newton, there was Harvey studying the circulation of the blood, there were people with methods of analysis by which progress was being made! You can take every one of Spinoza's propositions, and take the contrary propositions, and look at the world and you can't tell which is right."

    CREDIBLE?: Wow, where to start?
    REPLY: Yes; things are underdetermined; well done Richard. (You might want to look at physics.) Spinoza's work is still entirely relevant to inquiry of the world because it is conceptual. And his reasoning is flawed in about two places over 1000 pages.

  13. SMOKE, FIRE OBJECTION: "I don't see any of these other disciplines having to justify their existence."

    REPLY: Persecution is always justified, isn't it?

  14. MARX'S OBJECTION: "Philosophers are just trying to do science, but badly."
    CREDIBLE?: Potentially.
    REPLY: Mary Midgley’s book Evolution as a Religion stresses just the opposite - scientists often stray outside the boundaries of science, and don’t realise that, not only are they doing philosophy, but they are doing it badly and making naive mistakes.

  15. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


  16. POSITIVISM: Philosophical conclusions are either: a) inconclusive, b) paradoxical or c) analytic.

  17. GREEK RHETORICIAN OBJECTION: "What vexes us is not things, but the conscious apprehension of things."
    CREDIBLE?: Not really. Accuses philosophy of creating its own problems. Quietist.
    REPLY: Things don't go away even if you do close your eyes.

  18. SCARED BY GLOBAL SCEPTICISM: "Philosophy's strength lies in its rejection of unfounded assumptions - it actually starts from the beginning of things. But given that, after first principles, we must start making assumptions about the exterior world to say anything, is studying philosophy in modern times an abject waste of time?"
    CREDIBLE?: Highly.

  19. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

  20. RELATIVISM OBJECTION: "anyone can call themselves a philosopher and announce any claim as a philosophical truth, and no one can say that the author is not a philosopher nor the claim is not a philosophical truth; which means philosophy is useless."

    CREDIBLE?: No. Timothy Williamson goes into the many factors that serve to discipline philosophical work. If these are all absent, anyone who knows what they're on about will not regard it as good philosophy:
    Discipline from semantics is only one kind of philosophical discipline. It is insufficient by itself for the conduct of a philosophical inquiry, and may sometimes fail to be useful, when the semantic forms of the relevant linguistic constructions are simple and obvious. But when philosophy is not disciplined by semantics, it must be disciplined by something else: syntax, logic, common sense, imaginary examples, the findings of other disciplines (mathematics, physics, biology, psychology, history...) or the aesthetic evaluation of theories (elegance, simplicity...).

    Indeed, philosophy subject to only one of those disciplines is liable to become severely distorted: several are needed simultaneously. To be “disciplined” by X here is not simply to pay lip-service to X; it is to make a systematic conscious effort to conform to the deliverances of X, where such conformity is at least somewhat easier to recognize than is the answer to the original philosophical question. Of course, each form of philosophical discipline is itself contested by some philosophers. But that is no reason to produce work that is not properly disciplined by anything.

  21. IVORY TOWER OBJECTION: "Philosophy doesn't deal with the real world."
    REPLY #1 makes a virtue of this. "Philosophy is the "step back" from actuality into possibility." - Zizek
    REPLY #2: Yes it does. Indeed, its object is more "real" (in the sense of ultimate truth over pragmatism) and more "natural" (in the sense of being taken as experienced) than science.

  22. 10-SECOND MARXIST OBJECTION: "Philosophy is so bourgeois, y'know?"
    CREDIBLE?: Not without lots of backup concepts and a sustained Marxian critique.
    REPLY: "The term bourgeois is bourgeois."

  23. SPRACHSPIEL OBJECTION: "It's just words, you're just playing wanky games with words."
    CREDIBLE?: Yes.
    REPLY #1: If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.

    Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect
    - Confucius

    REPLY #2: Well, according to one idea, that might be all anyone ever does. If it is a game, then very well; it is the largest and most complex game we have, and I'm very happy to play.

  24. SMITHS OBJECTION: "What difference does it make?"
    CREDIBLE: About as much as all nihilism.

    Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
    Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
    Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine -
    Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
    The tender-person'd Lamia melt into a shade.

    - Keats

    REPLY: Well, go and fuck a snake if you like, if this is all the thanks I get.

  26. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

  27. 50,000 FALL FANS OBJECTION: Most intelligent people in the world don't bother with philosophy.
    REPLY: Do they not, indeed? Your definition of philosophy is narrow, then; "intelligent" implies rational speculation of some kind or other.

  28. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

  29. HIPPIES OBJECTION: "totally open to stoners, egocentrics and those that love the sound of their own voice, who will finish the course even more confused at what they want to do in life and probably end up working at a convenience store."

    HIPPIES OBJECTION #2: "Hitherto the people attracted to philosophy have been mostly those who loved the big generalizations, which were all wrong, so that few people with exact minds have taken up the subject."
    - Bertrand Russell to Ottoline


From the top:
A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that's unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push it.
- Wittgenstein

Does philosophy have ‘value’? People who like it pursue it. Those who don’t, don’t. That is the end of it."


  1. I have thought every single one of those things (incl. replies, and reply-replies) at some point, and I'm still doing this goddamn degree...

    It's like breathing. I can't help myself.


    >>>Take up a fight with the use of "degree" if you want, especially as I'm using it in place of "Philosophy". I expect this from you.<<<

  2. Really? (5) After a sustained project of foundational micro-physics research, you concluded that a unification of the existing total-science's laws was unlikely to ever arise, and instead opted for a quasi-pragmatic pseudorealism?

    You might've said.

  3. What can I say? Fingers in both pies.

  4. In my experience, most people voice their dislike of philosophy in non-intellectual ways. Often: "They're a bunch of pretentious wankers!".

    I'm going up to Aberdeen today, I'm gonna work on that site on the bus.

    I've uploaded my development repository - it's very messy atm! The best way to try it out would be to install Linus' wonderful git

    Then you can download it by typing in:

    git clone

    If I change the code, and you want to update it then type

    git pull master


Post a Comment