What is Philosophy?
Bertrand Russell says that philosophy started when a Greek man Thales started walking the streets of Greece 2,500 years ago, and there has been philosophy and philosophers ever since. Perhaps it is useful to think of philosophers as ‘conceptual engineers’. We all have a system of beliefs. We all have things we believe are true or false (or are unsure about) and we can give reasons for these beliefs. Just as mechanical engineers work on what parts and structures we should have in order for us to have good machines, philosophers work on what beliefs and what reasons for these beliefs we should have in order for us to have good belief systems.
Philosophy is a very broad subject. Philosophy discusses the nature of beauty and taste (aesthetics), the nature of knowledge (epistemology), how we should live our lives (ethics), ways of reasoning (logic), the nature of ethics (meta-ethics), the nature of reality (metaphysics), how we should structure a society (political philosophy), philosophy of history, language, law, mathematics, the mind, religion
and science, as well as the history of philosophy.
Why Philosophy Matters
The breadth of Philosophy makes it difficult to think of a subject that does not use it. Almost everyone uses the products of the conceptual engineers’ labour in order to make sure that their own belief systems work and are the best ones available. One way in which philosophers do this is by trying to solve problems that arise from a belief system itself. Just as when there is a problem with a machine itself we need the mechanical engineers to fix it, when there is a problem with a belief system itself we need the conceptual engineers to solve it. So, when we try to solve this type of problem we are stepping to the philosopher’s shoes. This means that Philosophy is far from being useless white noise. We constantly use Philosophy and the products of philosophical labour in order to make sure that we are using the best belief system available.
Stepping into the philosopher’s shoes to evaluate the merits of a particular belief system helps us to think clearly, critically and creatively. Although philosophers are not in the business of agreeing with one another, they are in the business of giving us rational arguments for conclusions. They question everything, including what we think is obvious and what we just passively accept without much thought. They work on finding out what the best reasons are for what someone thinks. The philosophers then leave it up to us to decide if this person has any good or convincing reasons for what they think or if this person should change their mind. The skill of presenting rational arguments to help clarify and to solve challenging problems is very useful. It helps us to understand what we think in the first place, to work out what we should think about a given problem, to clearly explain ourselves to someone else, to understand what someone else thinks, to persuade other people of our opinion, to being persuaded of theirs, to find out why we disagree with other people in the first place and to find common ground.
Philosophy matters because some important problems can only be clarified or solved by stepping into the philosopher’s shoes. We step into the philosopher’s shoes by using rational arguments to find good reasons for what we should think. Not only does this skill help us to clarify and sometimes solve problems, it also helps us to present what we think clearly and convincingly to others.