Plutarch's Table

Philosophy and its Relevance | October 18, 2010

Among the opinions about philosophy (and the humanities in general) that has surfaced in the debate about funding for education is one that holds that philosophy is superfluous, the hobby of a handful of eccentrics or geeks that has nothing to do with real life.  The logic behind cutting so many departments in the humanities seems to be that these subjects are not able to sustain themselves economically, but what I am interested in is a slightly different argument that says that the humanities do not really contribute in any essential way to the full development of the human person, or society as a whole.  In my own experience with the various reactions I get when I say that I do philosophy, this seems to be a common view.  Along with the standard “I took a philosophy course once and had no idea what was going on” response, the more ‘positive’ (I am doing WILD finger-quoting here) reaction generally comes from people who took a course or two and loved it, but then went on to do serious things with their education.  This kind of attitude prevailing out there in the world outside of the academy must surely have led to a current horde of governmental and university administrative powers thinking very little of taking the axe to so many humanities departments and promising more of the same to come.  And yet I can’t help thinking that, although there are significant cultural forces to work against, when a student walks out of a philosophy class with either of these attitudes towards the subject, it is the instructor who has failed.  We may lament the fact that philosophy departments now have to try to justify their existence, and it will be in my opinion irreversibly damaging to everyone if we stop funding them, but if it means that philosophy professors are now asked to care about their general relevance, I can’t see it as all bad.

This summer I read Anna Karenina again after many years.  I had forgotten about the final chapter, where Levin has his epiphany about religion and philosophy.  It is a remarkable chapter, which comes from what I think is a healthy intuition about a certain kind of scientifically minded philosophy. Throughout the novel, Levin has been tortured by his atheism, by the absence of a monotheistic God as the source and end of all, has been driven nearly to suicide because such an absence seems to strip his life of all possible meaning or value.  As an enlightened philosopher he cannot in good conscience believe in this so unscientific notion of God, cannot be satisfied by the easy way that religion explains and justifies the world as it is, but as a deep thinking man he cannot let these questions rest.  His despair is the discovery that atheism has nothing at all to say in answer to our questions about life.

The quiet resolution of this intensely dramatic novel comes when Levin notices that those who believe do not do so philosophically, that the faith that so comforts them does not come in the form of a proposition that they hold about the state of things.  The faith of the uneducated peasants he so admires is not any kind of answer to a philosophical question, in other words, but is something more like an innate (so Levin calls it) knowledge of the good that is only manifest in practice.  In other words, they know how to live in the right way, without the help of philosophy.  Levin’s resurrection from the nihilism of his scientific view of the universe comes not through some new revelation but through the realization that he has in fact known the good all along and has been living for this good and it alone.  It was the misleading questions put by philosophy, questions that led him to look for a clear and rational way to conceptualize what could in truth only be lived, that tortured him.

Levin’s own crisis describes a more extreme form of the view that philosophy is superfluous, that holds that in superimposing its formal questions on our lived existence, philosophy is in fact distorting and harmful.  The way that philosophy has traditionally focused on notions of essence and absolute truth leaves us with a world whose supposedly real nature is accessible only to the most learned philosophers, and for the most part these keepers of the truth speak in a language that the rest of us haven’t learned.  Furthermore, philosophy has been asking the wrong kinds of questions.  The question about what something is often leads us to place ourselves outside of the lived world and our necessarily perspectival ways of experiencing it, inventing notions of things such as we imagine they would appear to a pure and transcendent mind (God or pure reason) that could take it in at a glance.  It is these kinds of approaches to philosophy that leave students thinking of it as either an indecipherable language or a fun set of questions that will entangle us in puzzles about life, but that amount to no more than intellectual exercises that we must put aside in order to live life.

But where did I learn to criticize philosophy so mercilessly?  From Husserl, from Nietzsche, from Levinas, Derrida, Deleuze, etc.  Philosophy is the discipline that constantly asks about its own value and limits.  And if any other discipline is able to be critical of itself in this fundamental way, it is only insofar as it is thinking philosophically.  So if I think that philosophy should in fact try to think more about its own relevance, I also think that philosophy is absolutely necessary to all aspects of education if it is going to be sufficiently progressive.  The thing that worries me most is that the kinds of philosophy that seem to be poised to survive the axe are those that fall in line with the traditional program and the general conservatism in our academic institutions, not the ones that alone can help us ask the important questions about the value and limits of our institutions themselves.  There is a whole world of philosophy that cares about its own relevance, that is relevant, and that should be taught to everyone in the interests of healthier democracies, the flourishing of individuals, and – I would go as far as to say – the future of the planet.  These philosophies have long ago learned to ask better questions, to concern themselves with life as it is lived, and to help us to find more productive and healthy ways to see, think about and experience the world.   But most people outside of the academy, and some people within – even in philosophy departments – don’t know about this.  Whether we like it or not, we can’t expect this to be acknowledged if we don’t teach it.

and check out this blog post on New APPS that makes an excellent case for the value of all the social sciences.




  1. […] that academics ought to be doing a better job of explaining why they matter seems right, and echoes what I have previously said.  Of course many academics are now, at this point of crisis, doing just that (see, for example, […]

    Pingback by Philosophy as Self-Help: Response to Alain de Botton « Plutarch's Table — January 11, 2011 @ 11:04 am

  2. This was an interesting read. But the question remains, what is the relevance of philosophy? If philosophy, to our detriment, traditionally has focused on notions of essence and absolute truth, what should it focus on now? Why do we need it? If the value of philosophy is that it helps other disciplines to be self-critical it is, in effect, reduced to a meta-discipline. I try to find an answer to the question of what value philosophy has in itself.

    If I read you rightly you think that its chief value lies in how it can teach is to ask better questions, which will make us see the world differently and better, which in turn will makes us live more productive and healthy lives. Do you think this is the main argument for philosophy?

    Comment by Eric — February 21, 2014 @ 12:16 pm

    • Thanks for your comments and questions, Eric. To some extent I would agree that philosophy is a meta-discipline, but why ‘reduced to’? It seems rather important to learn to ask questions beyond the boundaries that are set in any given time by particular disciplines, and I think this needs to be a separate teaching in order to be free of the limits of these. Philosophy, too, has its historically grounded limits, but my view is that it is the one discipline whose entire purpose is to unearth and question these – it’s own as well as those of other disciplines. And I am saying, yes, that there really isn’t any ‘pure’ philosophy, if by that we mean a philosophy that isn’t applied to some aspect of human activity and concern, but that isn’t saying much of course.

      I don’t think that the main argument for philosophy is that it can teach us how to live our individual lives more fully or usefully, but I think that in our quest for the good life philosophy is the best tool, in the same way that it is the best tool for ensuring the best ways of doing any discipline. We are always doing philosophy about something, but in my view the philosophical perspective is the one that looks for the limits of every particular way of seeing and doing things, and tries to see what other possibilities there might be. I guess in that I subscribe to Nietzsche’s view that philosophical thinking is about ‘multiplying perspectives’, and this is how I would contrast it with the traditional notions of finding essential and true absolutes.

      Comment by Joanna Polley — February 21, 2014 @ 12:54 pm

  3. Thanks for the quick reply! Yes, you’re right that if it’s partly a meta-discipline it doesn’t have to be reduced to this. It is important as you say to be able to think beyond the boundaries of fixed disciplines and therefore to acknowledge and cultivate philosophy’s transdisciplinary potential. I gathered from your text that you took this to be the main justification for philosophy as a discipline, that it exists first and foremost for other disciplines – this is what I saw as ‘reduced to’. I know that for Deleuze philosophy wasn’t reflection because as he said ‘no one needs philosophy in order to reflect on whatever one wants to reflect on’, in the sense that science and art don’t sit around waiting for philosophy in order to reflect on their own activities. But then again, merely reflecting might not be the same as to ‘unearth and question’ limits. I am not sure, unlike you I haven’t thought about this rigorously. In any case I agree with you that philosophy is best suited for laying bare and questioning the boundaries of a discipline and the presuppositions of a subject. Clearly there is a value in this. I am also sympathetic to the idea of perspectivism.

    Comment by Eric — February 25, 2014 @ 3:05 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

About author

My name is Joanna Polley. I am a writer and a philosopher experimenting with ways of practicing and teaching philosophy outside of the university environment. I completed my PhD at the University of Toronto and have taught for several years in the departments of philosophy and literary studies, and am currently exploring ways to bring philosophy out of the ivory tower and into the wider public sphere. My specific research interests have been in the history of philosophy, philosophy of language and culture and the philosophy of literature, but I am interested in any philosophy that helps illuminate contemporary problems and deepens our experience of being alive. You can also visit me at for information about my philosophical therapy services.







%d bloggers like this: