22 Jul

Philosophy: Why it Matters

Posted By polity_admin_user


By Helen Beebee and Michael Rush

It’s not clear why you’d want to avoid philosophy, but if you do, well, good luck! You’ve probably already been in more than one situation today with a philosophical dimension, or on which a bit of philosophical reflection could have shed light. Philosophy is everywhere! One of the things we wanted to do with our book for the Why it Matters series was to give readers a sense of just how widespread philosophy is, and just how central it is to perfectly familiar situations.

We’ve tried in a small way to demystify philosophy a bit for the wider reading public. We took the view that the best way of doing that was to start with broad questions in which most of us are interested – of how we should understand ourselves and how we ought to behave, how we ought to understand the world we find ourselves in, and how we should think of the public and political debates going on around us – and focus on the philosophical dimensions of those questions.

None of those discussions is uniquely philosophical, each one being informed by conversations in other disciplines, many of which are also represented in this series. But each of them contains uniquely philosophical questions. To take one example from the book, consider the decision to adopt a vegan diet. One’s reasons for this may be based on, for example, environmental arguments, concerns about animal welfare, or worries about the availability of sufficient food to feed the growing population. There are certainly scientific dimensions to those motivations: data about land use, facts about the capacity of different animals to feel pain, statistics about harmful emissions from common farming practices, and so on, but none of those will give you good reason to become a vegan unless you also think that animals feeling pain, ecosystems being damaged, or people going hungry are bad things. Or, to put it another way, that those things are morally wrong. Questions about which things are right and which are wrong, and indeed about what it takes for something to be right or wrong, are philosophical questions. Most of us are interested in at least some decisions of this kind, in doing the right thing, and to the extent that we consider them carefully and systematically, we are thinking philosophically.

Philosophy has a bit of a reputation as the preserve of, let’s be honest, old men with beards. And absent-minded ones at that.

This reputation is unjust, but there are some clear systemic reasons for at least some parts of it. The discipline as it’s practised professionally in university departments in the UK and elsewhere has historically been dominated by middle class white men. All of that persists, though the conversations about how to change those imbalances and the injustices behind them are now being had more often and with a more serious intention to improve things. As an aside, it’s worth noting that articulating why the present situation should be considered unjust is itself a philosophical matter. Philosophy is slowly coming to its own rescue.

The reputation of philosophy as an activity for the absent minded is less fair. Whatever the systemic situation of the institutions of academic philosophy, individual philosophers are and have always been, on average, people who take seriously the business of thinking seriously.

So we hope you enjoy the book, and invite you to think seriously about it in the comments below!

Helen Beebee is Samuel Hall Professor of Philosophy at the University of Manchester. Michael Rush is a teaching fellow in philosophy at the University of Birmingham.

Their new book, Philosophy: Why it Matters , is now available from Polity.