Why Value Philosophy?

By Socrates

I have been reading this article on the value of the humanities: How The Humanities Can Train Entrepreneurs. The article’s author appears to place an instrumental value on the humanities — they are valuable because they make people better at their jobs. Philosophy is on their list as a subject in the general field they call “humanities”. It seems that the love of wisdom is valued because it makes people better at their jobs.

I am clearly foolish in my thinking because I always considered the love of wisdom to be valuable for non-employment reasons; for example, coming to understand the nature of happiness. Still, even if it is valuable because it makes people better at their jobs, it could still have value for other reasons. As an examiner of life, I am compelled to look more closely at the instrumental value of philosophy.

There are at least three ways to look at the value claim made in the article. The first, and most rigid, way would be to consider philosophy valuable only because it makes me better at my job. The argument could be expressed as the following syllogism:

P1. I should value subjects only because they make me better at my job
P2. Philosophy makes me better at my job
C. Therefore, I should value Philosophy

If I look at philosophy this way, I should only value it if it makes me better at my job. The argument is valid, but if premise #2 turned out to be false (in other words, if philosophy doesn’t make me better at my job), then it seems that I really shouldn’t value philosophy. A re-worded argument would look like this:

P1. I should value subjects only because they make me better at my job
P2. Philosophy does not make me better at my job
C. Therefore, I should not value Philosophy

On the other hand, if premise #2 were true, I should value philosophy, but only because it makes me better at my job–not for any other reason.

But it is surely possible for someone to value philosophy for more than one reason. For example, in addition to making them better at their jobs, it could also help them with life problems. So I think premise #1 is false. The argument is unsound.

Another way to look at the value of philosophy is to only value it because it makes me better at my job. This is a slightly different to the above formulation. We can alter premise #1 to express this new version of the argument:

P1. I should only value subjects that make me better at my job
P2. Philosophy makes me better at my job
C. Therefore, I should value Philosophy

When formulated this way I can imagine philosophy being one of the subjects I value because it makes me better at my job, and at the same time I could value it for other reasons. To put it another way, philosophy is on my list of valued subjects because it satisfies the necessary condition that it makes me better at my job. And in addition to this, it happens to offer me other values.

But if premise #2 were false (in other words, if it didn’t make me better at my job) then it couldn’t be on my list of valued subjects. So I would not get to experience any additional value. For this reason, I do not like this formulation of the argument.

A third way to view the value of philosophy is to weaken the first premise as follows:

P1. I should value subjects that make me better at my job
P2. Philosophy makes me better at my job
C. Therefore, I should value Philosophy

When expressed this way we can see that philosophy should be valued because it makes me better at my job, but there is no reason why it can’t be valued for other reasons. The argument doesn’t prohibit me valuing philosophy if it improves my happiness–even if it doesn’t make me better at my job. This version of the argument shows that it is sufficient, but not necessary, for philosophy to make me better at my job if I am to value it.

People want to be better at their jobs and if philosophy can help, then this is all to the good. But philosophy is valuable for other reasons. This is why I continue to examine life and work to bring philosophy down from the heavens and to the people.

— Socrates

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