In this article from 2010, Peter Hacker explains and analysis what we might hope to gain from studying philosophy. Throughout the article compelling examples and legitimate reasons are employed to illuminate the fairly abstract intentions of philosophical engagement. Unlike the sciences and mathematics, a philosophy student will not find a trustworthy book of established metaphysical facts, and so for those inclined to want solid, satisfactory answers, philosophy might well dispirit. Through Hacker’s article, we get a glimpse of what philosophy can offer us instead. In this essay I will present and respond to Hacker’s views on studying philosophy and expand upon why his arguments are cogent. I will then show how Hacker has presented fairly ego-centric answers to the question proposed and how we might hope to overcome this.
In the first place, Hacker makes a helpful distinction between philosophy and other areas of study such as biology, physics and mathematics; encouraging the reader to consider that the problem of philosophy is to resolve philosophical problems; and not try to solve the problems of science. It is then the case that studying philosophy can give the enthusiastic student techniques to confront the more conceptual questions of her own existence—the ones that science cannot settle. In the next section I will look at an example for why philosophy may help us to distinguish between the, sometimes paper thin, distinction between ‘sense and nonsense’.
Notably, the story about how Mozart supposedly composed his great concerto ‘in a flash’ is used to elucidate the kinds of higher level nonsense that we must confront. Mathematicians may try to understand this with a complex understanding of gravity or time. But pausing to reflect on this assertion it is clear that, Mozart realised ‘in a flash’ how he must complete the concerto, which is not the same as seeing every note appear before his eyes in one inaudible crash. What this example shows is that before accepting psychologist’s assertions that it is the brain that thinks, economist’s telling us that felicity is directly linked to utility, or that Mozart composed his whole concerto ‘in a flash’; we should question, reason and rationalise to close the gaps between truth and falsehood.
Towards the end of the article, Hacker invites the reader to marvel in how philosophy has played an important role in the history of ideas, not only shaping, but documenting the intellectual lives of societies going back 2,500 years. The implication is that without this understanding of how knowledge has developed throughout the history of western philosophy; we cannot know much about our contemporary thought, if we fail to recognise how we got here. In this light, philosophy has contributed an inordinate amount to a whole host of fields, from geometry to logic, ethics to mathematics.
On a more specific note, philosophy helps us to develop techniques that tackle conceptual questions that occur to most people; whether there is an afterlife or we have free will, for example. This in turn can help inform our understanding of taking responsibility for ourselves and the societies we live in. Without this level of enquiry that includes thoughtful questioning, challenging preconceived ideas and stepping back from our assumptions I agree with Hacker in that; we cannot hope to develop in line with ‘reason and reasonableness’.
After a couple of readings of the article I felt there was something missing that, at first blush, I couldn’t quite express. Then it became clear that I wanted Hacker to give me more practical reasons for why someone should choose to study philosophy. With this intention in mind, it may have been useful to have explored Aristotle’s phonesis, as a virtue that should be cultivated for a fulfilled and worthwhile life. Practical wisdom is both an experiential undertaking and exercise of intellectual skill. I felt the article leant too much towards the rewards in terms of the development of intellectual skills. What Hacker fails to do, or does not appear to take account of is the fact that the practical application of wisdom, attained through experience contributes towards the flourishing of the self, and that is what’s going to make the real difference to an individual’s life. What good is it to contemplate whether the mind is related to the soul if one’s family are hungry? What good is it to ponder whether God exists if one cannot navigate their lives in a way that brings them happiness and contentment?
However, all things being well. Having one eye open for flimsy assertions, suppositions, opinions and biases is undoubtedly important. Being sympathetic to people’s arguments and suspending judgment—at least in the beginning—may actually help to move forward with understanding and in avoiding rash error. It may therefore be better to begin a conversation with wonder, awe and thanks rather than complete doubtful scepticism. That is not to deny that a healthy scepticism isn’t useful. Whilst scepticism in its most orthodox form can be constricting, in its healthy form it can put a spotlight on human nature and promote a tranquil peace of mind resulting in ataraxica; a perspective of the world that reflects the appearance of things as they are without attaching to sense impressions, opinions or preferences. In this light it is important to enumerate what knowledge is, which the Theatetus explores. Three possible answers are given; perception, true judgment and true judgment with an explanation. The Socratic method may dispose of each of these proposals ending in aporia—an uncomfortable position. But as a result the interlocutors are better for having faced one’s own ignorance. In essence, Hacker’s article affirms this position that studying philosophy is a worthwhile endeavor.
Ultimately, Hacker has clearly taken care in his short article to give a clear, reasoned articulation of why someone should choose to study philosophy. The article is a pleasure to read and any serious weaknesses difficult to find. Although there are limitations, not all of the arguments are new and the article is very much focused solely on the individual, for example. Hacker’s legitimate interest in sharing the benefits of the study of philosophy to a wider audience is commendable and his more general reasons of weeding out the sense in nonsense and more specifically, learning techniques for cognizing conceptual questions, are well enough met. If Hacker has left me wondering anything it is how can I now use the tools gained from engaging in philosophy to enrich my own life and that of others.
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