The Value of Philosophy

By John G. Messerly, Ph.D. | 25 March 2016
Reason and Meaning

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What is the value of philosophy? To this question, we propose some possible answers. First, it’s natural to wonder, to ask questions. Children are marvelous philosophers who never tire of asking questions. However, you may reply that we have no duty to do what’s natural, or that you don’t find it natural to philosophize. Second, philosophizing is pleasurable. We find joy asking questions and considering possibilities. Perhaps that is why Plato called philosophizing “that dear delight.” Nonetheless, you might counter that it doesn’t suit your tastes. Third, we appeal to philosophy’s usefulness. Any kind of knowledge is potentially useful, and if philosophy engenders a bit of knowledge and wisdom, then it’s worthwhile. Nevertheless, you may not value wisdom or knowledge unless it engenders material reward.

Finally, we might argue that philosophical thinking protects us against unsupported ideology, unjustified authority, unfounded beliefs, baseless propaganda, and questionable cultural values. These forces may manipulate us if we don’t understand them, and can’t think critically about them. This doesn’t require a rejection of cultural values, only a reflection on them. Otherwise, they aren’t our values, ideas, or beliefs—we have accepted them second-hand. To this you might respond that reflection is laborious, that ignorance is bliss, and that trust in authority and tradition maintain culture.

So you can reasonably reject all of our arguments. In the absence of definitive arguments, individuals must decide for themselves whether philosophy is a worthwhile pursuit. We all decide whether the pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, wealth, fame, pleasure or anything else is worth the effort. In the end, to value philosophy we must believe that reflection, questioning, contemplation, and wonder enrich human life; we must believe with Socrates that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living.” And I believe that.

Questions about the value of philosophy also intertwine with issues concerning education in general. What is the point of education? Is it merely to learn practical techniques? Consider a nurse or physician who has mastered the techniques necessary to practice their profession. Is that sufficient to being a good nurse or physician? Most of us would say no. One also need traits like insight, compassion, and communication skills, things we may learn from philosophy, literature, psychology or history—subjects that teach about life and people. This suggests that real education is more than technical training. Yet, if wealth is all that ultimately matters, then I admit that the life of the mind may be irrelevant.

But ask yourself: Is the point of lifting weights merely to push them against the force of gravity? No! In lifting weights we seek to transform our physiques, accomplish our goals, and learn the valuable lesson that nothing worthwhile is attained without effort. And through this process, our bodies are transformed. Analogously, education transforms us by increasing our awareness, diminishing our dogmatism, honing our critical thinking skills, and, at its best, helping us to be happy and wise. True education transforms our minds. Jiddu Krishnamurti made this case:

Why do we go through the struggle to be educated? Is it merely in order to pass some examinations and get a job? Or is it the function of education to prepare us while we are young to understand the whole process of life? Surely, life isn’t merely a job, an occupation: life is wide and profound, it’s a great mystery, a vast realm in which we function as human beings.

Bertrand Russell, in The Problems of Philosophy, put it this way:

The [person] who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of [their] age or [their] nation, and from convictions which have grown up in [their] mind without the cooperation or consent of [their] deliberate reason. To such a [person] the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find… that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy…. removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt…

Finally, consider the view of the great twentieth-century historian and philosopher Will Durant, who in the preface to Pleasures of Philosophy said this about the purpose of philosophy:

Philosophy will not fatten our purses…For what if we should fatten our purses, or rise to high office, and yet all the while remain ignorantly naïve, coarsely unfurnished in the mind, brutal in behavior, unstable in character, chaotic in desire, and blindly miserable?

Our culture is superficial today, and our knowledge dangerous, because we are rich in mechanisms and poor in purposes … We move about the earth with unprecedented speed, but we don’t know and haven’t thought, where we are going, or whether we shall find any happiness there for our harassed souls. We are being destroyed by our knowledge, which has made us drunk with our power. And we shall not be saved without wisdom.

I can’t provide a knockdown argument for the value of philosophy if we measure value only in terms of wealth. But if what’s most important are timeless values like truth, beauty, goodness, justice, and wisdom, then I bless falling in love with philosophy almost fifty years ago.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

John G. Messerly received his PhD in philosophy in 1992. He has taught at St. Louis University and The University of Texas at Austin. He is currently an Affiliated member of the Evolution, Cognition, and Complexity Group localized at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, and an Affiliate Scholar of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

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  1. If you want to play a game well without needing to cheat in order to win or at least stay in the game. You need to know what game you are playing and why you are playing it. Who else is playing? Where is it being played? When is it being played? What are the rules? How can I win? Philosophy can help uncover the answers to these questions in order to develop an action strategy. Goals and tired old dogmas are a start, but they won't get us where we want to go. Philosophy will. That is the value of philosophy.


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