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Thinking

Is philosophy just a bunch of nonsense?

Even some philosophers don’t think highly of philosophy, but we need it now more than ever.
Credit: freshidea / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Far from being a “useless” major, philosophy teaches people how to think clearly and logically — a skill that is always in demand.

  • Importantly, a skilled philosopher can translate convoluted ideas into plain language.

  • Scientists could be better communicators if they studied some philosophy.

Philosophy, along with mathematics and logic, is one of humanity’s oldest intellectual disciplines. And since its inception — which in the West usually dates back to the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Thales of Miletus (624/623 BCE – 548/545 BCE) — philosophy has had its skeptics and anti-philosophers. Indeed, throughout the history of philosophy, some of the biggest doubters of philosophy were themselves philosophers.

One notable example from the early 20th century comes from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. In both of Wittgenstein’s major works, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (“Tractatus” for short) and the Philosophical Investigations, he makes distinct cases against philosophy as a discipline.

Is philosophy useless?

A central, if not the main, purpose of the Tractatus was to investigate the limits of language. What can and cannot be said? And when considering things which cannot be said, what is their nature? Wittgenstein argues that philosophy essentially makes attempts to speak about things that are impossible to talk about, as such things are beyond the scope of what language can convey.

For instance, consider metaphysical discussions surrounding the term “nothing” or “nothingness.” What does this accomplish? To what end are such discussions aimed? And what is being conveyed in these sorts of inquiries? Wittgenstein’s answer to each of these questions — along with any such questions directed at any philosophical inquiry that posits the ability to talk about philosophical problems — would be absolutely nothing. Hence, Wittgenstein posits that philosophical propositions are nonsense, conveying nothing. Thus, according to this view, there is no substantiality to philosophical propositions.

In many cases, it is quite fair to state that Wittgenstein is right. At the very least, some of the problems philosophers are interested in are pseudo-problems. But that’s certainly not true for all of them. Ethics is a field in which progress can and has been made. Still, let’s assume that Wittgenstein is right. Is philosophy pointless, as so many believe it to be? Are philosophy majors destined for a lifetime of baristahood?

Not quite. From a practical standpoint, philosophy requires clear, logical thinking. A person who has a degree in philosophy has therefore shown an ability to think — a useful skill in a world that too often doesn’t seem to do much of it. But from a more — shall we say? — philosophical viewpoint, the point of philosophy is itself articulated well by the detractor Wittgenstein in his Tractatus.

How philosophy benefits science

According to Wittgenstein, philosophy is not the same as — nor is it even similar to — science. The role of science is to uncover facts about the world. In other words, there are things humanity doesn’t yet know about the world, and it is the job of scientists to discover those things. By that definition of science, philosophers certainly do not do the same things as scientists do. “The word ‘philosophy’ must mean something which stands above or below, but not beside the natural sciences” (4.111 Tractatus). Thus, philosophy does not add anything to our existing body of rational and empirical knowledge.

“Philosophy is not a theory but an activity” (4.112 Tractatus). But what kind of activity? For Wittgenstein, philosophy is an activity that serves to clarify and elucidate ideas that are otherwise opaque and blurred. Wittgenstein seems to associate such obscure ideas with those of the natural sciences. Therefore, philosophy has its utility in limiting “the disputable sphere of natural science” (4.113 Tractatus). That is, philosophy — through its ability to explicate the esoteric and convoluted — can aid scientists in the fight against unwarranted skepticism toward science.

The utility of being capable of clarifying scientific ideas has pressing salience in our times. Unfortunately, a great deal of the U.S. (and even global) population is skeptical of science. And such skepticism actually mirrors Wittgenstein’s own: that is, there is a perception that Wittgenstein himself upholds in the Tractatus that scientists believe themselves and science to be unassailable. A corollary of this perceived impregnability is the impression that scientists believe themselves to be capable of explaining everything.

Though most scientists don’t actually feel that way, the misperception among the public persists, and the fault lies at least in part at the feet of scientists themselves. Consider public health messaging during the pandemic, which consisted of a pattern of revelation and back-peddling. Worse, this pattern wasn’t even cohesive among scientists and medical experts: different experts in the same fields were simultaneously saying things about the pandemic that were contradictory and inconsistent. This only served to confuse the public and aggravate hyperpartisanship.

Philosophy, as an activity, can potentially mitigate these deleterious effects. Earning a philosophy degree entails filtering convoluted ideas into plain language. This skill can and ought to be used to aid scientists in pursuing a more scientifically informed public.

What this may require is that scientists themselves study philosophy or bioethics. On scientific matters of societal import, scientists need to examine such matters to the best of their ability with the assumption that they will have to present them to the lay public. In light of that assumption, they need to practice clear communication. Scientists are not sanctimonious know-it-alls, but unless they can communicate more clearly to the public, there always will be a false perception that they are. As we saw with COVID, that can have fatal consequences.


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