What Philosophy Can Teach Us

There have been a few articles and discussions on the philosophy blagosphere and Twitter community recently concerning the justification of academia, and of philosophy more specifically. One of the common suggestions that crops up in this discussion whenever it occurs is the idea that philosophy, to put it crudely, helps people think better.

In my experience it is typically assumed that this improvement (whatever it amounts to) arises as a result of the training itself—through the constant exposure to criticism, practice analysing the structure and form of arguments, identifying hidden premises, assessing the validity of general forms of reasoning and so on that forms the bread-and-butter of undergraduate philosophy training—rather than a result of knowledge of the subject-matter itself.

In fact, it is often claimed that what is distinctive about philosophy is that it has no particular subject-matter, so the forms of reasoning and analysis learned by students—at least at an undergraduate level—will be applicable to any and all fields concerned with arguments and reasoning, from law to business to journalism.

I don’t want to touch on whether this is sufficient justification for the existence of philosophy, or whether esoteric academic research even needs to be justified, but I do agree that in some sense studying philosophy makes you a better thinker than you would be otherwise. What exactly this improvement consists in is, no doubt, complex, but I don’t necessarily think that one has to build up practical competence in philosophical argumentation before one can reap the benefits that philosophers offers.

An oft-bemoaned aspect of contemporary analytic philosophy is its excessive preoccupation with technical terms and subject-specific jargon. Whilst I think many of the criticisms of this pervasive feature of the discipline are spot-on, I also find (and I imagine I’m not alone in this as a philosopher) that when I think about non-philosophical topics I do so in a way aided by certain philosophical notions—I think about them through and with the aid of philosophical distinctions and terms. When I do, I find that I understand the issues, arguments, or language much more clearly than I would have without the aid of these notions.

This doesn’t (yet) amount to being able to assess arguments better or analyse positions in (say) a debate, so in this sense it doesn’t replace the practical competence mentioned above, but it provides a benefit in that, so to speak, the data are clearer than they would be without the aid of such notions, making such assessments easier.

I think that this illustrates another way that philosophy can enrich one’s thinking that doesn’t reduce to the practical know-how gained by taking philosophy courses and having to sharpen one’s critical reasoning skills (though I don’t deny that the two are intimately interrelated). In order to try and get a discussion started on this point, I’ll try to illustrate my point by providing some examples of distinctions and technical terms that I think aid clarity of thought.

Given my interests and background, most of the examples of distinctions and ideas that I often apply in non-philosophical contexts were typically linguistic or logical in nature, and their relationship to critical thinking should be clear. Suggestions of other examples (for example, there’s only one ethical/political distinction, but I imagine that those more familiar with these areas could provide more), criticisms (either of my examples or of this whole idea itself), and general discussion are encouraged.

  • Necessary and sufficient conditions.
  • Modus ponens, modus tollens, and the relationship between the two.
  • The distinction between soundness and validity.
  • Begging the question.
  • The difference between positive and negative liberty.
  • Equivocation.
  • Connotation and denotation.
  • Scope, and the de re/de dicto distinction.

I hope that the usefulness of most of these notions is self-evident, but if not I’d be happy to explain and justify my choices. However, as short and non-exhaustive as the list is, I’m not even sure about the worthiness of all of the examples. It’s not clear, for example, whether the distinction between modus ponens and modus tollens adds anything to the reasoning skills that any competent user of language already  has (aside, that is, from an extra piece of jargon with which to talk about them).

For example, a common form of reasoning, whether explicit or implicit, goes as follows: if I do X then Y; I don’t want Y to happen; therefore, I shouldn’t/won’t do X. E.g. If I go on the roller-coaster then I’ll be sick; I don’t want to be sick; therefore I won’t go on the roller-coaster. Given that people already engage in this sort of reasoning, which is structurally similar to modus tollens (if not technically a case of it), the distinction itself may not add anything to the clarity of thought that most non-philosophers already have.

However, as I said, the examples are, as much as anything, a way to get a discussion started, and I’m interested in hearing what people think, so comment away!