Human beings are a unique species. As far as we have discovered, human beings are the only species that has reason. For those who might clamor about the intelligence of primates, octopi, and other animals, the word to note is “reason” – not intelligence. While apes may be clever, and even apply intellect to problem-solving, there is no ape written language, no ape architecture, no ape poetry, etc. Squirrels, though they confound every effort to prevent them from getting at bird-seed, have not gotten together to plant a forest of oaks, so that the future generations will not want for acorns. Similarly, no non-human animal has looked at the heavens and charted them and sought to understand its place in the universe.
Philosophy is the study of reason and the use of reason, making it a study of the uniquely human attribute. It is the study of the thing that makes us human. Whether defined by a curiosity about things, or by a quest for knowledge, truth, etc. philosophy seeks to put aside our emotional reactions, for the sake of gaining understanding. This is true particularly when it comes to the “icky” things – like fascism, or genocide, or any other act or idea that tends to elicit a strong emotional reaction within us. Fact of the matter is, animals have emotional reactions – even amoebas react to their environment. What makes us human is precisely the ability to not simply react, but to reason. It is reason that restrains emotion, and is what makes human society possible. Otherwise, you’d simply tackle the closest waiter or patron in a restaurant for their food – instead of waiting for yours to arrive.
Philosophy should not be confused with science, though they are often closely related. Most modern sciences and fields of inquiry used to be classified as philosophy, because it was philosophical inquiry that produced them. In fact, if we look at, say, the early 12th century, we see scholars like Al Ghazali classifying all sciences into philosophy.[i] Philosophy gave birth to these sciences, nurtured them, developed them, and – when they were mature enough to stand on their own – released them to become fields of study in their own right. However, when we study biology, we are taught how to solve biology problems; chemistry solves chemistry problems; physics solves physics problems; economics solves economics problems, etc. Philosophy by contrast, does not solve philosophy problems. It solves problems in general.
While specific fields of study focus on their own narrow regions of human knowledge, philosophy is interested in knowledge as such. Philosophy teaches us how to look at the world in a way that brings it all together. The toolset of philosophy is specialized for the pursuit of knowledge – regardless of content. Thus, philosophy starts with critical thinking; which is the core basics of reason in context, of asking the right kinds of questions, of sorting information in a way that reveals the strengths and weaknesses of ideas. The source of information (in terms of related non-philosophy fields) is irrelevant, because philosophy is a universal system. It works just as well in China as it does in Brazil. It works just as well 3000 years ago, as it does today. It works just as well in oral and literary traditions. The stuff of philosophy is ideas, and those are universal.
A serious understanding of philosophy enables us to engage in meaningful conversation, understanding, and critique of all things. The reason why philosophy is uniquely capable of participating in all things, is because all things – all fields of human work and inquiry – are developed and maintained by reason; which is the focus of philosophy. Other fields of study, by contrast, are focused on developing the ideas and techniques limited only to their own narrow interests. This means that philosophy can be of use, regardless of the topic – from theology to theoretical physics. This is why philosophy can coherently talk about the philosophy of science (see: for example, Kuhn), but science cannot talk about philosophy.
Additionally, and perhaps crucially, philosophy provides a unique service; the careful analysis of reason and the use of reason allows it to follow the chain of implications far beyond the immediate application and in-field limitations. Philosophy, being unchained from a particular set of field-based concerns, is uniquely able to see how the ideas generated in, say, the AI field play out in ethics, law, notions of responsibility, military, medicine, etc. Given this elevated position, philosophy functions as a holistic analysis tool for society as a whole; able to see the variety of impacts across the whole board, as a result of a tweak in a particular area.
To me, philosophy is the study of what makes us human – namely, reason. As a philosopher, I am able to engage in all fields of human inquiry, to survey the history of ideas and their current development. I am able to evaluate them, to see their trajectory long before it comes to pass, to anticipate the future of humanity. Philosophy also allows me to understand others, regardless of their position, regardless of whether or not I am in agreement with that position. It provides me with an insight into human thought and condition; it allows me to engage with others in a way that results in meaningful outcomes – whether or not we agree.
Understanding philosophy, at least at a basic level, serves to develop critical thinking skills, and to allow us to see beyond the blinders of our specific interests and professions. The skills allow us to better navigate any situation we may encounter, and the additional sense of a world beyond our own interests allows us to – at least – consider the fact that our interests have implications beyond their immediate application. Not everyone should be a philosopher, and not everyone is suited to philosophy. However, most everyone can benefit from a basic philosophical education.