An Apology for Philosophy

By Jay L. GarfieldNovember 27, 2023

An Apology for Philosophy
The aim of this curated series of essays is to address the question: why is philosophy important at times like these? For many, philosophy is a field of inquiry that remains so esoteric, narrow, and specialized that it has little or no relevance to the everyday world of “ordinary” people. Indeed, philosophers are often characterized as introverted, absent-minded thinkers who are obsessed with analytical minutiae, isolated in their academically cloistered spaces (offices and personal studies) in a monologue with dead white guys, and prone to encouraging dispassionate argumentation and one-upmanship. For the thinkers writing for this series, however, philosophy is a social enterprise that strives for clarity of thought and encourages the formation of multiple cultural spaces of philosophical practice that are welcoming to a diverse range of scholars and laypeople, rather than simply those who look alike and share the same hegemonic meta-philosophical assumptions about the field.


I WAS RECENTLY talking to a young colleague at a different college who was a year out of graduate school. He explained to me “how to do philosophy”: you find a narrow specialty in which you can excel, and you stick to it. You read all of the most recent issues of the “top 10” journals until you find a paper in your specialty in which there is some small error that you can attack and correct. You write a paper that exposes the error and you correct it, and then repeat this process until you have published enough to get tenure. Then you keep doing that in order to get promoted and to get better job offers. When I remarked that this is a pretty depressing view of the philosophical life, and hardly the life to which I aspired when I went into the field, he explained that I was just out of touch, that the field had professionalized since my day, and that now this is just “what the job is.” On this view, success in philosophy is the production of more scholars with longer CVs, each listing articles that can be cited in the footnotes of subsequent articles.

If this is indeed what philosophy has become, I think that—whatever the pleasures and prestige it might bring to its practitioners—the discipline would have no call on the public purse or on the budgets of colleges and universities that have real needs. There is no reason to hire or support members of an arcane debating society bent on adding one more decorative arabesque to a filigree of argumentation regarding an abstract issue that will be yesterday’s news even before tomorrow. I lament this view of our profession and the degree to which young scholars are trained to see it that way.

Happily, though, that is not what philosophy is, ever has been, or needs to be. I prefer Wilfrid Sellars’s definition of philosophy:

The aim […] is to understand how things in the broadest sense of the term hang together in the broadest sense of the term […] not only “cabbages and kings,” but numbers and duties, possibilities and finger snaps, aesthetic experience and death. To achieve success in philosophy would be […] to ‘know one’s way around’ with respect to all these things, […] in that reflective way which means that no intellectual holds are barred.

Sellars then explains that the “knowing” to which we aspire is a knowing-how, not a knowing-that. Such a conception suggests a vision of philosophy as transformative. And the transformation at which it aims is a transformation of vision, a different way of seeing the world as a whole.

If this is what philosophy is, then philosophy is one of the most important and profound of human pursuits. And this is what philosophy has always been, what it is, and what we intend it to be. This includes philosophy as it is practiced in all of the world’s cultures. Philosophers are those who keep their eye on the whole, who help all of us to see the context in which we live, think, and collaborate with others in greater detail and with greater perspective.

Kongzi’s Analects draws our attention to the fact that we grow into humanity in the context of our families, and to the fact that what we learn in that context informs our broader social life. Zhuangzi reminds us that our social nature is also at bottom biological, and that self-understanding requires understanding our lives as natural organisms as well as social beings. David Hume draws these two strands of thought together—despite his own ignorance of the Chinese tradition—showing how our norm-governed life in all its complexity emerges from our biologically determined social nature. These contributions transform our self-understanding, our understanding of our cultures and our relations to them, and, in the end, our understanding of what a morally acceptable relationship to our world and to its inhabitants—both human and nonhuman—could be.

Aristotle shows us how a good life can emerge from a complex interplay of acquired moral virtue, interpersonal skill, moral strength, and a network of good friends. Native American philosophers such as John Fire Lame Deer remind us that this is not enough, that attunement both to our natural environment and to the symbolic dimensions of our life are required if our lives are to be worth living. W. E. B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass each call on us to recognize the fact that flourishing lives are not open to all of us, that life looks very different from different social, racial, and gendered perspectives, and that to have the opportunity to prosper is to have the duty to expand the circle of those to whom genuine opportunities to flourish are available. Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. show that the struggle to broaden that circle not only can but also must be pursued in solidarity and in nonviolence. These are but a few examples of the ways in which philosophers have drawn our attention to the big picture—to how things hang together—and, in doing so, have deepened our self-understanding and have improved our collective lives.

Philosophy pursued in this register gives us greater perspective on who we are both individually and collectively, on what gives our lives meaning, and on what it is to live truly human lives; it calls our attention to our interdependence and to what that interdependence demands of us. It calls our attention to the structures and practices that undermine our happiness and our future, and to what we can do about it. The vision that philosophy enables, and the transformation of our experience of our own existence, is especially valuable in the Anthropocene epoch. This is because our dominance of the planet’s ecosystems ensures that if we do not act collectively in a reflective, informed way to preserve and enhance the only environment in which we can live, we will act collectively and unreflectively to destroy it, destroying ourselves in the process. Philosophical reflection—together with the transformation of vision and motivation it can motivate—is not a luxury but a necessity.

Needless to say, philosophical reflection cannot consist in the endless ornamentation of arcane disputes in specialist journals. Instead, it must be pursued in a way that connects with present circumstances. That is not to say that it ought not to be pursued with rigor and care—that is the gift of philosophical trainings. The skill in rigorous attention, both to the details and to the structures in which they figure, is what makes philosophers such as the late Ian Hacking such valuable interlocutors. Philosophy is worth our attention and investment when it does just that, bringing rigor and clarity to our thought about the truly big questions. Philosophy does this best when it is interdisciplinary and when it is cross-cultural. Collaboration across disciplines allows philosophical reflection to be informed by data and prompts scholarship in those disciplines to reflect greater contexts; collaboration across cultures enables reflection to transcend the prejudices and blinders built into every language and cultural structure, and to avoid the temptation to take parochial viewpoints as obviously true or normative.

The value of such reflection is especially clear when we address social problems. These often show up for us as local issues to be resolved by local fixes, or as arising from the behavior of individuals. When we see things this way, we are often distracted from the contexts that make them inevitable. Philosophers in the movement known as Engaged Buddhism, such as Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Thich Nhat Hanh, and the 14th Dalai Lama, have drawn our attention to what they call “structural violence”—i.e., violence instantiated in large-scale social structures that constitute inequality, discrimination, and widespread harm, such as globalized consumer capitalism, colonialism, nationalism, racism, and so on.

These structures transcend, constitute, enable, and normalize individual or local acts of violence. By attending to and condemning—or attempting to modify—the action of individual firms, police officers, or even government agencies, we fail to see the ways in which they are conditioned and made inevitable by the structures whose values they instantiate. And by failing to see the whole, we engage in action that feels right yet accomplishes nothing. Philosophical reflection that brings the relevant structures into focus enables more effective action.

By focusing on structural racism and the larger social systems that support and constitute it, rather than individual racist incidents, we can direct our attention and action to the proper targets, developing strategies that attack the roots, and not merely the offshoots, of the problem. By directing our attention to the moral psychology of patience, ethical reflection can lead us to the most effective strategies for dismantling these institutions while forsaking anger for nonviolent action. Nalini Bhushan’s and my work on the role of philosophy in the Indian struggle for independence provides evidence of the power of philosophy to inform political action on this scale.

By focusing our attention on the ways that economic and political structures—as opposed to the actions of individuals—drive climate change and incentivize the individual and collective behaviors that contribute to this global disaster, we again choose the targets of our action more wisely. And by reflecting on moral psychology and agency in the context of interdependence, we make ourselves more effective agents. Examples could be multiplied. But the point in each case would be the same: philosophy enables us to think more clearly, enables us to bring our values into greater focus and to act more effectively and in greater harmony with those values. It makes us better people, better friends, more effective and responsive agents, and better citizens. These are the fruits of the pursuit of philosophy in the public sphere, or at least of the pursuit of philosophy with one eye on its application to the public sphere. Philosophy is transformative.

I have emphasized the instrumental value of philosophy, and for good reason. Many of the critics of our discipline, echoing the late Edwin Starr, ask the question, “Philosophy—what is it good for?” And they answer, “Absolutely nothing!” I have conceded that this may be an appropriate response to some of what passes for philosophy today. But it misses the bigger picture. Philosophy properly pursued is an enormous social good. But the value of philosophy vastly exceeds its instrumental value. Philosophy is one of the fine arts, perhaps the most abstract of those arts. Philosophy, just like the visual, literary, and performing arts, adds beauty to our lives and offers us unique insight into human life and human nature. Its medium is not oils or clay but argument and analysis. These media may be a bit recherché, but they are capable of beauty just as much as their more concrete counterparts. Anyone who has spent time in philosophical reflection will recognize the peculiar aesthetic pleasure philosophy offers, and the enrichment of our lives it vouchsafes. This is another, equally important sense in which philosophy, properly conceived, is indeed transformative.


Featured image: Frank Weitzel. Vase of flowers, 1931. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Gift of Rex Nan Kivell, 1953., CC0. Accessed November 21, 2023. Image has been cropped.

LARB Contributor

Jay L. Garfield directs the Buddhist studies program and the Tibetan studies in India program at Smith College. His most recent books include Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self (2022), Buddhist Ethics: A Philosophical Exploration (2021), and What Can’t Be Said: Paradox and Contradiction in East Asian Thought (with Yasuo Deguchi, Graham Priest, and Robert Sharf, 2021).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!