This week's Friday question engages with the issue of the role and value of philosophy.
We have just witnessed the elections to the Students' Union council. A lot of students canvassed on a number of issues. One particular issue was that of free education, and I believe that some philosophy students canvassed under this issue. This raises the interesting question of the relationship of philosophy to politics and practical matters more generally. In particular, the question often arises as to what contribution philosophers have to make to society.
Marx famously stated that philosophers merely interpret the world, whereas the point is to change it. Now it is arguable that Marx was reacting to a form of speculative Hegelianism that did not put Hegelian philosophy to any practical use, whereas Marx saw a need for a practical kind of Hegelianism. Be that as it may, his position raises a serious question for the role of philosophy (and other speculative disciplines) within society.
There is no doubt that there are branches of philosophy that are highly speculative and of very little practical advantage. Tell a single parent struggling to make ends meet that the world is made up of discrete substances as the basic constituents of reality or that mind and world exist in two heterogeneous spaces and you will, if fortunate, be asked to leave their presence. On the other hand, tell such a person that it is the duty of the state to tax the rich and help the poor, provide free education, school dinners etc, he or she will soon become interested. The distinction is palatable: in some areas philosophy has a very practical use whereas in others it is seen to be abstract, stuffy, mere speculative reasoning with no connection to the matters of living.
On the other hand, speculative philosophers will claim that the unexamined life is not worth living, that once the necessities of life are taken care of, human beings do not curl up and go to sleep; rather they start to think about the starry heavens above and the moral law within, and seek to understand the world around them. There seems to be a drive in human beings to gain some kind of understanding of the world in which they live, in which case even when all the practical questions of life have been answered, there remains a longing to find out more. Speculative philosophy, just like any other speculative subject, answers to an innate desire to know, and just like the fulfilment of the desires for warmth, shelter, food etc, the fulfilment of the desire to know is its own reward, and thus ought to be prized as a goal in itself and not evaluated on the basis of its instrumentality to the state.
So we are left with an intriguing question, should speculative philosophy be a subject that is preserved in our university curricula and wider social framework, or should it be relegated to the private sphere and taken up only by those who have the time, money, and inclination to pursue it?