The Value of Philosophy

 Posted by on 1 July 2014 at 11:00 am  Academia, Philosophy, Science
Jul 012014

Bob Pasnau — University of Colorado at Boulder Philosophy Professor — writes in the NY Times on the value of philosophy: Why Not Just Weigh the Fish?

The essence of philosophy is abstract reasoning – not because the philosopher is too lazy to attempt a more hands-on approach, but because the subjects at issue do not readily submit to it. If we could simply weigh the fish, we gladly would. In recent centuries, philosophers in fact have discovered how to weigh that allegorical fish, in various fields, and on each occasion a new discipline has been born: physics in the 17th century; chemistry in the 18th; biology in the 19th and psychology in the 20th. The scientists, short on history but flush with their government grants and Nobel Prizes, cast an eye back on what remains of philosophy and skeptically ask: Why don’t you stop wasting your time and just weigh that fish?

It’s a question philosophers ask themselves all the time, and sometimes they despair. The remaining problems of philosophy today concern issues like justice, morality, free will, knowledge and the origins of the universe. In dismissing philosophy as an antiquated relic of our prescientific past, the scientist is making a very large and dubious assumption: that the abstract methods of philosophy, despite the discipline’s string of successes over recent centuries, have nothing more to contribute to our developing understanding of the world. Perhaps scientists think they already have the answers to all these philosophical questions. Maybe, but if so they certainly keep them well hidden. Or perhaps they judge these remaining questions to be simply unanswerable. Possibly they are, but it seems wildly premature to give up hope.

Bob Pasnau was my medieval philosophy professor. He was also the graduate advisor and department chair for periods during my tenure as a graduate student. He was part of what made my experience in the department so good. Go Bob!

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