There comes a moment in every philosophy student’s life, perhaps when struggling through a logic set or trying to parse some impenetrable Derrida essay, that the inevitable question comes up: What’s the point? A new philosophy paper, published in the June 2018 edition of the Journal of Practical Ethics, argues that there isn’t one.
At least, there’s not a singular coherent point that the field is working towards. Whereas history is clearly focused on understanding our past and biology is devoted to explaining living organisms, there’s some confusion as to philosophy’s purpose. There are clear themes of course, such as the meaning of life, and what constitutes reality. But the subject is huge and sprawling, encompassing questions about metaphysics, epistemology, language, and ethics, among others. Is the point of philosophy to unravel the nature of the universe, or how we know what we know, or the role of language, or answer some other great question?
Ingmar Persson, professor of practical philosophy at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, argues that philosophy will never figure out a coherent purpose. “It is suggested that the intrinsic point of doing philosophy is to establish a rational consensus about what the answers to its main questions are. But it seems that this cannot be accomplished because philosophical arguments are bound to be inconclusive,” he writes in the Journal of Practical Ethics.
That’s because philosophy refuses to take anything for granted: “Even if philosophical arguments are logically valid—and, thus, guarantee true conclusions if their premises are true—they will inescapably have some premises whose truth can be denied or doubted because in the end they run out of support,” Persson writes. Though there are plenty of philosophers who believe they’ve uncovered the truth, there are no objectively correct answers in philosophy. Someone who ascribes to Kant’s ethical theory (here are key principles that can never be broken) will always disagree with those who accept Bentham’s utilitarian arguments (any act can be ethical as long as it maximizes happiness). And there’s no way to truly prove one is right and the other is wrong. “Eventually arguments will peter out, and it will have to be extraneous factors such as our personalities and how social circumstances impinge on them that determine whether we come down on one side or the other,” writes Persson.
However, that interaction between philosophy and personality can in fact be philosophy’s point. Persson quotes Friedrich Nietzsche, who in Beyond Good and Evil wrote, “Every great philosophy has hitherto been: a confession on the part of its author.” Thus philosophy may have the same point as art and literature, in that it communicates its creators’ personalities. And on the flip side, readers of philosophy can find something of themselves in the work. Those who are drawn to existentialist theories might recognize themselves as particularly angsty individuals, while Stoic aficionados can see themselves as unswayed by emotions. There’s also a possible practical benefit to philosophy: The subject can help reveal how to behave more morally or provide guidelines for pursuing a good life.
But both of these are points external to the subject, rather than contained within it—just as treatment of diseases is a beneficial application of biology, but not the core internal goal.
In other words, we still haven’t found an intrinsic point to the subject. “Doing philosophy in order to ‘know thyself’ is a time-honoured task which is sufficient for philosophy to have a point for you, given your interest in gaining self-knowledge, though you will not be pursuing philosophy strictly for its own sake,” writes Persson.
According to Persson, philosophy does not have “the primary, intrinsic point of establishing a rational consensus about the solutions of its leading problems, ” or even agreement about what constitutes its leading questions. Nevertheless, Persson’s paper shows the subject is far from useless.