Why Philosophy

Why study Philosophy?

I came to Philosophy late in a protracted undergraduate career, after a disastrous tussle with Law and a mild flirtation with Fine Arts. I was nudged towards it by friends studying philosophy: I enjoyed their conversation and admired their mental habits, and wanted to learn more. I ended up studying philosophy for about five years; three years finishing a BA at Melbourne and then two years post-graduate study in the UK. Then I left philosophy to work in and around Government on foreign affairs and defence issues.

So what did I learn from Philosophy, and what use has it been to me? At one level the answer is 'very little'. In my professional life I have never called upon my once-extensive knowledge of the concept of a theory of meaning for natural languages, the possibility of natural laws linking mental and physical events, the semantics of proper names, or the connection between the ideas of the late Frege and the early Wittgenstein.

This was partly my fault. I could have spent more time working on ethics and political philosophy which would I know have touched my work in and around government much more directly, but as a philosopher I was attracted to the hard stuff where logic, metaphysics and ontology meet.

But I've never regretted that choice, because studying philosophy taught me, and I'm sure others I studied with, all kinds of other things which I do use every day.

First, we learned 'How to do Things with Words'. That is the title of a famous essay by J.L. Austin. Clear, simple, lucid and direct, it is a beautiful piece of prose and a model of exposition and explanation. Not all philosophy is well-written [or well-spoken] but good philosophers are always trying to explain complex things, and it teaches you how to use language to present ideas forcefully.

Because philosophy works on such complex issues, it teaches you especially to write about complexity. In particular it shows how the power of words is unlocked by using them precisely, paying careful attention to exactly what the words we use mean, and using them with precision to say exactly what we mean. And doing that, of course, makes us think about what exactly we do mean, so using words precisely makes us think more clearly. And that in turn means we can explain things more simply, because the better you understand something the simpler you can say it.

Second, philosophy taught us about the importance of the structure of any argument. An argument is not just a collection of ideas or facts: the relationships between them determine the conclusions that can be drawn. Studying philosophy is the best way to learn about these relationships and the structures they form. It gives one a kind of unfair advantage in any debate; other people might know more facts, but you know better why they matter to the conclusion.

Third, philosophy taught us always to push the analysis one step further: to challenge the assumptions and ask the deeper questions. It nurtures a certain intellectual self-confidence to do this, too: having wrestled with the deepest questions, nothing looks too hard to question.

Finally, Philosophy teaches the power and pleasure of argument with friends and colleagues in a way that is both competitive and collegial. Philosophy is an activity as much as a discipline and you do it with others; it's a collective activity. Studying philosophy is a great training in the social art of conducting civilised, gracious, courteous but still engaged and committed argument. That's a handy thing to know.

Hugh White
Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University

To find out more about the question What is Philosophy? view the 15 minute online video presentation below by Professor Graham Priest.