25th July 2016

Why Study Philosophy?

Tuesday 10th December
What does philosophy actually do? Oxford philosopher Peter Hacker explains.
Peter Hacker | Emeritus research fellow at St John’s College, Oxford University.


Physicists study matter, motion, and energy. Chemists study substances and their forms of combination, interaction and decomposition. Biologists study living things. And so forth. But what is it that philosophers study? One answer common throughout the ages is that as physicists study physics, philosophers study meta-physics. Philosophers, or at an...

Physicists study matter, motion, and energy. Chemists study substances and their forms of combination, interaction and decomposition. Biologists study living things. And so forth. But what is it that philosophers study? One answer common throughout the ages is that as physicists study physics, philosophers study meta-physics. Philosophers, or at any rate the deepest of philosophers, we are told, are meta-physicists. Physicists study the contingencies of the world – things that happen to be so. Meta-physicists study the essential, necessary features of all possible worlds.

This reply is unconvincing for a number of reasons. For one thing, if it were the case, it would need a great deal of explaining to vindicate philosophy. For while physics has produced libraries of well established results (and chemistry and biology yet more libraries), we can look in vain for trustworthy books entitled Established Truths of Metaphysics or A Handbook of Philosophical Facts.

Moreover, there is more than an air of absurdity to the thought that chemists discover that water consists of H2O, and that philosophers then discover that this is not a contingent truth, but a necessary one; or that physicists discover that E=mc2, and meta-physicists then discover that this is true in all possible worlds.

Finally, if we look at the kinds of results that meta-physicists do produce, it is evident that they are little more than paradox (time is unreal; solid objects are not really solid; coloured objects are not really coloured), absurdity (we cannot know the thoughts or intentions of another; we are nothing more than a bundle of perceptions) and systematically contested to boot (there are or are not universals; moral truths are all absolute or all relative). So let us discard this foolishness.

Metaphysics is an illusion that besets philosophers (and philosophically-minded scientists) from generation to generation, which it is the task of good philosophy to dispel. But although periodic fumigation is recurrently necessary for intellectual health, what else is there for philosophy to do? What can it achieve? In the sense in which the sciences have a subject matter, it seems, philosophy has none. In the sense in which the sciences construct theories that are confirmed or infirmed by experiment or observation, there are obviously no theories in philosophy. In the sense in which the sciences make discoveries about the world around us, philosophy clearly does not. So what is its task?

We must challenge the thought that philosophy aims to contribute to human knowledge of the world. Its task is to resolve philosophical problems. The characteristic feature of philosophical problems is their non-empirical, a priori character: no scientific experiment can settle the question of whether the mind is the brain, what the meaning of a word is, whether human beings are responsible for their deeds (i.e. have free will), whether trees falling on uninhabited desert islands make any noise, what makes necessary truths necessary. All these, and many hundreds more, are conceptual questions. They are not questions about concepts (philosophy is not a science of concepts). But they are questions that are to be answered, resolved or dissolved by careful scrutiny of the concepts involved.

The only way to scrutinise concepts is to examine the use of the words that express them. Conceptual investigations are investigations into what makes sense and what does not. And, of course, questions of sense precede questions of empirical truth – for if something makes no sense, it can be neither true nor false. It is just nonsense – not silly, but rather: it transgresses the bounds of sense. Philosophy patrols the borders between sense and nonsense; science determines what is empirically true and what is empirically false. What falsehood is for science, nonsense is for philosophy.

Let me give you a simple example or two. When psychologists and cognitive scientists say that it is your brain that thinks rather than nodding your head and saying, “How interesting! What an important discovery!”, you should pause to wonder what this means. What, you might then ask, is a thoughtful brain, and what is a thoughtless one?

Can my brain concentrate on what I am doing, or does it just concentrate on what it is doing? Does my brain hold political opinions? Is it, as Gilbert and Sullivan might ask, a little Conservative or a little Liberal? Can it be opinionated? Narrow-minded? What on earth would an opinionated and narrow-minded brain be? Just ask yourself: if it is your brain that thinks, how does your brain tell you what it thinks? And can you disagree with it? And if you do, how do you tell it that it is mistaken, that what it thinks is false? And can your brain understand what you say to it? Can it speak English? If you continue this line of questioning you will come to realise that the very idea that the brain thinks makes no sense. But, of course, to show why it makes no sense requires a great deal more work.

Another example. There is a letter once attributed to Mozart in which he wrote that sometimes, when in the fever of creativity, he could hear the whole concerto that he was composing in a flash – all he then had to do was to write it down. On hearing this tale, you may nod your head wisely and think: “what an amazing genius! How could he possibly do such a thing?”

Roger Penrose, a distinguished scientist and mathematician, reflecting on the same letter, thought that we shall only be able to understand this remarkable phenomenon when we have an adequate theory of quantum gravity and a better understanding of time. “Ah,” you may think, “how true! How amazing!”

But you should pause, not to wonder whether what Mozart allegedly said is true, nor to wonder how he could do something so amazing, but to wonder whether this form of words means anything at all. After all, if he could hear the whole concerto in his imagination in a flash, all he would have imagined hearing was a crashing chord, not a concerto! In fact, the famous letter is a forgery. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the only sense that can be given to the phrase “hearing the concerto in one’s imagination in a flash” is that it means that he suddenly realised that he knew how to complete the concerto he was writing, not that he had already completed it in his imagination. The sudden dawning of an ability is not the same as its high-speed exercise, and to have a Eureka experience is not to rehearse the whole solution to a problem in a flash, but to know that one can rehearse the whole solution, on request, at normal speed.

So, why study philosophy?

There are many reasons, and many different kinds of reason. At a very general level, it is a unique technique for tackling conceptual questions that occur to most thinking people: questions concerning the existence of God, of an afterlife, and of free will. Also questions concerning human nature: what is the mind? How is the mind related to the body? Do we have a soul?

For although these look as if they are factual questions, they are not. They are purely conceptual questions that are to be resolved by conceptual inquiry. Philosophy also gives us techniques for handling fundamental methodological problems concerning explanations of human behaviour: what is the difference between being caused to do something, being made to do something, and acting for a reason? These in turn are pivotal for understanding the rights and wrongs of allocating responsibility. And philosophy is the sole subject that confronts questions about how we ought to live, what kind of society we ought to aspire to, and what system of laws befits rational beings living under the rule of law.

At a more specialised level, philosophy is a technique for examining the results of specific sciences for their conceptual coherence, and for examining the explanatory methods of the different sciences – natural, social and human. The sciences are no more immune to conceptual confusion than is any other branch of human thought. Scientists themselves are for the most part ill-equipped to deal with conceptual confusions.

One great task of philosophy is to function as a Tribunal of Sense before which scientists may be arraigned when they transgress the bounds of sense. For when a neuroscientist tells us that the mind is the brain or that thinking is a neural process; when an economist tells us that to act rationally is to pursue one’s desire-satisfaction, or that human felicity is the maximization of utility; when a psychologist claims that autism is the consequence of the neonates’ failure to develop a theory of mind, then we need philosophy to constrain science run amok.

The history of philosophy is a capital part of the history of ideas. To study the history of philosophy is to study an aspect of the intellectual life of past societies, and of our own society in the past. It makes a crucial contribution to the understanding of the history of past European societies. Equally, to understand our contemporary forms of thought, the ways in which we look at things, the study of the history of philosophy is essential. For we cannot know where we are, unless we understand how we got here.

The study of philosophy cultivates a healthy scepticism about the moral opinions, political arguments and economic reasonings with which we are daily bombarded by ideologues, churchmen, politicians and economists. It teaches one to detect ‘higher forms of nonsense’, to identify humbug, to weed out hypocrisy, and to spot invalid reasoning. It curbs our taste for nonsense, and gives us a nose for it instead. It teaches us not to rush to affirm or deny assertions, but to raise questions about them.

Even more importantly, it teaches us to raise questions about questions, to probe for their tacit assumptions and presuppositions, and to challenge these when warranted. In this way it gives us a distance from passion-provoking issues – a degree of detachment that is conducive to reason and reasonableness.

Sign up now for unlimited access to iai news.

You have reached your article limit.

Sign up for free

Join iai+ now to enjoy unlimited access

iai news

Get full access to our fortnightly ideas magazine, with features and interviews from the world's leading thinkers.

Have your say

iai tv

Watch more than 500 talks and debates across four channels of programming.

Hear it first


Be the first to discover the programme for HowTheLightGetsIn, the world's biggest philosophy festival, and enjoy exclusive iai+ insider offers.

Unique events

iai academy

Join our digital courses taught by renowned scholars from the humanities and natural sciences.

Read More:
Watch More:

Related articles

Join the conversation

to post comments or join now (only takes a moment). Don't have an account? Sign in with Facebook, Twitter or Google to get started:

Petar Pajević on 31/05/2014 3:52pm

I must respectfully disagree.

It is not always that we find mere conceptual analysis to be the whole of 'good philosophy'. Certainly, conceptual analysis is important (ex: what in the world is a concept?), but often methodological approaches define what concept is at play.

Our concepts aren't always best suited to inquiry and understanding. When we have analysed and explained what the concepts at play are, we are left at an impasse: we find that our concepts of reality (for an arbitrary example) are not in accord. This here is the end of analysis. We are now able to 'agree to disagree', but we aren't able to establish which concept is the better one to use. Certainly we wish to say that reality is not a bundle of sensations, yet analysis will only reveal that we think it isn't and our interlocutor thinks it is. As we move into the realm of claiming that they are mistaken, we have already left the realm of analysis and move into argumentation.

Are we suggesting a slight change in what our interlocutor means by 'reality'?-No. We are claiming that their view of the world is mistaken,and should they take our suggestion their approach to roughly everything will have to shift. We might say that 'this way of acting accords more with that', and use that as a claim that our way is better. What is this if not a claim of inconsistency between some claims in their approach? We might accept a methodological approach they put forward for the sake of argument, and derive a contradiction. What is this other than a reductio of their methodology? And should they agree that their methodology is flawed, their concepts will shift, and hopefully shift closer to our own.

In this way, the discussion on the difference of concepts comes down to a choice of methodologies.

Weaknesses: Vagueness of concept.
Strength: Claims that methodological approaches determine concepts, that analysis of concepts does not choose between competing methodological definitions.

T MM on 09/02/2014 12:15am

As they become much older, perhaps a philosophy course, utilizing the platonic process, might be suitable. That is, by rhetorical questioning, working one's way into a subject, even when little is known of the subject.

Niaz Butt on 30/01/2014 2:53pm

I agree with the writer about philosophe's contributions towards expanion of man's understanding about concepts and help in clearance of confusions in this regard.i think there is a difference between studying philosophy and developing a phlosophical and contemplative attitude towards issues which force themselves to our attention.I think besides having a grounding in philosophy and literature we also need exposure to other disciplines.

Michael Ahles on 25/01/2014 5:34pm

The science of physics is the measure of nature, a nature found truly of philosophically to be immeasurable. Truth is. =

Mind & Reason on iai tv
Most viewed
  • Talk: Metaphors of the Mind with Ophelia Deroy
    Metaphors of the Mind
    Neuroscientist Ophelia Deroy uncovers the origins of experience.
  • the next universe
    The Next Universe
    Eminent theoretical physicist Roger Penrose presents his extraordinary new view of the cosmos.
  • exotic england
    Exotic England
    Is English identity a fantasy of political propaganda? Yasmin Alibhai-Brown reclaims the nation
  • elegant truth final final
    The Elegant Truth
    Angela Breitenbach investigates elegance
  • Bold Text
    Example: [b]Bold[/b]
  • Italic Text
    Example: [i]Italics[/i]
  • Underlined Text
    Example: [u]Underlined[/u]
  • Struck-out Text
    Example: [s]Struck-out[/s]
  • Colored text
    Example: [color=blue]blue text[/color]
  • Alignment
    Example: [align=right]right aligned[/align]
  • Code Block
    Unformatted code block
    Example: [code]Code block[/code]
  • Email link
    Create link to an email address
    Example: [email]you@yoursite.com[/email]
  • Email link
    Create link to an email address
    Example: [email=you@yoursite.com]Email[/email]
  • Unordered list
    Unordered list
    Example: [ulist][*]unordered item 1[/ulist]
  • Image
    Show an image in your post
    Example: [img]http://www.website.com/image.jpg[/img]
  • Website link
    Link to another website or URL
    Example: [url]http://www.website.com/[/url]
  • Website link
    Link to another website or URL
    Example: [url=http://www.website.com/]Website[/url]
Sign up for free now for unlimited access to all articles on iai news, as well as our entire library of debates, talks and courses.

You have read 4 articles on iai.news. To read more than 6 per month you need to join iai+. Joining iai+ is free and gives you free unlimited access to iai.tv and iai.news.
You have reached your monthly limit of articles. Sign up for free to continue exploring the ideas behind the headlines. You’ll also get access to our entire library of debates, talks and courses.

Why sign up for the iai?
  • Discover new ideas
    Free and unlimited access to hundreds of hours of debates, talks and articles from the world's leading minds, as well as courses that rival top academic institutions.
  • Have your say
    Join the iai community and engage in conversation and debate around the issues that matter.
  • Hear it first
    Be the first to hear about our video releases, articles and tickets to our upcoming events.
Sign me up