Why Philosophy is More Than Instrumentally Useful

Whenever I tell people I study philosophy, the follow up question is usually a variation on "why?" In this essay I plan to defend my chosen field of study from the position that many of those people adopt, i.e. that philosophy has run its course and is now a useless archaic subject. I intend to show how many of these people unintentionally adopt the same position as a group of philosophers called "logical positivists," and plan to show the cracks and holes inherent to the worldview


I plan for this piece to serve as a quick primer on why philosophy is useful and why it should not be discarded like an old pair of socks.

Section 1: An Introduction, Some Terms, and a Little History 

Subheading 1: Introduction

The main anti-philosophy argument I intend to address in this essay reads roughly as follows:

Philosophy is useless because, while it claims to be a path to Truth, no philosophical claims are empirically verifiable, therefore philosophy's value is, at best, instrumental, as it teaches critical thinking and writing skills

The assumption made in the above argument is:

All claims must be empirically verifiable via science in order to be true

The above claim is an extreme form of scientism espoused by people like Richard Dawkins and many people in STEM fields. I would like to address the flaws in the above claim in order, but first a quick history lesson. 

Subheading 2: A Quick Philosophy Primer

While a lot of people think that the above claim is new, it really isn't. There was a philosophical movement in the 20s and 30s called logical positivism, originally started in Vienna, that espoused similar views. But to understand them, first we have to understand what they were reacting to. So, here's a quick little philosophy lesson:

There are 4 kinds of claims according to(some) philosophers: Synthetic a priori, analytic a priori, synthetic a posteriori, and analytic a posteriori.

Synthetic judgements are those which have distinct subjects and predicates

Analytic judgements are those which have subjects contained within their predicates

A priori means purely via reason

And a posteriori means empirically derived

It's okay if that all sounded like word vomit to you, I'm going to explain what those all are

Synthetic judgments have subjects distinct from predicates. For instance, if I make the claim that "The Majority Leader of the Senate is Mitch McConnell," the subject is distinct from the predicate. In other words, "the Majority Leader of the Senate" is not by definition "Mitch McConell."

Analytic judgments are the opposite, their subjects are found within their predicates. For instance, if I say "all bachelors are unmarried men" then the subject is contained within the predicate. All bachelors, by definition, are unmarried men

A priori judgments are a little harder. They are claims that are not based in the outside world or sensory data. A great example is math. You could be on the moon or in space, math is gonna be constant. This, most importantly, makes a priori judgments always true.

A posteriori judgments are the opposite, they are grounded in observations of reality. For instance, I could say "that apple is red" and that would be an a posteriori judgment because it is based in observation.

So, now that we know all that, let's define the four kinds of knowledge:

Analytic a posteriori judgments can't exist, since you need to appeal to experience to make an a posteriori judgement in the first place. The subject can never be found in the predicate. For instance, I can never make the claim "crows are black" because in order to do so I need to reference the outside experience of seeing black crows.

Synthetic a posteriori judgments are pretty common, for instance I can say "crows are black" because I can appeal to my experience of seeing a ton of black crows

Analytic a priori judgments are possible and contain most logic and pretty straightforward matters of definition. For instance, "a claim can't be true and untrue simultaneously" is analytic a priori because it does not appeal to any experience, and claims are, by definition, true or false.

Synthetic a priori is funky, and I don't really wanna fully go into it here, but it's a form of pure logic where subjects are distinct from predicates, where you have to appeal to some outside experience to justify a logical deduction. Kant believed that math, specifically arithmatic and geometry, is synthetic a priori since math appeals to the outside concepts of space and time. For instance, if I were to ask you "what's the shortest distance between two points" you would say "a straight line." But nowhere within the concept of "shortest distance between points" is found the concept of "straight" or "line." If you wanna learn a little more about that, go read "Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics." And, full disclosure, I still don't really get synthetic a priori myself.

Subheading 3: Phew, Thank God We're Done With That Boring Stuff, Back to Logical Positivism Please

Most importantly what we should get from the above is that logical positivists reject synthetic a priori knowledge completely, and say that only form of knowledge is synthetic a posteriori, and to some extent analytic a priori. They founded their belief system on the following principle(which closely matches modern critiques of philosophy)

Only empirically verifiable statements are cognitively meaningful


This claim has a bunch of corollaries like the correspondence theories of truth. There are also a number of Logical Positivists who preserved analytical definitional claims due to this correspondence theory of truth, but in a contemporary context none of these arguments are used to critique the study of philosophy, and thus are only tangentially relevant. They're pretty cool though. I would strongly recommend Ayer's "Language, Truth and Logic" to anyone interested.

Subheading 4: Why This has Anything to do With Contemporary Critiques of Philosophy

Most modern critics of philosophy, intentionally or not, use the same arguments as logical positivists. For instance, they argue that metaphysics is useless because we can empirically show how the universe works, or that ethics is meaningless now that we are pretty sure the universe has no greater purpose. 

They allege that philosophy is nothing but empty speculation, and that since science uses empirical evidence, it can give concrete answers to any problem we have. 

Since these statements tend to boil down to "anything non-empirical cannot answer questions as effectively as empirical data can," they very closely resemble the verification principle discussed in subheading 3.

In the next section I plan to show the issues with this claim, and in the process will show why philosophy is useful

Section 2: Alright, Finally Some Actual Arguments

There are three main issues with the "empiricism only" position, namely:
  1. The verification principle fails to meet its own standard of evidence
  2. The verification principle does not allow for normative judgments of any kind, including ethics
  3. The verification principles does not allow for any non-descriptive logic, like pure math

Going through them one by one:

Subheading 1: The verification principle fails to meet its own standard

This is a fairly simple objection, which is why I put it first. Namely, if all statements must be empirically backed to be cognitively meaningful, where is the empirical data showing that the verification principle is true? If there is none, doesn't that mean that the project fails right out the gate because it fails to meet its own standard of truth?

It could be argued that the claim is analytic a priori(which is still allowed in logical positivism as it describes self evident logical truths like the principle of non-contradiction) but that falls apart once you reflect on the nature of analytic truths. As stated before, they require the subject to be found within the predicate. And nowhere in the concept of "cognitively meaningful" is found the concept of "only empirically verifiable statements."

This in and of itself should be enough to convince adherents of scientism that philosophy might have something of value to add to their lives, but there are even more flaws found within scientism, namely...

Subheading 2: No Normative Claims for you!

For those who don't know, a normative claim is a claim that talks about how something should be as opposed to describing how it presently is. For instance "Donald Trump should not be President" is a normative claim, as contrasted with "Donald Trump is president, unfortunately" which is a descriptive claim.

The problem with the verification principle is it only allows for descriptive claims, and quite literally throws out the very concept of normative claims.

Because normative claims deal with worlds other than our own, and the concepts of "better" or "worse" cannot be empirically defined, normative claims are impossible. 

The verification principle at best allows for claims like "if we had a single payer healthcare system fewer people would die" but you can't establish that people dying is a bad thing in the first place with the verification principle. You can't prove that people dying is a bad thing empirically, heck empirically the concepts of "bad" or "good" are nonsensical since they are inherently non empirical.

This leads to another large problem with the verification principle, namely that it doesn't allow for ethics. Of any kind. All ethical claims are normative ones, since they deal with how we ought to behave. Therefore, if we adhere to scientism and the verification principle, we are forced into the position of being unable to say any action is better or worse than another one.

Not a fun place to be, since actions like voting are normative statements. So if you truly think science is the only discipline with a claim to the truth, then you probably shouldn't vote

Subheading 3: No Math for you

Well I lied, maybe a little math. Remember before how I mentioned math is synthetic a priori? Well, the verification principle doesn't allow for synthetic a priori because it is neither definitional nor empirically backed!

Logical positivists got around this by trying to reduce math to basic rules of logic(which I won't get into here, but short version is they failed) or by claiming it functions similarly to language, in that it describes empirical phenomena.

I'll be addressing the second approach as it's the more cogent one. The main problem with treating math as an adjective to the noun that is reality is that you end up in uncomfortable situations. For instance, if we count all the countable things in existance(for instance, however many planck lengths there are in the universe) then we get a very big number. But if we are treating math as an adjective, then adding one to that number is nonsensical, because it ceases to describe anything.

Pure math, concepts like infinity, etc... are all thrown by the wayside when you treat math as just a descriptor for the universe. So if you wanna adopt the(frankly idiotic) position that there are a limited number of numbers, then scientism is the belief system for you!

Subheading 4: Enough Bashing Scientism, What Does Philosophy Have to Offer?

All the above critiques are great, but nobody is gonna want to study philosophy just because the alternative is idiotic. 

In short, philosophy attempts to offer some answers to the following questions:
  • Is math real in the same way physical reality is? 
  • Is formal logic real? Is it somehow built into the fabric of reality? Or is it a human creation with no actual connection to the universe and we should drop it completely?
  • How should governments be constructed?
  • What ethical responsibilities do I have to other people? What about to myself?
  • What rights do people have? Why do they have them?
Among hundereds of others. None of these questions can be answered empirically, because frankly the idea that every question has a scientific answer is preposterous. 

So if you wanna start talking about some non-empirical truths, come on over to the philosophy camp, we're pretty cool.

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