The value of doing philosophy

Abstract. There are four different views you might have about progress in philosophy. First, you can deny that philosophy makes progress, but say it is intrinsically valuable. Second, you can assert that it is valuable because it makes progress in knowledge production. Third, you can say it is valuable because it makes progress in molding our practices in dealing with the world. Fourth, you can deny that it makes progress, but say instead that it is valuable or productive insofar as it helps make sense of the world. I advocate the fourth view.

Suppose someone asks the philosopher: “what is the point of doing what you do?”

Not every vocation needs to be asked this question. If a man grinds lenses for a living, no reasonable person could ask him, “What are you going to do with the study of lens-grinding?” The answer is embedded in the question. The point of an education in lens-grinding is to master the ability to grind lenses in order to be in a positive relationship with the production of lenses. And one may appreciate the value of a plastic lens for various purposes without seeing much value in learning how to grind them. What makes it so easy to say that lens-grinding is productive is that someone who does not grind lenses can see what the lens-grinder gets done, and can in principle appreciate the product without caring about how it got done.

Let’s suppose that some practice is productive just in case it (a) aims to produce some valuable output, and (b) the value of the output can be appreciated independently of whether or not one appreciates the practice that makes it. Here is an illustration. We can say that an assembly line (A) which makes valuable widgets is a productive practice. Now imagine have an assembly line (B) which makes machinery parts whose only function is to keep the assembly line running. We may say that (B) is an unproductive practice: if you are not sold on the value of a self-perpetuating assembly line, then you will necessarily fail to see any value to the output of that assembly line. So we can say that philosophy is productive just in case philosophers both aim at accomplishing something other than doing philosophy for its own sake, and actually do accomplish that thing on some semi-regular basis.

When you cash out ‘productivity’ in this this way, philosophy looks as though it might be in trouble. Unlike lens-grinding, philosophers don’t produce some independent abstract entity known as ‘philosophy’ as much as they produce a body of literature and reproduce a set of social and cognitive practices which are themselves a continuation of the philosophical tradition.[1] Hence, it is hard to use the language of ‘productivity’ when describing philosophy, since on first blush it seems as though the act of doing philosophy just is the point of doing it. On some variants of this view, there is no alternative but to say that philosophy is its own point because the practice of ‘doing philosophy’ is defined so broadly as to include both the fruits of the practice and the practice itself. Hence, it is commonly said that the very question of ‘what is philosophy and what is it good for?’ is itself a philosophical question.

The idea that philosophy should be done for its own sake might be called the ‘primacy of philosophy’ view. There are some attractions to this view.[2] However, it is actually anathema to the fortunes of professional philosophy — if philosophy is intrinsically valuable, then questions about whether the philosopher makes progress will turn out to be moot. By the same token, the first-blush characterization implies that one cannot appreciate the value of philosophy without appreciating the value of doing philosophy (and vice-versa). So, on this view, to question the productivity of the practice is to undermine the presupposition that the practice itself is worth doing, at least insofar as it is realized as a professional activity. If you have to ask the question, one might say, priggishly, then you’ll never know the answer.

Hence so long as this is all we have to say about the value of philosophy, the question “What are you going to do with the study of philosophy?” will pose an existential threat. This is a potentially innocent question, and it deserves a patient and worthy answer. So it seems to me that, to the extent that professional philosophers publicly advocate the view that philosophy is intrinsically valuable, they are contributing to the demise of the profession.

I reject the ‘primacy of philosophy’ view. Philosophy is not intrinsically valuable, in any self-evident sense; that is a needlessly pretentious opinion. And to reject the ‘primacy of philosophy’ view is to believe (as I do) that philosophy has to be productive in order to be worthy of approbation and support. If so, then we need to say what counts as ‘productivity’. There are a few options here. One proposal is to say that philosophy is productive to the extent that it makes progress. Another is to say that philosophy is productive so long as it involves collective convergence upon the truth by the community of philosophers – what I call the ‘primacy of knowledge’ view. Another is what we might call the ‘primacy of practice’ view, which emphasizes the importance of philosophy to social organization and practices. And a final view is that philosophy is productive to the extent that it makes sense of things, or the ‘primacy of sense-making’ view.

The first three accounts fail to explain what philosophers generally aspire to do. While philosophy is productive when it does its part in the production of knowledge about the true and the right, knowledge production cannot be the general aim of philosophy since much of productive philosophy involves making conjectures and not assertions of truth or rightness. And while philosophy is productive when it self-consciously affects practical affairs, many professional philosophers are self-consciously modest about their practical aims because philosophy is beset by the problem of over-involvement.

I argue that philosophy is productive to the extent that it improves our surface understanding of things, appropriately titled the ‘primacy of sense-making’ view. I develop a rough model of ‘how we make sense of things’, and argue that understanding is both essentially connected with knowledge and practice, and productive in its own right. By characterizing productivity in philosophy in this way, my hope is that we can describe what philosophy is good for to people who aren’t already sold on the value of doing it.

Productivity, not progress

To say that philosophy is productive is not to say that philosophy makes progress.[3] Suppose that a productive practice makes progress in the sense that their contents are unlikely to encounter legitimate wholesale revision. For example, it is at least plausible to say that large-scale natural science has made progress because it involves the assessment of theories about the world by the examination of evidence, using institutional controls which (ostensibly) mitigate the influence of bias. Because of that ostensible detachment, and because of the stability of the subject matter (say, the observable behavior of planets), natural scientists can be reasonably confident that their findings will not be entirely upended at some time in the future. Even scientific revolutions typically involve the preservation of continuity; e.g., the Newtonian system is preserved as a limiting case even after the Einsteinian one. (Friedman) The objectivity of their subject and their detachment in their assessment of evidence is a reason to believe that scientific theories will survive pessimistic meta-induction.[4]

In contrast, philosophers do not vocationally aspire to assess evidence and theory in a detached manner. After all, the philosopher aims to argue, not to just explain; and to argue for some thesis is to involve yourself in that thesis as a proponent of it. If we assume that even productive philosophers engage in argument, then we should be able to say that they are directly involved with their philosophical theories. In philosophy, there are fewer methodological strictures to control for bias, which would be entirely strange if we assumed that the practice of philosophy was best conceived by analogy to science. But if we think that philosophy is primarily about involving oneself in the arguments they make, then in some sense our methodological neglect is entirely understandable even if it is not commendable. And to the extent that we are confident that a discipline makes progress so long as the merits of its theories are assessed under a norm of detachment, we have grounds for thinking that the current orthodoxy in philosophy might encounter legitimate wholesale revision sometime in the future, even when we acknowledge that it is productive in some sense.

So there are no guarantees that philosophy will make progress in any relevant sense even when it is productive.

One may respond to this by saying: “it is time to do better philosophy”. Perhaps if philosophers took a bit of care to detach themselves from their interesting theories, then maybe they would end up doing something that makes some progress. This would be a legitimate view, and may be worth defense. But I happen to see things another way; I would prefer to just give up on the ideal of ‘progress’. Once we give up on the language of ‘progress’, we will not have to be confronted with the achievement of unrealistic benchmarks like irreversible consensus.

The primacy of practice

According to one view, the point of doing philosophy is to change our social institutions and the way we see ourselves.[5] Partisans of this view will argue that philosophy is productive only so long as it has effects upon social practices and psychological self-knowledge. We may call this the ‘primacy of practice’ view.

One of the nice things about the primacy of practice view is that you don’t need to do much work to sell people on the value of the practical. (Who would disagree that the practical cash-value of a theory is what makes it worthwhile?) If it so happens that philosophy is only good for something if it changes the world in some way, and if it sometimes does change the world in a big way, then there is no mistaking the difference between the process of doing philosophy and the product. If the ‘primacy of philosophy’ view is a non-starter because it makes no distinction between the product and the practice, the primacy of practice view is refreshing precisely because it makes a very clear distinction between product and practice.

On first blush, it seems as though the primacy of practice view will lead us to downplay the usefulness of philosophy in general, since the aim of changing how people think themselves and their society is not in and of itself a central aim of philosophy broadly speaking. Moreover, the ‘primacy of practice’ view seems like a mis-characterization of professional philosophy, partly because much of contemporary analytic philosophy does not advertise itself as engaged in an activist project of that kind.

However one should not be misled by appearances. The fact is, countless examples of dry analysis are grounded in wet social and political realities. Jason Stanley’s intellectualism is ostensibly motivated by a disagreement with Hannah Arendt. Joseph Heath’s work in the philosophy of economics arises out of his reaction to the Frankfurt School. And there are philosophers who are doing significant work at the intersection of the sciences and public policy: Ned Block on intelligence and mind, Barbara Forrest on evolution and intelligent design. The logical positivists were themselves engaged in a kind of critical project, following what we now think of as the Enlightenment belief in the progressive powers of human rationality. (Rolf George) I am sure that a very exciting book could be written about the deep wells of human concern which are hidden below the surface of otherwise arid philosophical systems.

The difficulty with the ‘primary of practice’ view is not that it is inaccurate as a general description of what many philosophers aim to do. The difficulty is that philosophers are often self-consciously modest about the practical point of their philosophical projects. One of the main reasons why many professional analytic philosophers value professional modesty in part because of the ‘problem of over-involvement’: that is, the use of wishful thinking in the interpretation of evidence that is used to support and apply a theory.

There are many ways in which philosophical theories are practical, and have a practical influence in the ways that Rorty describes. But it is rare to find a philosophical theory which can be directly and mechanically applied to concrete cases without being mediated either by deft ad hoc reasoning or by mid-level principles. e.g., an action in a case cannot be assessed against the categorical imperative without first having some idea how to appropriately characterize the action in a way that makes sense. Given that philosophical theories aim at generality, any attempt to develop a mechanical means of applying these theories in practice will frequently result in absurd and infelicitous results. Mid-level theories are essential to making sense of practice in terms of theory and vice-versa.

The fact is that most of our philosophical systems directly apply to the things we care about – justice, reasoning, truth, objectivity, reality, morality – without directly applying to the things we do with what we care about – law, education, entertainment, journalism, science, and every-day life. Unfortunately, this means that philosophers who do try to apply their theories directly to the things we do with what we care about will either have to create mid-level theories, or else run the risk of over-involvement. The professional philosopher often wrinkles their nose in disdain when a speaker mixes pop-culture references into a screed about some abstracta, but this reaction amounts to mere prejudice so long as it is an expression of elevation from day to day affairs. It is because the links between theory and practice are often made in a dubious way.

The risk of philosophical over-involvement in theory is significant enough that it potentially affects the optics of argument in the profession. Indeed, once one makes their grand project explicit, they may be thought by others to be over-involved whether or not they actually have made a solid assessment of the evidence and explained its relation to theory. This, or something like it, seems to govern the professional analytic philosopher’s reluctance to advertise the connection between theory and practice.

But even if philosophy ever does become a discipline which is characteristic for offering guidance about how to organize social institutions, one must not lose sight of two things. First, it is a fact that much of that change in social structures will involve changing how people conceive of themselves as social agents. While a change in self-conception might count as some kind of alteration in our social practices, the mere change in self-conception will only be ‘practical’ in the weakest possible sense of ‘practice’, the latter being centrally concerned with bodily movements of a certain kind. When interpreted at this level of generality the term ‘practice’ becomes indistinguishable from the notion of ‘sense-making’. Second, general philosophical theories will always require the assistance of mid-level theories before they can be applied in practice; and these intermediate theories are often involved in what we might call ‘sense-making’, e.g., the proper interpretation of what counts as an action in the case of the categorical imperative.

The primacy of knowledge

On another view, the object of philosophy is to increase our collective knowledge about general states of affairs. Let’s call this the ‘primacy of knowledge’ view. Proponents of this view might say that philosophy is productive just in case philosophers collectively converge upon the truth on some big philosophical questions. David Chalmers, for example, argues that “reaching true belief, and indeed knowledge, is a primary aim of philosophy, probably the primary aim of philosophy. After all, most philosophy, or at least most analytic philosophy, seems to consist in putting forward theses as true, and arguing for their truth.” A more radical version of this view was endorsed by Hans Reichenbach when he argued that contemporary philosophy was in the process of diverging away from the method of speculation and transforming into a science.

If convergence upon the truth is the standard for philosophical productivity, then the evidence tells us that the Western philosophical tradition has been enormously productive. Philosophers in the West have (rightly) achieved collective agreement on the issue of whether or not there is an external world. (The majority of them favor some kind of realism.) We might quibble over whether or not this consensus is a ‘large convergence’, or we might doubt that this collective convergence on the big questions will last forever. These would give us reasons to doubt that philosophy has made any progress. But we might still say that philosophy has been productive in some plausible sense.

If we think that philosophers recognize that their activity is productive only to the extent that their activities bottom out in convergence upon knowledge of the true and the right, then we have got to make sense of the fact (if it is a fact) that philosophical discourse is split between arguing in favor of the truth of assertions and arguing in favor of the plausibility of conjectures and claims about appearances.

It is not clear that actual convergence upon knowledge of the true and the right is the feature of philosophy which makes it productive, since (pace Chalmers) it does not seem to me that a representative sample of analytic philosophy involves presenting theses as true. Many of our attempts to arrive at the true and the right require conjectures, speculations, and sustained observations about the appearances.[6] Even the advocate of scientific philosophy must acknowledge the value in crafting a hypothesis; the damage comes from presenting a hypothesis as a theory or explanation.

The point here is not that philosophers are uninterested in truth and knowledge. The point is that the project of understanding how things seem to us, intellectually and perceptually, is very much a going concern, and is the primary aim of doing philosophy, and the achievement of it counts as productivity. If that’s right, then some particular work in philosophy can be of satisfying quality even if it only functions to review plausible doctrines which are justifiable and worthy of serious consideration. This is consistent, I think, with the idea that philosophers only take conjectures seriously so long as they have a positive place in the production of knowledge about the true and the right. And, to be sure, there are disagreements about what kinds of assertions and conjectures play a constructive role in the process of knowledge production. But that only means that knowledge of truth and rightness is the distal aim of doing philosophy, which misses out on the primary aim.

So the ‘primacy of knowledge’ view needs to make sense of the fact that conjectures and reports about seemings have a central place in the practice of professional philosophy. We can, of course, make meaningful statements about the truth of claims that are about appearances, or about conjectures. In that case, we might infer that conjectures and reports are valuable only so long as they have a positive place in the production of knowledge about the true and the right somewhere along the line. We explore the space of reasons for believing in things because our long-term goal is to find the best reasons, the best beliefs, and the best answers to the big questions. But that is at best a claim about what philosophers are doing in the long haul, and not what philosophers actually do, or what they aim to do understood through the lens of what they actually do in the short-term. The philosopher produces knowledge only in the loose sense in which the lens-grinder produces improved eyesight.

The primacy of sense-making

Much of philosophy aims at doing its part in separating the true from the false and the right from the wrong. Reforms in institutions which separate the true from the false are productive in a sense that is familiar to those who advocate the ‘primacy of knowledge’ view; reforms in institutions which involve separation of right from wrong are most familiar to those who advocate the ‘primacy of practice’ view.

Be that as it may, the desire to advance our knowledge of the right and the true is a distal aim, not the immediate product of philosophizing. The immediate aim of philosophical work is to separate truth and falsity from bullshit, ambiguity, and outright nonsense. This involves distinguishing true and false claims from the ambiguous thoughts with slipshod inferential commitments. It is a productive success in philosophy when, in the pursuit of facts about the true and the right, our intuitions can be articulated and communicated as bonefide beliefs, and especially if a niggling doubt can be pinned down and attributed to some source.

It might be useful, then, to say that philosophers aim to do something productive just in case they make sense of the world and of each other without thereby also generating unnecessary confusion. Philosophers aim at knowledge of truth and rightness. But along the way, they also acknowledge that it is valuable to make sense out of the true and the right. This is what I call the ‘primacy of sense-making’ view.

The ‘primacy of sense-making’ view has many antecedents. As I conceive of it, the view is the spiritual inheritor of Sellars, who famously quipped that “the aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term”. But the closest possible articulation of the view that I am stating here was memorably advocated by Peter Winch, who argued that the pursuit of general understanding in philosophy is neither subordinate to nor superior to the sciences. Philosophy is like science in that both practices aim to arrive at knowledge about reality. But philosophy is unlike science in that it is especially concerned with figuring out what counts as making sense in that domain.

I am using the word ‘sense-making’ to describe a process of the understanding whose point is to produce true representations of the world and each other which are, in some important sense, the best. In my usage, a person makes sense of something if the person’s mental representations optimally fit together with their actions and their physical and social world. ‘Sense-making’ involves having the right relationship between a representation, the thing it is about, and the things we care about, such that one’s confusion is diminished and their understanding is improved.

Sense-making necessarily involves being part of an intellectual and social project of arriving at knowledge of truth and rightness, but may deviate from that process in the short term. Sense-making comes prior to arriving at an understanding of how things actually are.

There are useful examples of philosophical practices which are better articulated by the use of the language of sense-making. Some philosophers care about ontology of fundamental particles; e.g., the electron. But they do this, not because the shape of the electron necessarily matters for the purposes of current scientific explanations or predictions, or because that knowledge would make for an improvement in scientific accuracy. Some philosophers care about ontology because it feels like there are gaps in the global picture, and they believe that it is both reasonable and legitimate to worry about filling these gaps because they suspect that we might be missing out on knowledge of potential truths. But whether or not there are any new truths to find, the pursuit can be a productive one, just because part of their picture of the world has been filled. Ontology is part of philosophy. Whether one thinks of ontology as an overly precious vanity exercise (hence unproductive), or as just an extension of the healthy desire for curiosity (productive), what one should not say that the reward lies in the mere apprehension of the truth. And it is open for debate whether or not any new propositional knowledge has been gained. But whatever we say, it does seem natural that we should claim that the world makes sense in a way that it did not before.

One of the potential ways of making sense of the world is by showing how mid-level theories have concrete effects upon how we interact with and perceive the world, understood in terms of our practices and affordances. I think that it is perfectly sensible to pay close attention to the effects that a change in a person’s understanding of the world will have on the ways that they interact with it, and the opportunities for action they perceive in light of their understanding. The pragmatist who thinks philosophy is only good for something so long as we change how we see ourselves and order social affairs ought to be deeply interested in the task of making sense of things. The difference is that the project of making sense of things is itself a product of philosophy which can be appreciated independently of whether or not you value the philosophical way of going about it.


Of course, the notion of achieving the ‘optimal quality of fit’ between one’s representations of things and the things themselves needs to be given further specification. If philosophy is productive, then we have to be able to show that ‘it is better to understand the way things are by thinking of it as X than as Y’ is not just code for saying ‘philosophers say that this way of speaking X is better than Y’.[7]

In principle, a person could value uncovering confusions in our questions and assertions, and value the development of perspectives about the true and the right, and taking responsibility for the institutions of knowledge, without valuing philosophy and its characteristic methods. Of course, if you are speaking to someone who does not value making sense of things, then these considerations will make no difference. Similarly, you cannot defend the value of grinding lenses to someone who does not see the value of lenses for its various purposes. But it is a fact that many will value the advancement of sight which is associated with the lens, or the effect of the lens in concentrating light rays upon a point; and, by analogy, it is a fact that many will value knowledge and practices which are associated with the activity of understanding.

Moreover, in principle, it is possible for self-described philosophers to fail to do any of these things. We can care about sense-making, and understand it as the aim of philosophy, without necessarily believing that sense-making is just trivially identical to doing philosophy. The day may come when all sense-making is consigned either to common sense or the sciences, and self-described inheritors of philosophy will lose claim to the endeavor. To the extent that the practice of professional philosophy falls short of being productive in these ways, it is not worth doing.


[1] The social and cognitive practices are not easy to characterize, but they usually involve some familiar idols of the Western philosophical tradition: argument, reflection, and ratiocination.

[2] It is completely respectable, if not laudable, to claim that the notion of ‘productivity’ does not apply to philosophy, since the notion of ‘productivity’ implies that philosophy is primarily about doing things, while the reality is that philosophy is actually about being certain (virtuous) sorts of people. Actually, I tend to think that the ‘primacy of philosophy’ view can be coherently and persuasively endorsed on these grounds – not as a profession, but as a way of life aimed toward wisdom.

[3] The term, ‘progress’ is a fraught one. It has been sometimes meant to refer to something like what I have referred to as cumulative productivity.

[4] Of course, this story may be a bit sanguine; perhaps large-scale natural science does go through periods of wholesale revision. But that will only give us reason to doubt that science makes any progress, either. Since I am arguing against the use of the concept of progress, this tack would only help the argument I am pursuing.

[5] So one might agree with Richard Rorty when he says that “The people who are writing footnotes to footnotes to footnotes to Plato are making suggestions about how we might think of ourselves and how we might organize society.”

[6] Some probative evidence can be found to support the thesis that philosophy has not lost touch with its concern for the appearances. A search of Mind for the Pyrrhonian trope “it seems to me that” shows that the phrase occurs with similar frequency during each quarter-century (1901-1925:194, 1926-1950:260, 1951-1975:264, 1975-2000:211) than it did in the first years of the journal (1876-1900, 163 times). (Curiously, the phrase is used roughly as much between the period of 1975-2000 as it was during 1901-1925 (211 and 194, respectively), though this is still well above the early years.) Although Mind tends to publish 400-550 pages per year, some years (esp. 1926-1950) have been less than that number, which may account for some of the variation between periods.

To be sure, it would be futile to do a search for assertions of truth for the purposes of comparison, since such assertions would be boundlessly large. But this owes to the fact that assertions of truth are a commonplace in natural language use in general.

[7] Showing that one representation is better than another will involve weighing some kind of explicit criteria (or values). No doubt some of the values are old stand-bys that Kuhnians use in the assessment of how scientists choose theories: e.g., accuracy, consistency, fruitfulness, scope, and generality. To the extent that philosophical theory choice is based on the project of trying to make sense of things, philosophers will make reference to their own desiderata, e.g., transparency, communal engagement, probity, and authenticity.

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