The Value of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell (Chapter XV of Problems of Philosophy)

Rubric: Explain Russell’s take on the central value of philosophy. In the final part of your answer, provide a reasoned evaluation of some aspect of Russell’s defense of philosophical inquiry that includes some discussion of an example or two that you think illustrates the importance of philosophy in relation to living and acting in the world.

Russell’s argument is of the vein that studying philosophy is an end in itself. Many fields in science offer us technical knowledge to enhance our material comforts. But this cannot be the sole objective of our existence. Deliberating fundamental questions on the meaning of life, human nature, the cosmos, etc do not have any commercial value. But a life lived without such philosophical speculation is quite limited and enslaved.

Philosophy helps us to broaden our intellectual and emotional horizons by subjugating our self-interest. It cultivates in us to focus on the non-Self, which liberates us from individual petty concerns and veers our consciousness toward bigger questions on the human condition. In other words, if specialized disciplines in science are preoccupied with the ‘how’ question, philosophy is concerned with the ‘why’ question. As Russell aptly terms it, philosophy helps us to move beyond the ‘here and now’. In doing so, it makes us separate from the particular circumstances of history and culture, thereby experiencing a universal mode of existence.

Uncertainty is a basic feature of philosophy, where various answers are proposed for any given question. It is this element of uncertainty that distinguishes philosophy from other scientific disciplines. But instead of causing ambiguity, the open-ended speculations actually enhance our imagination and identify novel solutions. As the magisterium of our mind is expanded we become calmer and more secure. Unlike the defensive and anxious behaviour of the unenlightened person, the one well-versed with philosophy is able to negotiate all sorts of contingencies in life with relative ease.

I totally agree with Russell’s assessment of the value of philosophy. I strongly believe that philosophy should be moved into mainstream academia, away from its perception as an esoteric pursuit. Today, almost every major problem in society is caused as a result of an unenlightened citizenry. With education increasingly becoming skill-oriented or vocational, generations of adults graduate from college without social consciousness. Studying philosophy mitigates this phenomenon by prompting us with valid questions. And in attempting to answer them we will actually find answers to many pressing problems of our time. Problems such as environmental degradation or potential nuclear warfare could be prevented through widespread philosophical discussions. For example, in order for us to seek solutions to the problem of global warming, we first have to agree on salvaging our species from extinction. Here, philosophy helps set our priorities.

Finally, my impression is that Russell’s take on the central value of philosophy harks back to Plato’s famous remark that ‘a life lived unexamined is not worth living’. This statement was delivered just before Plato was executed for disobeying royal orders. In his view, there can be no greater liberty than that afforded by truth, even if it were to lead to our death. On the contrary the one who lives a compromised life for the sake of safety has displayed disregard for the truth.