How Useful Is Philosophy, Really?

It’s a commonplace of research into human behavior that most of what you do is caused by your inborn personality traits, your underlying biology, the society and location and class and family into which you’re born and in which you’re raised, and so on – plus a smattering of luck and chance events. It can seem that all these causes conspire to leave little room for your ideals and aspirations and worldview and conscious choices to have much of an impact.

Once upon a time I thought that philosophy makes all the difference in life. The evidence indicates that’s not the case. Yet that doesn’t mean the love of wisdom is useless.

First, I suspect that more of the foregoing causes are changeable than might appear at first blush. For instance, there’s quite a bit of evidence that personality can and usually does change over the span of a lifetime: in terms of the five-factor model, people tend to become more conscientious and emotionally stable (because career responsibilities and human relationships require these qualities).

Second, gaining wisdom enables you to adjust to the realities of your life, and to live with them better. As a simple example, understanding your own biology (say, your stimulation threshold or your sensitivity to sugar) can help you to make better choices and, as Aristotle points out, to steer in the opposite direction.

Third, there are plenty of people in the same general situation as you in terms of nature and nurture. How do you differentiate yourself from them? Here I think philosophy can be something of a secret weapon, because it gives you a long-term life plan, it guides your actions and initiatives large and small, it provides a greater degree of consistency and integrity in your behavior, and it helps you maintain equanimity and perspective in the face of unexpected trials and triumphs.

Furthermore, beyond these practical benefits can be found the less tangible delights of exploring the deep and beautiful worlds of the intellect. But I’ll admit that’s a tougher sale these days…

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