What Is Philosophy For?

Occasionally one reads something so singularly misguided that it puts into stark relief a vital concern of human existence. In the case at hand, the vital concern is the place of philosophy in the best life for human beings and the piece of writing is a scholarly paper published just last week by philosopher Hanno Sauer, entitled The End of History.

Professor Sauer argues that there is little value to be gained in reading the so-called great philosophers of human history: Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and all the rest. Sure, their works might be enjoyable and might give us insights into the strange things that people believed in the past, but they are useless toward solving the most important philosophical problems. As he so succinctly puts it: “The epistemic aims of philosophy, if there are any, are largely frustrated by engaging with the history of philosophy.”

Naturally this raises the question: what are the aims of philosophy? Philosophy itself, of course, has no aims, any more than biology or history does; it’s human beings who have aims and goals and purposes. And the human beings whom Professor Sauer has in mind are his fellow practitioners of theoretical philosophy, whose aims are, as he puts it, epistemic. In ancient Greek, ἐπιστήμη was deep understanding of a particular domain and an ἐπιστημής was a person possessing that kind of deep understanding – in modern parlance, an expert. Thus the question of “the epistemic aims of philosophy” can be converted into this: “what is the role in human life of experts in theoretical philosophy?”

All the ancient philosophers – Greek, Chinese, Indian, Roman – were in agreement that philosophy is the love of wisdom and that wisdom help us make good everyday decisions about how to live well as human beings in human societies; thus philosophy is primarily a way of life and only very much secondarily a theoretical pursuit. As one prominent example, Aristotle held that wisdom (σοφία) is a combination of knowledge (ἐπιστήμη) and insight (νοῦς); thus the epistemic aims of philosophy do not stand alone but must be wedded to insight into the highest good attainable by human beings.

When I first discovered Pierre Hadot’s reconstruction of philosophy as a way of life over ten years ago, I summarized this ancient viewpoint as follows:

To be a philosopher meant to live a philosophical life: not a life of theoretical hair-splitting, but a life of practical wisdom, active reason and reasoned action, deep reflection, true consciousness, vibrant awareness, moral ambition, never-ending spiritual practice, continual striving after self-improvement, the exercise of all your faculties, skillfulness in the great task of living a fully human life.

Therefore the class of philosophical problems that Professor Sauer and his ilk see as central – the nature of knowledge, of the human mind, of natural laws, of linguistic meaning, and even of a just society – take a back seat to the personal cultivation of human virtue and excellence. From this perspective, experts in theoretical philosophy must play a decidedly nonessential role in human life – which is exactly the role they play nowadays, since they are writing only for each other, and even their colleagues in related fields of science and scholarship rarely listen to them, let alone the general public.

This is ironic, because Professor Sauer argues that philosophers of the past have nothing to add to “current philosophical debates,” the reason being that they lacked the most up-to-date “empirical and scientific information” (say, fMRI studies within neuropsychology). It is unclear what he would consider to be the expiration date for intellectual relevance, but in relation to his preferred philosophical problems it could be a matter of mere years. Indeed, his focus on “current philosophical debates” shows where his allegiances lie: with philosophy as a sort of cutting-edge scientific or mathematical research, ever chasing the most novel arguments, the latest proofs, the hottest controversies.

Moreover, even when Professor Sauer grants that philosophy has its humanistic aspects, all that he can conjure up is “preserving the cultural heritage of humanity” and “sustaining our ability to comprehend a body of difficult texts whose content may fade into oblivion without such stewardship.” However, if those texts are literally harmful, what’s the point? We’d all be better off forgetting about outdated works of philosophy. Paraphrasing the hippies, don’t read anything over thirty!

This kind of presentism entails numerous dangers, well summarized by Santayana’s maxim “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” Yet most fundamentally, it demonstrates utter ignorance of the truly humanistic role of philosophy in the life of the individual and society: not philological preservation of difficult and useless old texts, but active guidance toward successful living and human flourishing.

5 thoughts on “What Is Philosophy For?

  1. The truth about wisdom of ancient philosophy probably lies in-between both observations. I find some of the ancient texts are truly interesting from an historically intellectual perspective and some have little personal practicable application. What is the adage about collective memory and the study of history? I also find some works are universally applicable. I believe where as technology and science have evolved exponentially not so much human nature.


    1. Hi Larry, thanks for your comment. I was thinking just this morning that the truth almost certainly lies somewhere in between – a very ancient idea, of course (“nothing too much” was engraved on the walls of the Greek temple at Delphi). A good example is a book I’m reading right now: Practical Intelligence and the Virtues by Daniel C. Russell. I myself am very much engaged these days with the current literature of psychology, integrating it with Aristotelian insights. My deeper point is that this kind of work is in service of becoming a better person and helping others do the same – not theoretical speculation.


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