Why is philosophy important?

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Thinker, a bronze sculpture commonly used to represent philosophy

Today is World Philosophy Day so we’ve invited NEC tutor Ed Piercy to write about why philosophy is so important and how language has a vital part to play.

Why is philosophy important? Because of that first word. We are inquisitive creatures, and mechanical explanations are never enough. I also teach economics, and there’s a fundamental concept called price elasticity of demand. One example of this occurs on my journey to work. I travel to college in the mornings at 7.30, and I have to pay more than people who travel after 8.58. The economist will explain this in terms of supply, demand, income, profit, consumer surplus and degree of necessity, and will give you a bit of algebra to make it look really solid. But this question might arise: WHY should those who have to travel at this time, to earn a livelihood, pay more than those who travel later, for shopping, visiting or going to a museum? Why should the necessary cost more than the optional? Economics doesn’t answer this – we need moral philosophy for that.

In an episode of the US TV show Numbers there’s a shoot-out in a police station between the cops and some arrested people who’ve got hold of a few guns. One of the cops is shot dead, and an enquiry reveals that the bullet, which ricocheted off a filing cabinet, came from a police gun. The officer to whom it was traced felt really guilty, but was told it wasn’t his fault. “Yeah – but it was my bullet!” Are we responsible when it’s not our fault? Classical Greeks said we are – ask Oedipus. At least in this TV episode, we’re not. This is a philosophical debate. There isn’t an answer, but we have the need to think it through.

Astrophysicists will give us wonderfully complex explanations full of dazzling maths about the origins of the universe. They’re looking at the question ‘how was it created?’ There’s another question too: why was it created? Why is there something rather than nothing? We’ll probably never arrive at a conclusive answer, but that doesn’t stop us trying. Ever since the Milesian Greeks, 2600 years ago, we’ve been asking questions to which we may never have an answer. But we need to ask, and we need a framework in which to do our thinking – that’s philosophy.

Language in philosophy

Speaking of nothing, I was asked in class the other day by a 16-year-old: “What is nothing?” What a question! I started to give a Parmenidean answer, but she saw where I was going and said, “So nothing is something. So if nothing isn’t nothing, there isn’t any nothing.” Nothing is something. That’s a language problem. We often find that the way we use language isn’t always going to be adequate for what our minds are giving us. (It works better in Classical Greek, but Classical Greek is a better language than English – now there’s a contentious point!)

Take the idea of a timeless God. When I was presenting this idea to my students, I suggested that time was created when the universe was created. God, the creator, existed before time. Pause. “Why is that nonsense?” I asked. An answer came: “You used the word ‘before’ but there wasn’t any time then, so God couldn’t be before anything.”
I’m reminded of the old philosophy joke: one philosopher, in response to a statement, asks “What do you mean?” and the other replies, “What do you mean, what do you mean?”

Enough said.

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