Why Philosophy is Important (2016)

by Mike Steiner, PhD

This is not the first time someone has tried to explain why Philosophy is important, and it surely will not be the last. Perhaps this is because, although there is definitely something very important about Philosophy, it is neither obvious nor easy to articulate. I’ve read many articles or opinion pieces that laud the critical thinking skills that Philosophy offers, and indeed I myself have written about these and other transferrable skills that training in Philosophy fosters (see http://mikesteiner.ca/blog/?page_id=9). I don’t disagree with any of these arguments put forth in support of Philosophy – in what follows I simply attempt to provide a slightly different take on the subject having been both inside and outside of Philosophy.

I will explain why Philosophy is important by first explaining why I consider higher education in general to be important. To help, I’ll borrow some concepts from the field of Risk Management. Risk Management often makes use of three common risk classifications: known, known-unknown, and unknown-unknown risks. That is, there are risks that are known with certainty (i.e., their probability and impact), there are risks that we know exist but yet do not know their probability or impact, and there are risks that likely exist but of which we are completely ignorant. If we borrow these ideas and apply them to knowledge in general, we can see why higher education is important (and then why philosophy is important in particular).

In University one inevitably builds up knowledge in a cumulative fashion, thus expanding one’s metaphorical bucket of things that are known. This is surely valuable, and the more technical/practical this knowledge is, the more it can be directly applied in the workforce later. However, much of this specific knowledge is lost relatively quickly after the final exams if it is not immediately put to use in the workplace. This in fact has been offered as a criticism of going to University in general: that you wind up learning a bunch of stuff that you quickly forget or never use. However, the lasting utility of this whole process is to be found in the next category.

When one samples a wide variety of topics in University, one very quickly expands his/her knowledge of the second type: known-unknowns. This happens because the university student first gains a profound sense of the numerous fields of study that exist, and by taking a course or two in various areas begins to grasp the sheer magnitude of what is known to others but not to themselves. If they pay even closer attention, they can even learn what the experts in that field agree on and do not agree on, and what puzzles the field is currently dealing with in general. The student certainly does learn a little about what there is to know about sociology, statistics, world history, or computer sciences for example, but even more, they gain a sense of just how much there is to know about these areas and an appreciation of both the strides taken and difficulties that remain. Their metaphorical bucket of known-unknowns thus swells tremendously during this time.

This serves many purposes as the student moves on and largely forgets the specific content learned in school and replaces it with the specific content learned on the job. First, they appreciate that the world is complex and that there is still much to know (not only for them but even for the experts), and this serves to introduce a healthy skepticism into their mindset when very easy, all-too-naïve answers are offered. Further, it provides them with visibility to their own blind spots or personal lacunae. This is in fact the first step towards mitigating the effects of having a blind spot – knowing that you have one and where (roughly) it exists. So instead of being oblivious to the fact that they do not know something, students become aware that they are missing knowledge, and can then strive to mitigate the situation to improve their success (e.g., by cautious appeal to experts in that particular field). They will in general be less likely to fall victim to black-and-white thinking in a world that is actually very complex, and at the same time will know when they need to ask further questions before a decision is made. These are excellent attributes for leaders to have in business, or any organization for that matter.

And now onto Philosophy. Philosophy is especially important for the exact same reasons as higher education in general. Philosophy does not especially fill one’s bucket of knowns – in fact it is this lack of adding to practical knowledge that worries some critics of philosophy. What Philosophy is especially good at is expanding students’ buckets of known-unknowns by teaching them just how little is known with respect to what exists, what we should do about it, and even what can be known. Through adequate training in the perennial controversies of Philosophy, one learns what the best minds in human history have agreed on and have not agreed on (and why) regarding the biggest questions (commonly sorted into the categories of metaphysics, ethics and epistemology.) Think of this as discovering the blind spots not just of you personally, but of humanity in general! This new perspective from on top of the shoulders of giants provides students with the context to understand and interpret everything else they have ever heard, or learned, or will learn for the rest of their lives.

Philosophy thus does what University in general should do for a student, only it takes it to new levels. Think of Philosophy as University on steroids – at least with respect to expanding one’s metaphorical bucket of known-unknowns and leveraging its positive effects. Philosophy students can truly appreciate both what is known and also the limits to what is known, making them more capable of navigating through a very complex world. They will ask the right questions because they know their blind spots and the broader blind spots of humanity in general, and will not be lulled into a false sense of confidence that can contribute to unsuccessful outcomes. I thus believe that Philosophy is indispensable to students as a field of study in preparing them to succeed in business and in life.