Is philosophy significant to anyone else but a philosopher?
Since you came to the page and asked a question, you at least admit philosophy is interesting, if not
Frank Kermode has said that philosophers are fascinated by problems which most people gave up
bothering about at the age of six or seven when they realised they were unanswerable and a lot of
people probably agree with this. But dwelling upon unanswerable questions — which is only an
aspect of philosophy — involves philosophical activity which is the search for the truth, the desire to
understand, clarify and unearth assumptions and presuppositions. This activity leads to free thinking
which is why philosophers get engaged in public moral and social problems.
Philosophy is also important to other subjects. Film theorists and literary theorists find philosophy
highly significant and are drawing more and more on the work of philosophers, not just when
considering the nature of aesthetic value, but in an attempt to characterise the logics of narrative, the
nature of fictionality in contrast to the philosophical notion of possibility, fictional identity in contrast to
actual identity and the nature of truth in fiction. Fiction is a major part of everyone's life and
philosophical concepts are enabling us to elucidate what it is and if we want to determine the nature
of fiction, we cannot ignore the problems of truth and reality which concern philosophy.
Because philosophy is an intellectually free subject it provides overviews of other subjects, such as
the sciences. As Feyerabend said, "the scientist finds himself in a complex historical situation",
inheriting methods and procedures. The philosopher of science stands outside scientific method
enabling him to assess the historical patterns and the methodology. The sciences are essentially
narrow: Those in the grip of artificial intelligence research are convinced that the mind is
computational, yet neurologists see the mind as biological. Philosophy, in its search for the truth,
assesses evidence from all sides.
Yes, I think it is widely significant. There are two main reasons I think this. Firstly, everybody, when
they try to think a little more deeply abut their beliefs and the assumptions they rest upon (or even
better, discuss this with friends) is to that extent a philosopher. And this can have some quite
profound effects on people.
Secondly, philosophical ideas produced by 'real philosophers' (whatever they are) can have effects
far beyond their recognized reach. It is true that many philosophers are read only by other
philosophers — or people who are close to philosophy. The views of these people are affected. They
then can write about other matters — political, ethical, whatever, in a way that is affected by the
philosophical views they have read. Others read this, and in turn write or speak. In this way,
philosophical views spread and influence many facets of our lives.
Let me give some examples. The ideas of John Locke about how to run a state affected the writings
of many, notably the American founding fathers. The US Constitution is organized in accordance with
them. This has had pretty wide effects, I think you would agree.
Or another: Peter Singer wrote a book called Animal Liberation.Our attitudes to animals, and our
treatment of them, is quite different now from before the book was written.
Or a couple of others. Immanuel Kant's writings on Reason heavily influences the Enlightenment —
ideas that progress is inevitable and that objective reasoning leads to better actions. Friedrich
Nietzsche's criticisms of this approach have led to a world in which such objective thinking and central
planning, based on the belief that there is one right answer to every problem, is now widely
I probably don't need to expand on the influence of Karl Marx — basically a philosopher of sorts —
who said (I quote from memory): "Philosophers have previously interpreted the world. The point,
however, is to change it." Anybody who sets out to change the world, however, must first have
interpreted it, and although they may not recognize it explicitly, that interpretation is likely to have
been influenced by the positions of philosophers.