Learning about life: What's the point of philosophy? (Discuss)

Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, believes there is nothing wrong with students spurning the study of Philosophy. Not so, says AC Grayling. By learning how to think, graduates can become even more valuable to employers
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The Independent Online

Bill Rammell, the Education minister, said this week that it was no bad thing if students were dropping philosophy and classics in favour of more vocational courses. Here is why he is wrong.

If you train people to drive buses or operate lathes - the vocational option - you get skilled workers who can do particular jobs. But if you teach people to think, and provide them with wide horizons, they can do many things; they can train and retrain in different positions, they can be flexible and adaptable in exporting their mental skills from one job to another, and in general they can provide their employers and the country at large with the advantage of being an educated, and not merely a trained, workforce.

Mr Rammell seems not to know that employers like philosophy graduates for exactly these reasons. Employers might wish to train new employees themselves, and would like their new staff to be alert, well-informed, able to grasp ideas and techniques, and good at working things out for themselves.

They especially want their employees to be able to move with the times and to reskill when changes come.

This is why education is a more extensive and valuable thing than training. Training relates to a specific job, education makes a person. This implies a more general objection to Mr Rammell's view. He seems to think education is only about the eight hours a day we spend at the workplace. In fact, it is (or should be) about the whole character and quality of our lives.

Aristotle said: "We educate ourselves to make noble use of our leisure." His remark can be extended across the spectrum of what we are as individuals.

We are citizens, lovers, friends, parents, consumers, enjoyers of culture, travellers, and much else besides, as well as (and for many more hours a day than) being employees.

In all these respects, the idea of living a life that is satisfying and flourishing, in which we add value to our relationships and bring thoughtfulness to our civic responsibilities, is to the forefront. And it is these things that a broad liberal education fosters. Central to such an education is an opportunity to think about and debate the great questions that lie at the heart of being human.

This is what philosophy is concerned with, and the astonishing growth in recent years of philosophy A-level studies at schools across the country testifies to the intense interest felt by young people in its questions.

Philosophy asks, "What is goodness? What is truth? What is the nature of right and wrong, the right way to get and evaluate knowledge, the ultimate nature of the world and humanity? How do you analyse arguments, spot fallacies, reason responsibly, see other points of view, think for yourself?"

All these are obviously important - and obviously valuable - matters. A society which encourages its school and university students to take them seriously and to profit from engagement with them does itself a very large favour. Mr Rammell thinks otherwise.

In the course of the past two and a half millennia, the civilisation of the West has produced a great tradition of philosophical debate. Since its origins in classical antiquity, philosophy has started from the idea that the pursuit of truth and knowledge must be free, open-minded, and independent. It is therefore different, in its very essence, from the way people standardly acquire their views about the world, which is by accepting conventional beliefs at the behest of others, mainly parents, church leaders, and the like.

Philosophy's aim is to encourage independence of mind and a critical ability to sift good things from bad things. Many of the problems that beset the world arise from unreflective acceptance of dogmas, which prompt knee-jerk reactions and polarisation of views. Obviously enough, a little more reflectiveness would go far to making the world a better place.

There are different schools of thought in philosophy's rich tradition, offering different and often competing viewpoints. People expecting philosophy to give them ready answers to life's great questions are in effect hoping to find a tailor-made, ready-to-wear mindset that they can take off the shelf, instead of using the debates of philosophy to help them work out their own views. One thing all philosophers agree on is that people are at their best when they think for themselves, honestly and carefully. The philosophical tradition exists to provide materials for doing so.

Any study of philosophy has to involve a study of the history of ideas, because the perennial questions of life and ethics persist through all stages of development in human society, needing to be considered afresh in the light of the new challenges that changed circumstances bring.

A case in point is the way recent advances in medical technology have forced hard new choices in matters of life and death, from abortion to euthanasia via the difficult question of how to share scarce medical resources among those who need them, given that some of them will have to be denied help.

Oddly, Mr Rammell's views about education are at odds with the rest of government policy as it applies to fostering social cohesion and greater mutual understanding within society. This task requires not just an increase of factual knowledge, but reflective understanding of what it implies, and why certain things matter so much to different community groups.

Few kinds of vocational training would equip people to listen to points of view alien to their own, to learn how to sympathise with them, to give others space to live their lives in their own way, and to stand up in a principled and constructive way for their own choices and rights likewise.

The skills required for all this are paradigmatically philosophical ones, because they turn on grasping what is at stake in someone else's outlook, evaluating it, thinking about one's attitude to it, and adjusting one's behaviour and choices in the light of it. Government policy encouraging mutual understanding is a de facto endorsement of philosophy, from which it follows that there ought to be more philosophy in education, not less as Mr Rammell thinks.

The great gift conferred by a philosophical education is the light it throws on every aspect of humanity's effort to understand itself and its world. Almost all other subjects of study focus on a particular segment of this general enquiry, rightly specialising to get to better grips with its problems. But philosophy is a wide-ranging pursuit, whose aim is to achieve the goal that lies beyond the acquisition of knowledge itself, namely, the acquisition of understanding.

This last is a significant point for the age of the internet, which makes information available in quantities and at speeds that were unthinkable when the chief resource for investigating anything was a reference library. But information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not by itself understanding.

Information becomes knowledge when it is organised into fruitful patterns, and knowledge yields understanding when careful, clear-eyed appreciation of what it means and what its uses are has been attained. The goal of understanding is par excellence the goal of philosophy.

I discovered philosophy as a boy, luckily stumbling upon some of the early, relatively simple dialogues by Plato, in which he describes Socrates and others discussing ideas about truth, beauty and justice.

It was a revelation to find famous grown-ups (I had heard the names admiringly uttered by parents and others) could devote their lives to these fundamental questions, and it settled my vocation.

But it took time to learn that philosophy is not just what is taught in university curriculums, although these provide a powerful starting point. It is also an enterprise, an adventure and an exploration that makes a difference to everything one thinks about life, from art to politics, from work to friendships, from love to the final questions of death and the meaning of what one has done and achieved. It also involves bringing philosophical ideas and perspectives to public debate about social concerns, where too often the repertoire of ideas available for thinking about sensible responses to difficulties is limited.

Philosophy has so much to offer that if Mr Rammell's advice is taken the life of the country will be greatly impoverished.

Masters of the art


"All human actions have one or more of these seven causes: chance, nature, compulsions, habit, reason, passion, desire"

A one-time student at Plato's Academy but by no means a follower of his thinking.

Aristotle turned Plato's Theory of Forms inside out and offered a new form of reason based on observation, comparison and moderation. Aristotle argued that men and women have different types of reason. A man's reason fits him for government whereas a woman's reason fits her for domesticity.

THOMAS HOBBES, 1588-1679

"A man's conscience and his judgement is the same thing; and as the judgement, so also the conscience, may be erroneous"

A staunch royalist, Hobbes believed man to be inherently flawed; selfish and solitary. In Leviathan (1651) he argued that man is motivated by two things: his thirst for power and his own mortality. To avoid anarchy and violence, said Hobbes, a strong system of government must be implemented, in which individuals have no rights or authority.


"Man was born free but everywhere he is in chains"

Rousseau's works formed the cornerstone of Romanticism and inspired the protagonists of the French Revolution. He claimed that with the advent of societies came pride, which ultimately robs man of his civil liberties. In The Social Contract (1762) Rousseau suggested that the path to reclaiming freedom was paved with compromise. Self-imposed laws based on the general will are the means by which society should function.

IMMANUEL KANT, 1724-1804

"Act as if the maxim from which you act were to become through your will a universal law"

In his Critique of Practical Reason (1788), Kant - Born in Konigsberg, Prussia - set out his case for an absolute moral law.

According to Kant, moral duty must be placed ahead of the pursuit of personal happiness. As such, there is never a circumstance in which it would be acceptable to lie or cheat.

GEORG HEGEL, 1770-1831

"Education is the art of making man ethical"

Born in Stuttgart, Germany, Hegel grew up against the backdrop of the French Revolution.

Works focused on the uneasy coexistence of freedom and authority, knowledge and faith, Enlightenment and Romanticism.

According to the Hegelian dialectic the course of history is characterised by the interplay between a thesis, its antithesis and the resulting synthesis.


"Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so"

Born in London, the administrator for the East India Company and Liberal MP for Westminster believed in the necessity of a scientific approach to understanding social, political and economic change while acknowledging the insights of poets and writers.

His Utilitarianism 1861 is the classic defence of the view that we ought to aim at maximising the welfare of all sentient creatures, and that welfare consists of their happiness.


"God is dead"

Nietzsche, like Hobbes, believed that it was in man's nature to seek power. But for the German philosopher, religion was a barrier to the acquisition of that power. His principal works, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil and The Birth of Tragedy, dealt with the struggle to attach meaning to existence in a community without God.


"Man is condemned to be free"

Parisian existentialist Sartre sought to draw a line between essence and existence. He believed man to be free from all authority. This truth may be avoided he wrote, but ultimately man's morality depends on the acceptance of that absolute freedom. His philosophy argued that humans define themselves and their existence by the choices and actions they freely and consciously make.

Danielle Dwyer

More recent graduates

Iris Murdoch

The prize-winning novelist gained a philosophy degree from Cambridge having read philosophy, classics and history at Oxford. Her novels are a heady blend of philosophy and sexuality.

Ricky Gervais

Long before his fictional alter-ego David Brent offered his philosophical gems in The Office, Ricky Gervais graduated with a second class degree in the subject from University College London.

Pope John Paul II

The late pope obtained a philosophy doctorate having been denied two previous degrees - the first because he could not afford to print his dissertation, and the second, because it was disallowed by the Communists at the University of Lublin in Poland.

Bruce Lee

The action movie star Bruce Lee studied martial arts before studying philosophy in Washington. But he never graduated, rejecting study for Hollywood.

Matt Groening, The Simpsons' creator

Two decades ago the Washington philosophy graduate created the world's most famous cartoon family.

Dave Farrel, Linkin Park bassist

Whilst studying philosophy at the University of California, Farrel abandoned his Christian group to form a band with a room-mate. It became one of the biggest-selling metal bands.

Rosalyn Golds