Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1st century), perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue made by Lysippos. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I think that the questions “Of what practical use is philosophy? Isn’t it just idle mental tomfoolery fit only for ivory tower pseudo-intellectuals?” have a very good answer in terms of tangible derivative benefits…
Socrates is said to have quipped “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and Steve Novella has paraphrased that as, “The unexamined thought is not worth thinking.”
The most important fundamental activity of humans is thinking, clearly or not, and our thinking underlies all other activity we perform. I can easily understand the more down-to-earth types who think that philosophy is the purview of eggheads, wooly-headed professors and greybeards with no practical use, but I respectfully disagree, and I think that they misunderstand what it is and what it’s often very evident uses are.
Philosophy permits us to examine both our lives and our thoughts, allowing us to improve the quality of both, making them well worth living and thinking. To me, that alone makes it worthy of use. But there’s more to this picture…
…since philosophical reflection in the form of a spirit of investigative truth-seeking is useful for challenging our assumptions, those things we think we know or treat as though we do, motivate us to discard false beliefs, weigh ours’ and others’ opinions more effectively, and empower ourselves.
This is a fact well-understood by those who would control others by making or keeping them ignorant and gullible.
Modern science, from whence our technology comes as effectively irrefutable evidence of its usefulness and the progress it allows for our understanding, depends upon a particular philosophical framework that determines what it is, how it works, how we can know what we know and what limits apply to it.
Any time a scientist tests an idea by experiment or other observation, she is putting to use philosophical ideas that have developed over the last few hundred years to gather her data. These ideas are not just idle speculation — they are tested against reality itself to see if they are worthy of being added to the process of science and the findings we uncover to our store of knowledge that grinds slowly forward over time.
And these tests are performed by other scientists independently, to see if they succeed no matter who performs them, a test of the idea’s objectivity which must prevail to lend support to its worth to science.
Ideas that pass this gauntlet, and continue to, for real knowledge is always self-correcting with newer and better data, become accepted and refined, and ideas which fail are discarded when their assumptions and data are found to be in error.
Yes, some assumptions are better than others, and those which don’t pass the reality test, whether the facts of the natural or human worlds open to empirical inquiry, fall by the wayside into the realm of non-science, even when formerly accepted as science early on.
All of this depends on philosophy, for philosophy and science were once one and the same, though now complementary disciplines: science supplying the data for much modern philosophy, philosophy the conceptual apparatus for science, the underlying thinking behind it.
Consider this: Whenever you have an idea, any idea at all, of what knowledge is, how to find it, whether it even exists, or perhaps what it’s worth, you’re using a philosophy of knowledge, an epistemology, whether you know it or not!
Since thinking is the most important fundamental activity of humans, even when we don’t do it very well, or fear doing it well for the threat it implies to our cherished beliefs, and since the science that has made our global civilization as powerful, and dangerous, as it is absolutely depends on its philosophical underpinnings to do what it does as effectively, however imperfectly, as it does for our lives and our economies, I think that any discipline that makes us think about ourselves, our world, our lives and our thoughts has very great practical use indeed, if you think about it a bit.
But, then, what do I know? ^_^