In Defense of Philosophy

by Alistair Shepheard-Walwyn.

Philosophy is more than a search for truth. A fortunate consequence of this opinion is that it makes Philosophy a much more successful endeavour than it would otherwise be. For some 2000+ years humans have considered themselves, and the world around them, and we seem to have relatively little to show for it. If, for example, we are asked to present our best ethical theory, which do we choose? Kantian ethics is quite smart, Virtue ethics has lasted for a rather long time, Utilitarianism is pretty widely adopted and yet none quite do the job as well as we would like. Perhaps it is too stringent to ask for an ethical theory that fulfills our expectations. Maybe we should accept that we won’t ever achieve perfection and just settle for whatever does ‘well enough’. Except some small part of us feels that there’s something horrifically anti-philosophical about that attitude. It seems to be integral to Philosophy that you persevere despite the futility of your cause. While this might be intensely dissatisfying, there is still a good reason to read the countless works of Philosophy available to us – they are amazing literature.

No question is more troubling nor more pertinent than whether or not we could all be wildly mistaken. The virus-like scepticism infects every statement we make, “what if none of this is real?”. One might think that such a deep-rooted and primal doubt would require volume after volume of reasoning to disarm and yet there is a poetic conciseness in Descartes’ ‘cogito ergo sum’. One of the strongest arguments as to why we can trust that we exist and it’s all contained in these six syllables of Latin. Two thousand-odd years of reflective anxiety and the argument is short enough to fit inside a single line of a haiku. While the argument can be criticised and attacked by other counterarguments, nothing can rid it of its beautiful simplicity and brevity.

We can appreciate other philosophies simply for their brilliant ingenuity and imagination. Leibniz tells us a story of monads; a story of the most basic part of our universe. Each of these monads, smaller than an atom and each containing a universe within a universe within a universe… ad infinitum. While drawing a picture of the nature of the universe Leibniz echoed the unspoken words of William Blake and allowed us “to see the world in a grain of sand”.

There are countless other examples of this phenomenon; of the most compelling arguments being poetical. It entices us to think that truth is poetry but perhaps that is a little too fantastical. Regardless, there is a lot more to appreciate in Philosophy than simply smashing points into counterpoints until all we are left with is theoretical dust and sore heads.