What is the value of studying philosophy? In a recent op-ed piece for the New York Times’ philosophy series The Stone, Stanley Fish responded to Paul Boghossian’s original article about moral relativism — a topic that deserves its own time in the spotlight. The thrust of Fish’s argument is that
“…philosophy is not the name of, or the site of, thought generally; it is a special, insular form of thought and its propositions have weight and value only in the precincts of its game. Points are awarded in that game to the player who has the best argument going (“best” is a disciplinary judgment) for moral relativism or its opposite or some other position considered “major.” When it’s not the game of philosophy that is being played…grand philosophical theses like “there are no moral absolutes” or “yes there are” will at best be rhetorical flourishes; they will not be genuine currency or do any decisive work.”
I find this to be an interesting position, one that highlights something that never ceases to amaze me, but yet is not all that surprising given the nature of the subject under discussion. That is that I have almost never met anyone who has formally studied philosophy (granted, Professor Fish actually teaches law, but his thoughts have been published in a philosophy column) who has not come away from that study with a completely different take on what is important, or on how philosophy should inform the decisions and thoughts they have (or if it should at all). As for Fish’s argument, I would readily count myself among those who argue “that the person who deliberates without self-conscious recourse to deep philosophical views is nevertheless relying on or resting in such views even though he is not aware of doing so.” What other role does any serious thought play in one’s life, if not to inform future decisions that would otherwise be acted upon too rashly?
As someone who has only come to even be interested in the major political, social, and especially ethical decisions facing humanity through my study of philosophy, I find it hard to believe that studying philosophy does not impact one’s day-to-day decisions. And before anyone refutes this claim saying that the major issues of our day are not the domain of day-to-day decisions, consider the ethical position that has come to be known as living a ‘green’ life, a lifestyle choice that requires countless mundane choices. That is not to say that all theoretical philosophical discussions come to bear on our daily lives, but rather that some definitely do, while others are at least capable of doing so. To say that they amount only to “rhetorical flourishes” is giving meat to the grist of those who continuously claim that the arts have no place in our societies, as they lack true usefulness.