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What is Philosophy, and Why Does It Matter? (Especially to Education)


There are few things that matter to America's future as much as philosophy. Philosophy is necessary if we're going to make any significant leaps forward as a society. But we can't fix a problem we can't see, so let's take a look.

First, forget everything you know about philosophy. I will give you new definitions, so pretty please pretend that you've never heard the word before.

In short, philosophy is the science of thinking. The better you are at philosophy, the better you are at thinking. The best analogy is language: you can get by with a little basic instruction and by listening to others, but you can't produce anything truly great without a deep understanding of how to use it.

Let me repeat: you can't produce anything truly great without a deep understanding of the root of your craft. This is obvious enough if we're talking about authors, engineers, artists, and so on. The author's craft is language and it goes without saying that great authors are exceptional with language. If your goal is to fix or advance civil-social society, your craft is thinking. Why? To create something great, you need to understand the materials you're manipulating--authors manipulate words; society-fixers manipulate ideas.

If you're any sort of society-fixer, you need philosophy. And by "need," I don't mean, "it would help." I mean that if you are without philosophy (the science of thinking), your work should not be taken seriously. That sounds a bit inflammatory, so let me explain.

Philosophy: A Brief Summary (History)

Philosophy is stereotypically seen as a heady exercise reserved for ivory tower intellectuals and deadbeat potheads. Like many stereotypes, this is based somewhat in reality.

There are really two main, ways that people approach philosophy:

  1. Philosophy as insight: the part of philosophy that is responsible for the "deep ideas" and paints us a picture of a stone man, chin-on-hand, deeply pondering "the meaning of life." Our deadbeat pothead trades exclusively in this.
  2. Philosophy as analysis: the science of thought. This includes logic, methods of justification/proof, procedural systems, and provides the rules for all meta-cognative analysis. The origin of mathematics and science. Ivory tower intellectuals love this stuff.

As illustrated by our potheads and intellectuals, if one approach to philosophy is taken without the other, it loses credibility. We need both in order to do legitimate philosophy (legitimate "science of thinking").

Very few people (especially philosophers) see this distinction, and that's a big problem...

And now, a story to illustrate why:

Back in the days of old, philosophy (or philosophia, as it was called) contained within itself all other fields: mathematics, medicine, engineering, physics, etc. All of these things were effectively just "part of philosophy." Philosophy was credited with advances in all of these now-distinct fields. But as technology advanced, distinct disciplines began to mark themselves as separate from philosophy. Complex thoughts about numbers and shapes gradually developed, and eventually mathematics was born as a field unto itself. Tools for measuring physical phenomena eventually came around, and out popped physics.

With each advance in intellectual or physical technology, philosophy birthed a new field and lost a bit of its jurisdiction. Each field separated itself from philosophy because the new technology provided a way to reach better insights than were possible through abstract reasoning alone. The creation of the telescope meant that mythology no longer provided the basis for astronomy--physical observation provided the insight. Thus, astronomy emerged as a field unto itself, and philosophy lost another bit of real estate.

Now, remember that insight is not all there is to philosophy. Each and every field is still fundamentally rooted in the methods of analysis endowed to them by philosophy. That is to say, if any field (whether physics, education, or medicine) is to function properly, its practitioners must be masterfully skilled in analysis--in philosophy. 

It's hard to overstate the serious implications of this. If you don't deeply understand the methods of thinking and analysis of your field, your work should not be taken seriously. That is even, perhaps, a wild understatement.

One of the great blunders of the education world is the idea that advancement doesn't require exceptionally masterful thinking. Educators tend to believe that if someone has a great idea, that's good enough. This is dead wrong, and this inherited "wisdom" has severely disabled our field. In chemistry, it doesn't matter how many years of experience you have working with chemical compounds; if you're not a master of scientific method and analysis, you will produce mediocre results at best. Same in education.

Of course, extensive experience is necessary, but experience without philosophy (the science of thinking) means, by definition, that we can't use our experience in any excellent way. (An understanding of this distinction between "necessary conditions" and "sufficient conditions" is a very small part of knowing how to think well.)

The Problem With Philosophy

If people don't think about potheads and professors when they hear "philosophy," they think of Plato or Nietzsche. The idea that Plato represents contemporary philosophy is just as absurd as the idea that Thales represents contemporary physics (Thales believed that everything is made of water). Likewise, there's as big a gap between Nietzsche and contemporary philosophy as there is between Newton and quantum physics.

I mention this because philosophy students and so-called philosophers, ironically, do the most to prevent the general public from realizing how important philosophy is to our progress as a society. In short, they confusing talking about philosophy with doing philosophy.

If you're discussing the importance of Locke's empiricism to modernity as a response to Descartes' rationalism, you're not doing philosophy, you're just talking about philosophy. This is worth pointing out, because the vast majority of philosophy students and philosophers think that this is what it means to do philosophy.

If that's what philosophy is, then the general public can't do philosophy without spending years slogging through old, poorly written texts. So thank God that's not philosophy. It's an exercise in intellectual history, but it's not philosophy. It would be absurd to think that discussing Newton's laws or Thales' wild theories actually counts as doing physics. Same with philosophy.

Side note for the geeks:

Philosophy as an academic discipline is organized on three axes: traditions, time periods, and branches. Philosophical traditions include Existentialism, Analytic, Pragmatist, Structuralist, Post-Structuralist, etc. Time periods include ancient, medieval, modern, etc. Branches include epistemology, ontology, metaphilosophy, aesthetics, logic, metaphysics, etc.

These three axes are ways of retrospectively categorizing certain types of thinking. These distinctions are not particularly relevant or interesting unless you're studying history. Don't confuse any of these things with what philosophy actually is: the science of thinking.

Why Philosophy Matters, and How

I am very deeply involved in many facets of the education world here in Denver, I often ask people the following question: "What do you mean by the word 'education'?" Unfortunately, I have yet to hear an answer that even approaches philosophical coherence.

In other words, I have yet to hear an answer that shows a deep understanding of the science of thinking. When I ask this question, 99% of the time, I get an operational definition when I really should be getting a conceptual definition. You can't do much with an operational definition because the terms of the definition are constrained by the context that the problem-solver is trying to escape in the first place. So, by definition, any work in education based on an operational definition cannot be especially innovative or inventive because that work is constrained by the problematic circumstances with which the definition is constructed.

To illustrate:


Operational definition: heat is when I touch my hand to a stove and I feel a burning sensation, or when I hold ice up to a fire and the ice melts.

Conceptual definition: heat is energy in transfer between a system and its surroundings other than by work or transfer of matter.

The first definition isn't going to get scientists very far--it is constrained by very limiting context. The second definition gets us quite a long ways.

These two different types of definitions are considered some of the "basic laws" of the science of thinking--but the terminology itself isn't important. The important part is the meaning behind the terms, but I've found that the education world doesn't even know where to start when asked to give such a definition for "education." This would be the equivalent of asking a chemist to conduct an experiment using the scientific method, and the chemist replying, "Sure, I'll do an experiment, but I don't know what the scientific method is."

There are people in all fields who do this well; who are masters of thinking; of philosophy as I mean it--examples include Elon Musk, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Richard Branson, Charlie Parker, Albert Einstein, and so on. Many of them wouldn't call it by the name "philosophy," but again, terms don't really matter. They understand how to use the science of thinking--this much is unmistakable if you study their work or hear them talk about how they do what they do.

An unfortunate byproduct of pointing all of this out is that it immediately implicates the vast majority of people in the education world as unqualified to do the work that they do. It's very painful, and it's very true. We have ignored this fact for far too long, and our field is not going to heal itself until we own it.

So...what does it look like to approach education with an understanding of the science of thinking? It's an unending process, and here is an example of a small piece of that process.


A message to philosophers and other stickler friends:

My use of language is intentionally lose throughout this post. I am not using any formal philosophical terms in this post (the only exceptions are the following: operational definition, conceptual definition, necessary condition, sufficient condition). When I compare philosophy to language, I actually mean semiotics. It's less precise, but makes the metaphor more clear.

[Click here and I'll let you know when I publish future posts.]

Reader Comments (2)

Interesting Stuffs, after completing my Highschool studies i wish to join Manda Gov college for Psychology but my mom did't alllow me to join that course, Now feeling bad

February 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterOnam Kerala

philosophy is my favorite subject

November 13, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterarun

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