Joyce asked:

Give three examples of how academic philosophy is useful in the contemporary world.

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

Let me begin by questioning the question (just like any good philosopher would do!). Why should academic philosophy be useful, and what do we mean by useful anyway? It is curious that the question of utility comes up in the context of philosophy, but not of most other — arguably equally ‘useless’ — academic fields. What is the usefulness to contemporary society of, say, studying literature, or music? Indeed, even much of the research in mathematics and science (those paragons of utility) conducted within the academy, is useless, in the sense of having no practical application. Yes, scientists’ excuse for getting multi-million dollar grants is that their research may, one day, as yet yield unforeseeable pragmatic payoffs. But as a matter of historical record, it doesn’t, and at any rate, that’s not why they do it (they do it because they are genuinely curious about one arcane question or another — just like philosophers). Besides, philosophers are much less expensive.

The concept of utility itself, incidentally, is a highly philosophical one, because it presupposes a certain analysis of what we care for and why. For instance, studying philosophy in college may be ‘useful’ in the sense that it contributes to form a whole person capable of critical thinking and self reflection; or in the sense that it increases one’s chances of getting into law school (it does, by the way); or because it provides a student with ‘portable’ skills that allow for more varied and flexible employment (again, true fact).

But I take the meaning of the question to be: what practical applications in society can possibly come from the academic field of philosophy? Very well, then, I shall briefly sketch three such applications.

Perhaps the most obvious practical benefits of academic philosophy can be seen in the field of ethics. Nowadays it is increasingly rare to walk into a hospital, for instance, and not find a resident ethicist (usually referred to as a medical ethicist, or a bioethicist). This is a philosopher trained (academically) in the complexities of moral reasoning, who helps doctors, administrators and hospital staff to think through very important, and often very urgent, ethical issues. The ethicist does this by deploying her understanding of standard ethical theories (consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics, etc.), as well as of the vast recent academic literature in the specific field of medical ethics.

More broadly, moral philosophers have contributed and continue to contribute to major debates about right and wrong in society at large. John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, as well as Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia have been the reference points for discussions about justice for decades now, and philosophers continue to write about specific ethical problems (from LGBT rights to environmental issues), their papers making their way to public think tanks, policy makers and the US Supreme Court.

A second example is offered by academic research on logic, a philosophical field that has increasingly taken on an interdisciplinary connotation, with the most obvious bridges toward mathematics, computer science, and the field of Artificial Intelligence, but also law (for instance in discussions of informal logical fallacies and burden of proof). Perhaps one of the best known examples of practical applications of logic deriving from academic research is the burgeoning field of modal logic — i.e., the logics that deal with the workings of expressions such as ‘necessarily’ and ‘possibly.’ It has applications in computer science, particularly in the study of decidability (the problem of establishing whether a given formula is a theorem) and complexity (in the specific sense of estimating memory and time necessary to carry out certain computations). Another example of this sort is the applicability of linear logic to, again, computer science and mathematics, especially in areas such as analysis, algebra and topology.

My last example of usefulness of academic philosophy is the emerging field of philosophical counseling. Sometimes defined as ‘therapy for the sane,’ it is actually not a type of medical therapy (like psychotherapy, or psychiatry), but rather a set of tools to allow people with a variety of life problems (concerning meaning, planning for the future, or significant changes in life conditions) to draw on philosophical resources to rationally deal with such problems. Philosophical counseling requires a PhD in philosophy, and usually a certification by an accrediting body, such as the American Philosophical Practitioners Association. Practitioners are often (but not always) academic philosophers who are also involved in research on the long terms effects of their approach. In a sense, philosophical counseling is a return to what Socrates was doing back in the streets of Athens two and a half millennia ago. But it does so while keeping up to date with the most recent developments in philosophical inquiry which may turn out to be beneficial to clients, including modern academic literature on ethics, metaphysics and aesthetics.

There are plenty of other examples of practical uses of academic philosophy (for instance the clarification of concepts pertinent to scientific research from the field of philosophy of science; or the contributions of philosophy of mind to cognitive science). However, we should always be mindful that plenty of human activities — from music to literature to philosophy — also have intrinsic value because they are the sort of thing that enriches our mental and emotional lives.