Mark asked:

‘A philosopher’s words are empty if they do not heal the suffering of mankind. For just as medicine is useless if it does not remove sickness from the body, so philosophy is useless if it does not remove suffering from the soul.’ (Epicurus). Agree, or disagree?

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

Yes and no. It all depends on how one conceives of philosophy itself — most certainly a philosophical question! Epicurus surely had a point, which was consistent with much of the ancient Greek tradition in philosophy. Socrates, the Cynics, and the Stoics, would certainly have agreed. They all conceived of philosophy as a type of inquiry into the human condition, and one that had to have practical applications. For Socrates the unexamined life was, famously, not worth living; the Cynics flaunted their minimalist lifestyle as a model for how one should live; and the Stoics developed a series of meditative and spiritual practices built into their general philosophy — practices that turned out to be useful to politicians, generals and emperors, as well as the person in the street.

However, philosophy has always (not just in the form of contemporary academic practice) also been a broader quest for understanding and making sense of the world, a quest — let’s not forget — that span off a number of important fields, beginning of course with the natural sciences, but also, more recently, psychology, and economics.

While Socrates had little use for discussions that stranded too far from what today we would call moral and political philosophy, many of the pre-Socratics (e.g., the atomists) belonged very much to the same intellectual lineage that eventually led to modern science. Even the Stoics developed their versions of logic and physics (by which term they meant, more inclusively, all the natural sciences as well as metaphysics), and were not just concerned with ethics.

Moving closer to modern times, Kant is famous for his disquisitions about the moral law, but he was also instrumental in debates about the nature of science, epistemology, and metaphysics. The same goes for Descartes, Hume, Locke, Berkeley, and many, many others.

Contemporary so-called ‘analytic’ philosophy is admittedly fairly remote from any practical application. It started with philosophers who were very much interested in logic and mathematics, such as Bertrand Russell, and is now one of the dominant ‘traditions’ of philosophical inquiry. Interestingly, while Russell’s technical work is rather abstruse and of relevance largely or exclusively to other philosophers, logicians, and mathematicians, he was also very much concerned with the public use of philosophy, as a tool for ethical reasoning and even political activism.

Epicurus’ analogy with medicine is interesting, but, I think, rather misleading. Medicine, unlike philosophy, is by definition a practical pursuit. Philosophy, as I have argued above, has always been both practical and theoretical, as the ancient Greeks themselves clearly recognized.

So perhaps a better analogy is between philosophy and science, or even better philosophy and mathematics. Some science, as well as some math, is most definitely useful to address human problems. Just think of the innumerable technological applications that have had a (not always positive) impact on our lives.

But it is equally clear upon a moment’s reflection that there is a lot of science, and arguably even more mathematics, that doesn’t have, and likely will never have, any practical import whatsoever. Many scientists and mathematicians spend their entire lives going after decidedly non practical problems, such as establishing whether the foundational stuff of the universe is made of particles or strings, or how to prove abstract conjectures such as Fermat’s famous Last Theorem.

Are these efforts — and the parallel ones of theoretical philosophers — not worthy of our attention and support? That would mean that we are adopting a very limited view of human flourishing, one that is concerned only with the practical problems of living one’s life. But very clearly human beings are interested in much more than that. We pursue knowledge for its own sake, just like we do art and music simply because it enriches our existence. So why not theoretical philosophy?