People talk about philosophy in terms of “or.” Philosophy or faith. Philosophy or literature. Philosophy or science, as if the mind were incapable of doing both and reaching its own conclusions.
But that position is ahistorical—great thinkers have long worked across disciplines—and counterproductive: you can glean profound insights from philosophy without emptying it of artistic value, without betraying scientific principles, without sacrificing your faith.
Whatever your worldview, philosophy matters.
1. Philosophy helps you engage your culture
To understand your culture, you need to understand its prevailing ideas. When you know philosophy, you can see where modern perspectives come from.
If you’re a pastor, understanding the culture helps you identify and address your congregation’s weaknesses, doubts, and blind spots. If you’re a student, it helps you think clearly about who we are, how we got here, and where we’re going. If you’re a parent, it helps you answer your child’s questions about the world.
2. Philosophy sharpens your critical thinking
“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” In that case, the study of opposing ideas is the training of intelligence. And philosophy is nothing if not the study of opposing ideas—universal classes of things vs. heterogeneous individual things, nonexistent selves vs. essential selves, rationalism vs. empiricism. As you follow the Great Conversation through the ages, you’ll consider more and more opposing accounts of the world. You’ll learn to recognize sophistry and language games, as opposed to attempts at truth.
(If you disagree with my arguments here, why? Have you found an unquestioned assumption, a circular argument, an inadequate proof? If so, you’re doing philosophy’s rhetorical work—and isn’t that a critical skill worth strengthening?)
3. You can cherry-pick the good
Some of the West’s most creative thinkers combined insights from disparate disciplines. Their genius wasn’t raw innovation; it was the creativity to pick out elements of disparate worldviews and combine them into something new. You can do the same—you can pick out philosophy’s useful elements without accepting the whole thing.
- Not a postmodernist? You can still find insights into language in the twentieth-century “linguistic turn,” which studied how words’ forms (signifiers) and senses (signifieds) interact to create meaning.
- Disagree with Kant’s conclusion that things in themselves are unknowable? You can still incorporate his categorization of knowledge as either sensible (five red balloons) or conceptual (fiveness, redness).
- Not an existentialist? You can still appreciate Kierkegaard’s nuanced readings of Abraham, Job, and infinite faith.
4. When you know the old claims, you know the counterarguments
Since most of today’s ideas aren’t new, neither are most of the interesting counterarguments. When you know intellectual history, you know time-tested answers—in advance.
- Are you arguing with someone who doesn’t trust our sensory perceptions of the world—who thinks we might all be dreaming, or brains in a vat? Berkeley and Hume advanced similar arguments; Thomas Reid has already responded that common-sense belief in the world is the basis for any meaningful philosophy.
- Defending moral absolutes against a relativist? Turn to the arguments of Socrates and Plato, who’ve already developed arguments for morality built on the notion of absolute truth.
- Debating a vehement atheist who claims that the universe nowhere testifies to a creator? Aristotle, St. Anselm, Descartes, and Leibniz are ready with rational counterarguments.
5. Philosophy helps you understand your faith
Christian theology didn’t develop in a vacuum—Paul found philosophy worth engaging, after all. From then on, philosophy and theology developed side by side, but deeply intertwined. Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Kierkegaard—many of philosophy’s greatest thinkers were Christian, and many of philosophy’s greatest works address issues relevant to Christians (God, morality, origins). And philosophy is just as useful when it’s not Christian: it’s the context against which theological thought defined itself, so when you know the one, you better understand the other.
Even within deist thought, orthodox positions developed against a backdrop of unorthodox alternatives. As you study Western intellectual history, you’ll come across some nonbiblical but fascinating notions of the divine:
- There’s Eriugena’s God, who “does not know . . . what He is because He is not a ‘what,’ being . . . incomprehensible both to Himself and to every intellect.”
- There’s Alain de Lille’s God, “an intelligible [intellectually knowable] sphere, whose centre is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere.”
- There’s Spinoza’s infinite God, roughly synonymous with the whole universe, of which thought, matter, and even human souls are all attributes.
Such alternative accounts are the negative space: the context against which, over time, modern theology established itself. To understand them is, in turn, to more fully understand the orthodox.
6. Philosophy matters because its questions matter
The value of philosophy isn’t just in its answers—it’s in the questions it asks. Though religion and philosophy disagree on much, they’re concerned with similar questions.
- How should we live?
- What are good deeds?
- What can we know, and how?
If you’re thinking about these questions, you’re doing the work of philosophy. You may reach conclusions vastly different from those of Plato or Kant, but you’re still interested in the same things. That alone makes philosophy worth studying.
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Or keep reading—how well do you know the sophists?