Here’s how I personally think of the field of “philosophy”:
The study of questions for which there is no consensus about how to determine the answers.1
The literal definition is “love of wisdom”, but that’s pretentious and uninformative. Economists, psychologists, and others are seeking wisdom through their research too. Wikipedia’s definition is better: “the systematized study of general and fundamental questions”2. But that could describe much of math and physics as well, and those fields are much better at providing reliable answers. The only time it makes sense to approach a question using the methods of philosophy instead of the methods of some other field is when no other field’s methods are applicable—or there’s widespread disagreement about which methods are applicable. For example, consider the issue of abortion. If we want to know how many people think abortion is wrong, we can use empirical methods to get an estimate. But how do we figure out whether abortion is actually wrong? That’s far more contentious; informed and thoughtful people hold widely diverging views about what would even count as evidence one way or the other. Philosophy is basically the dumping ground for that sort of question.
This makes philosophy feel like a waste of time to a lot of people. Practical-minded folks want to settle issues using facts, not just exchange opinions. Unfortunately, some of these slippery philosophical questions are unavoidable. For example:
We all have implicit or explicit beliefs on such issues, and those beliefs affect how we vote, how we judge people and treat people, how we handle crises, etc. They make a big difference. Even though there’s no hope of reaching consensus on them in the foreseeable future, subjecting them to rational scrutiny can still be very productive. Understanding the strongest objections to our own views3 often drives us toward more nuanced and more internally consistent views, and forces us to confront implications of our views that we wouldn’t have recognized otherwise.
Perhaps more importantly, it discourages overconfidence. There’s a natural human tendency to believe that our own views are so clearly and obviously correct that anyone who disagrees must be stupid or evil (or both). I grew up around religious conservatives who often thought liberals were utterly unreasonable and blatantly wicked. Now I spend more time around secular liberals and leftists, who often think the exact same thing about conservatives. It feels the same on both sides of the divide4: we always feel confident that we’re the “good guys”5. So this feeling is not trustworthy. We should remember that it’s compatible with three different possibilities:
When we forget the latter two possibilities, we’re prone to behaving rashly. We push away loved ones because we can’t tolerate their opinions, or can’t respect anyone who holds those opinions. We mock and denigrate our opponents because we think they’re so reprehensible that their feelings don’t matter. We use social pressure, laws, or military violence to suppress dissent, because we’re confident that we’re creating a better world, and that the dissenters deserve whatever suffering this suppression causes them.
But when we’re conscious of how easily we can get things wrong, we’re likely to behave more cautiously. I personally find that the more I learn, the more aware I become of how much I don’t know, and of how much hidden complexity tends to lie beneath the surface of seemingly-simple issues6. Learning about philosophy helps with that process. Philosophers have extensively documented how every proposed answer to many of humanity’s most basic questions about reality, morality, and knowledge have major weaknesses when scrutinized closely. This is valuable information: it warns us against arrogance.
Admittedly, I also just think philosophy is a lot of fun :)