Question: Why does anyone need a philosophy?
Answer: "You have no choice about the necessity to integrate your observations, your experiences, your knowledge into abstract ideas, i.e., into principles. Your only choice is whether these principles are true or false, whether they represent your conscious, rational convictions—or a grab-bag of notions snatched at random, whose sources, validity, and consequences you do not know, notions which, more often than not, you would drop like a hot potato if you knew." -- Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 5
Everyone has a philosophy, even if we cannot express it in words.
We either act as if our eternal salvation depends on following the mandates of scripture, or we don't. We feel the need to believe in something and search for understanding, or we adopt the cynical view that the search is useless. We all have some sense of what is right, and what is wrong. We can see ourselves as noble beings worthy of happiness or as guilty transgressors against the environment, social justice, or God. We will all decide often what it is that constitutes our duty. We think we know art when we see it. And we adopt political principles and support politicians and parties.
All of these are philosophical issues.
We need to know whether what we believe is really true.
Philosophical convictions are often subconscious or inarticulate. We experience them emotionally in what Ayn Rand called a "sense of life." Your sense of life reflects the fundamental ways you relate to the world and other people; it is your intuitive feeling of how things are and how they ought to be. Each of us needs to understand his own convictions consciously, to be able to put his sense of life into words. Otherwise we don't really have a clear idea of what we believe or what is motivating us to make our biggest decisions—or whether it is true. We need to know what we think on philosophical questions, because our answers can affect the course of our lives. And the sense of life that dominates nations or cultures can determine their fates.
We need a metaphysics (a theory of reality) because we need to know whether the material world of daily life is the only one that exists—which makes a difference between living for this life or some heavenly hereafter. We need to know whether the universe is lawful, or chaotic—which makes a difference between trying to improve things or viewing life as absurd and meaningless.
You take your car to a mechanic because the engine misfires in damp weather. Wouldn't it be strange if he were to shrug and say "Well, cars just do that sometimes?" But what's wrong with that? Why shouldn't you take that attitude to your own problems at home or at work? You need a philosophy to know the answer.
An epistemology is a theory of knowledge. It may seem that if you know anything, then you know it, so what's the issue? To have a clear grasp of one's own life and context, one needs to be able to sort out the mass of information, claims, and ideas we receive from others; that skill is based in epistemology. After all, at root, we need to know whether what we believe is really true. How do you know when someone has proven a point? That can be terribly important when the truth of a scientific theory, a doctor's diagnosis, or the outcome of a trial is at stake. Some people say that words are arbitrary and mean whatever we like. Does that mean it doesn't matter if someone uses words he can't define in down-to-earth terms? Should we worry if we don't feel like we have mystic intuitions, or should we worry if we do?
A neighbor comes to your door with a petition: Pesticides from nearby farms are appearing in trace quantities in the town's drinking water. The neighbor wants them removed at all costs. "Nobody has proven that these chemicals won't ever hurt anyone," he says. But the farmers send around a flyer saying the chemicals have been scientifically tested and are proven to be safe. Both are talking about proof, but they don't seem to mean the same thing by it. How could you tell who is right? You need a philosophy to know the answer.
Ethics is the science we use to judge good from evil. We don't want to do evil, and we would like to do good if we can. But to do that, we need to know what it means to be good, and what kind of actions tend to achieve it. People make demands on us: What do we owe to others and what do we deserve for ourselves? To organize our moral views and take the right course in life, we need to avoid being torn apart by contradictory goals and principles.
You are working for a company and rising up to positions of greater responsibility. You try to work efficiently and you hope to make a lot of money, both in bonuses for yourself and in profits for the company. But you feel a little uneasy, and you wonder: Are you doing good there, or are you just playing the game of life and going with the flow? After all, your religion teaches you that the best people live simply and serve others. Should you feel guilty about trying to make money, or feel morally proud of your success? You need a philosophy to know the answer.
We all know about practical politics , because we have to choose whom to vote for, and in which causes to invest our time and money. But though we argue about it, few people take the time to sort out their fundamental convictions about political issues. Is there a conflict between the social good and what's good for individuals? Is society responsible for supporting the poor? For inculcating character and values? For regulating the economy? In part, our ideas will depend on our ethical beliefs, but we also need a clear idea of what government is for and what kinds of activities it should be engaged in, if any.
It's election time. One party promises to ensure that every person has a decent job by passing a law setting fair minimum wages and restricting layoffs. The other promises to make sure we are all free, and says we will all be better off in the end even if there are layoffs and wages are set in the labor market. Which one is best? What do political slogans like "fairness" and "freedom" really mean, anyway? You need a philosophy to know the answer.
We all spend time and money on art: reading books, attending films and shows, listening to music, and so on. But unless we reflect on aesthetics, we can't understand clearly why we have this need and what it is about art that fulfills it. What is the difference between good art and bad art? Art provides the spiritual fuel we all depend on, and trying to consume it without knowing anything about its basic purpose and the standards of judging it is like trying to run a car on any old liquid.
A new object has appeared in front of a prominent building in your city. It consists of slabs of metal arranged to make a large and angular shape. The newspaper says it is a great new piece of art, but you wonder, if that is art, what isn't? What is a piece of sculpture supposed to be like? You need a philosophy to know the answer.
People often think of philosophy as a highly abstract and technical field, full of conundrums of interest only to academics. But, in fact, all of us depend on philosophic conclusions, and identifying one's own philosophy is a highly practical activity. We don't all need to be philosophers, any more than we all need to be mathematicians. But we all learn to add in school, and we all need to be able to do some basic philosophizing as well. That's how we know where we stand in the world and what we ought to do in life.
William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.