The Scientific Indian

Why read philosophy

Sometime back I couldn’t even spell philosophy correctly. And now, I not only read it but tell you why I read it. How I change! Well, read on.

As a child I grew up in a small town in the south of India. That meant I had very little access or exposure to the finer things in life – especially the earth-shattering ideas that transformed human lives during humanity’s short history. If you were lucky like me, you had parents, relatives or someone who exposed you to books, thoughts and people who created sparks in your young impressionable mind. Even then there are large areas of knowledge and history that are obscure and inaccessible. Without long and persistent effort, it is almost impossible to read all the important events in history and glean the essence out of them.

That short personal waffle was to prepare you so I can tell you that I sort of made efforts but was constrained. Perhaps that true. Perhaps not. Nevertheless, the fact is that I grew up without knowing much about the world. That omission unfortunatelly still remains to be rectified.

Having realized what a fool I happen to be, it has become a recent exercise for me to dip into some philosophy now and then. Philosophy, in a way, is like a really concise summary of the most important ideas of the world. It is my unlearned opinion that by reading philosophy I can atleast vaguely grasp the essence of the history of the world. Tall order. Pretty much like an ant climbing a sequoia.


  1. #1 bob koepp
    January 24, 2007

    My own formal training is in Philosophy and History & Philosophy of Science. One of my HPS profs insisted that the most influential idea in shaping world history is: “Feed the army.”

    I think he had a point.

  2. #2 JonD
    January 25, 2007

    Salutations, gentlemen. I would agree, Selva, philosophy helps understand history, which is studied to predict human futures (amongst other things). Mr. Koepp, I am quite intrigued and eagerly await elaboration on your point (feed the army). Perhaps you will honor us with participation in the question I raise here. That is, to best predict human futures, an understanding of human nature is critical.

    What is human nature? A scientific response to such a question would most likely refer to evidence found via biology, primatology and anthropology. Sociology is useful, but is less credible since it examines population densities that have only occurred in (the most recent) 1% of our specie’s time existing on this planet (one notable exception is a book called “Biosociology” by H. Bloom). History is also useful, but even less than sociology because it is from a shorter period and is a story told with the narrative bias of the victor. Philosophy is useful to understand the mechanics and transitions of history, little more.

    Least valuable would be the emotionally charged data from political and religious sources (though very entertaining). Indeed, the very use of the words “human” and “nature” beg ethereal interpretations of our species in contextual instances. A far better rendition would be: What are the behavioral patterns of homo sapiens sapiens?

    The “Human Universals” compiled by anthropologists are a very useful list of characteristics/behaviors to refer to in describing “human nature”. The list is purposefully created in a neutral noninterpretive way. A very useful set of data with which to interpret it is primatology (particularly ethology). While these sources will give excellent reference for general species trends/averages, they do little to predict individual/group variation. This is where biology best describes our “nature”. I subsume all of the following under “biology”: genetics, neuroscience, and endocrinology.

    My limited reading in each of these disciplines would have me answer the question of “What is human nature?” in a tentative way, seeking to compare others’ interpretations. Before pursuing that, I seek suggestion for a better way to answer the question.

    For example, perhaps someone could show me why data from religious and political sources would be useful (I doubt it), or some other discipline (say, medicine) as a useful source. If no one has any better sources or approaches, shall we begin the discussion of “What is human nature?”

  3. #3 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    January 26, 2007

    Philosophy gave birth to science. Subsequently the child swallowed the parent. Science brings us caffeinated donuts. What does philosophy have to offer?

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