Philosophy as a Secondary Skill

Philosophy can be done by itself (primary) or to support other activities (secondary). It can help you do better problem solving and learning regarding any topic. So you can pursue philosophy as a means to other ends, or as an end in itself. (There are many types of philosophy; I'm mostly talking about philosophy related to rationality, critical thinking and knowledge.)

I do a little of many activities. I like to apply and use philosophy. But I'm primarily a philosopher. Understanding philosophy is my main goal. Applying philosophy to other areas is secondary for me. It's good practice; it's fun; it's interesting; sometimes it helps me learn something about philosophy; but my top priority isn't to use philosophy as a tool to pursue other goals. My top priority is philosophy itself.

Philosophy doesn't need to be your top priority. You don't have to copy me to be rational. It's valid to pursue philosophy in a primary or secondary way. (Not pursuing philosophy at all is dangerous because our culture has lots of irrationalities and errors which a total non-philosopher wouldn't have enough defense against. Also, everyone has some philosophy ideas whether they study it or not – it's basically unavoidable to deal with philosophy; the question is actually whether to analyze and try to improve your philosophical ideas or not.)

Being a philosopher secondarily should be common and should work well. But it has some major difficulties today. Basically, most philosophy experts are bad, so you can't safely follow their lead. It's unwise to let them do the abstract research, learn their main points, and use that – because they get a ton of stuff wrong. Even if you find and accurately identify a few good philosophers to learn from, it's still very hard because they aren't mainstream so there is little social support and cultural reinforcement of their messages. It's much easier to have a secondary field when society encourages good ideas about it instead of making things harder.

So, for example, mainstream cooking knowledge is fine. Sure there are flaws, such as nonstick pans being overrated (they use toxic chemicals). But most of the main ideas are reasonable. You cook using heat. You can get heat from a stove, oven, grill, microwave, etc. You put food on something to hold/contain it. You can use a pan, pot, baking dish, baking sheet, etc. You can add seasonings. You take this stuff for granted because it's so well known.

Imagine a world where the top chefs – and people in general – tried to use seasonings alone as main courses, made soup only with fruit juice (never water), wouldn't eat anything green, and would put a frozen, raw chicken straight on a stove burner with no pan and no defrosting. If such things were totally mainstream and normal, it'd be hard to be a decent cook even if you found a few good cooks to learn from.

The situation with philosophy is like that. Because the mainstream and "expert" ideas are so bad and broken, it takes more attention and effort to become competent let alone good. If you do become good at philosophy, then you're already better than most "experts" – one of the best in the world.

So, for example, it's problematic to have to become the 700th best philosopher in the world just to be competent enough to use it to support your real interest of being a plumber. If you're that good at philosophy compared to other people, and there's such a shortage of philosophers, then maybe you should do more of it. And you're maybe the 50,000th best plumber in the world, since there are so many competent plumbers, so why focus on that and try to move up the ranks in plumbing over focusing on being a top 1000 philosopher?

And philosophy is one of the fields with the highest potential impact. Philosophy is a high leverage, important topic. Most philosophers have little effect on the world, and just make it a little worse. But an actually-good philosopher could potentially make a much larger positive difference than a plumber. The potential impact of philosophy breakthroughs is comparable to physics breakthroughs like the theory of relativity – possibly even higher because philosophy of science ideas affect how effective physics research is. Scientists need philosophy as a tool more than philosophers need science. Philosophy is the more fundamental and abstract field which is more of a prerequisite to other fields. Physics and everything else is downstream of philosophy. Philosophy also influences the quality and effectiveness of debates, problem solving and attempts to resolve disagreements in all other fields. Everyone has philosophy ideas, and uses them regularly, even if they never studied philosophy (even if they're illiterate). Even some very basic things like math are less universal – a lot of people go through life without using math much (which does handicap them).

This is a weird, problematic situation where, in order to use philosophy effectively as a secondary field, you have to become one of the world's better philosophers. That's because so few philosophers are competent and useful at issues like epistemology, critical thinking, debate or learning methods. I don't have an easy answer to offer right now. I'm just discussing what the situation is. One option – which is my personal approach – is to choose philosophy as your primary field.