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Many people think the study of philosophy is all about vague, unnecessarily complicated speculation that has no use for everyday life, but this is far from the truth. Those who think this usually either have not dipped a toe or two into the waters of philosophy, or they have been misdirected by puffed-up people (sometimes including teachers, sadly) who like to make philosophy seem harder than it is so they will seem smarter than they are.
While philosophy can get tricky and complex in some areas, it’s not all rocket science. With the help of a good teacher (in person or in a book), you can wade first in the shallow end, enjoying the water and learning to swim, instead of diving headfirst into the deep end.
And there are many benefits to studying philosophy. Along with the benefit of learning what others past and present have thought, written, and discussed about the big questions of life (for example, “How do we know that what we think of as reality is not really a great hoax like in The Matrix?”), there is a tremendous, very practical skill that studying philosophy can give you: the skill of thinking logically.
What Logical Thinking Is and How It Can Help You Every Day
Logical thinking is simply lining up thoughts in an orderly manner, rather than letting them flow and tumble out at random. In logical thinking, there are certain rules for how things must be ordered: assumptions must be clearly stated, terms must be defined, and points must be considered one at a time in an orderly fashion.
If you have ever seen lawsuit papers or other legal documents, you may have noticed how carefully the language proceeds from one point to another, never making two points at once, and always defining terms very clearly. This is an example of logical thought. Philosophy uses this manner of thinking, too (at least, modern “analytical” philosophy does). This is one reason why law schools will often recommend interested undergraduates to study philosophy as preparation for law school, to help them learn how to think logically. (Here is a great article called The Demand for Liberal Arts Skills on the blog What Is Called Thinking?)
By learning to think logically, you can develop these beneficial skills:
You can use these skills in an infinite number of practical, everyday areas of life. In relationships from neighbors and coworkers to friends and partners, it’s tremendously helpful to be able to see clearly what unstated assumptions people are making, and also to be able to express what you want and need precisely. In personal areas such as diet and fitness, finances, emotional or spiritual tangles, etc., it can be life-changing to look at something you’ve always thought vaguely about and instead to see the issues involved more clearly.
For example, if you have always thought, “I am just not a punctual person; I hardly ever make it to work or anywhere on time,” with the skill of thinking logically you could look past that vague blanket statement to analyze your habits and find out what actually causes you to be late—and then you would have information you could possibly work with to remedy the problem.
Dipping Your Toes In the Waters of Philosophy
There are perhaps other ways to develop the skill of thinking logically, but studying philosophy will teach you the skill quickly and directly. For example, you might study the philosophy of ethics and encounter a discussion of a person’s “rights,” a term you are used to hearing thrown around willy-nilly by politicians. But in the philosophical discussion you are led to work out a precise definition for the term and to carefully consider questions such as, “Can one person’s rights require certain actions from another person, who also has rights?” Your understanding of the term will be much deeper and more nuanced than it was before.
If you want to begin studying philosophy, it does help to have either a good teacher or a good guidebook, as I said earlier. There are some guidebooks designed especially for beginners. This is the one I started with—it’s basically a coffee-table book I got in the budget books section of Borders (before it closed): The Great Philosophers by Stephen Law (here is the Amazon page for the book). It was just what I needed to introduce me to the subject and whet my appetite for more. And I’m so glad for that, because the skill of logical thinking I’ve gained from studying philosophy has changed my life for the better—and continues to do so.