"The unexamined life is not worth living." This statement, widely attributed to Socrates, is often offered as a bland, feel-goody bit of wisdom. It's not hard to imagine this advice on a poster showing a cute cat holding a magnifying glass. But for Socrates, it was a matter of fundamental importance — indeed, he died willingly for having led the examined life.
We should all examine our lives and the fundamental nature of living. But few of us do. American culture is famously pragmatic. We are only interested in what works, what doesn't, and what will put a dollar in my pocket. We make jokes about philosophy majors. ("Lotta lucrative career prospects there, amirite?") We don't see the value in going around asking questions like "What is Beauty?" and "What is Justice?" and "Why is there something rather than nothing?" But there is tremendous value in asking these questions, even if that value is not quantifiable in U.S. currency.
So where is the value? First, at the level of the individual, being smart about things can help you. This should go without saying. Philosophy helps you to think rigorously about hard problems, and it will probably help you in your job (even a blue-collar job), as countless despairing liberal arts professors have argued in countless op-eds.
More fundamentally (and here I am making a philosophical point), surely we can all agree that being human has to be about more than making a living and acquiring things and reproducing. Surely, part of what makes us who we are is precisely that we have the capacity to ask philosophical questions, and that refusing to ask them seriously is, in essence, to amputate a vital part of ourselves.
And at the level of our society, there is a dramatic pragmatic stake in philosophy. We live in enormously complex, technologically advanced societies where we have the power to do a great deal of harm and a great deal of good. Our societies are built on complex institutions (such as "democracy," "the free market," and "science"), which are in turn premised on ways of looking at the world and on ideas about the world and humanity — in other words, on philosophy.
But we have become like people in a Star Trek episode whose planet is ruled by a benevolent artificial intelligence, and who live such charmed lives as a result that, over generations, they have forgotten how the computer works, so that when it breaks down, they are completely powerless to repair it, and have to call the Enterprise for help. Our entire civilization is built on technology called "philosophy" that, in many ways, we are losing a basic understanding of.
We have, by and large, forgotten the ideas that caused the Scientific Revolution. There is widespread illiteracy about the concept of the natural law or human nature, even though those concepts were what the Declaration of Independence and the Enlightenment were rooted on. We are often ignorant about basic points of political philosophy.
There is the lazy prejudice of materialism, the notion that matter is the only thing that exists. As the philosopher and theologian David Bentley Hart points out, materialism would be a perfectly consistent position if the universe didn't exist. But since the universe exists, and since it seems impossible for something to come out of nothing, it seems impossible that matter is the only thing that exists; or certainly, seems absurd to be certain that it is so. (Note: This point has, in itself, nothing to do with the question of the existence of God; it's perfectly possible to be a non-materialist and an atheist, like the NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel.) Today, the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is treated as essentially meaningless; to Socrates, it was not only important, it was the first step towards true, reflective, humanity. Today, it is a waste of time. That hardly seems like progress.
Serious philosophy is valuable in itself. It is worth studying for its own sake.
But it is also the case that our society is built on ancient philosophy, and that if we forget how it works, very soon, we will break it — or it will break us.