Many people aren't completely sure what philosophy is or what philosophers do. And many people use the term 'philosophy' in many different ways. The purpose of this page is to examine and dispel some of the most important misconceptions about philosophy.
"Philosophy doesn't make progress"
One thing that people often notice when they take philosophy courses is that there's a lot of competing theories, and there's often very little consensus about which theory is correct. This is a stark contrast with science, in which there is generally a small set of dominant paradigms in a field, paradigms that scientists rarely question, such as the germ theory of disease, the atomic theory of matter, and the theory of evolution.
Does this mean that philosophy doesn't make progress? Well, as you might imagine, it depends on what you mean by "progress." If "progress" means "reaches widespread consensus across the field," then philosophy doesn't initially seem to have made much progress. We still have centuries-old debates between competing theories of ethics, between theism and atheism, between political philosophies, and so on. But it would be strange to measure progress just by consensus. If everyone came to a consensus, but it was the wrong consensus, that would be the opposite of progress, wouldn't it?
As it turns out, there's a sense in which philosophy has reached a lot of consensus. Most philosophers agree about most philosophical positions. It's just that they don't discuss those positions anymore, because they're not very interesting if everyone agrees about them. For example, most philosophers think that writing sentences on notecards and throwing darts at them isn't a good way of forming beliefs from the perspective of knowledge. Most philosophers think that torturing innocent people is morally wrong, most philosophers think that fascism is the wrong form of government, and most philosophers think that persons exist. Those positions are boring, so we don't think about them in a philosophy course.
Imagine how strange it would be if a science course consisted mainly of considering competing scientific theories and the debates between them. That would make it seem as if science hadn't made any progress. Of course, science teachers don't do that; instead, they tell the students what the dominant paradigms say. Part of the reason is that the point of a science course is not to teach students how to debate. The rest of the reason, I think, is that scientific research is generally not about debate and pure thought; it's about experiment. (Yes, there are theoretical branches of science, but most of what you'll learn in a college science course is at least partly supported by empirical research.) In contrast, philosophical research largely is debate. We focus on debates in philosophy because we are learning how to do philosophical research.
Another reason that philosophy focus so much on old debates is that philosophers are probably better than other people at defending false positions. False positions are usually harder to defend than true positions, all else equal, because they usually don't have as much evidence in their favor. If non-philosophers aren't as good at defending false positions as philosophers, then non-philosophy fields of study won't feature as much debate. In contrast, since philosophers are so good at defending positions in general, they'll be good at defending false positions too. So debates will persist, even though many people know what the true position is. Of course, I'm not suggesting that philosophers knowingly defend false positions, although no doubt a few do. Instead, philosophers believe that their positions are true, and those positions "hang on" longer because they have smart defenders--not because they actually are true. So philosophy is a way of discovering the truth, although some people take longer to get there.
However, philosophers even make substantive progress on controversial positions sometimes. There are some positions that have been relatively recently defended in the philosophical literature that are now widely rejected, such as behaviorism, logical positivism, and "naive" versions of other theories such as reliabilism. Much of philosophical progress is refining basic theories into their most defensible forms.
Last, empirical debates are usually easier to resolve in principle than a priori or intellectual debates. In empirical debates, people often can just run an experiment and come up with a trustworthy answer. And if they can't yet run the experiment, there's little point in having the debate in the first place until the experiment becomes possible. So empirical fields tend to prevent debate in that respect. However, as we saw, intellectual or intuitive debate is a major part of philosophical discovery, and so there isn't the preexisting tendency, one that exists in empirical fields, to avoid debate.
Therefore, it seems to me that philosophy makes lots of progress. While there's still a lot of debate in philosophy courses and the literature, that's perfectly understandable, and it's not evidence that philosophers aren't frequently discovering the truth.
For more on the contributions of philosophy, see: Known Philosophical Truths.
"Philosophy is all subjective opinion"
Much of what philosophers talk about strikes some people as subjective. Either the way of acquiring evidence is subjective, or the ultimate conclusions are subjective.
This is a complicated charge, because the word 'subjective' is used in many different ways. But I can think of two that are particularly relevant.
(1) It might mean that there's no overall fact of the matter about the right way to do something. But if you study philosophy, you'll see that that's not true. Philosophers in general--at least in most of the English-speaking departments--broadly agree on how philosophy should be done. We disagree, to some extent, about which sorts of evidence are overall more relevant or informative than other sorts of evidence. But you'll never find a philosopher disagree with another philosopher simply because the latter is merely expressing her own "subjective opinion." We try to find common-ground starting points, and we usually do.
(2) It might mean that there's no way outside of philosophy of verifying whether philosophical conclusions are true. There's no independent source with which to check the accuracy of our beliefs, in other words. Now, that might be true. But think carefully about what exactly this charge is implying. It's implying that philosophy itself isn't enough. And that's a pretty controversial claim, right? Philosophy is arguably the way, ultimately, that we discover whether something is true. So there's no need to look for something outside of philosophy.
I think that people often view some sources of philosophical evidence--such as intuition--as somehow less trustworthy than other sources of evidence, such as empirical observation. That's an interesting philosophical debate. But not all philosophy relies heavily on intuitions, and many philosophers have given powerful arguments that some forms of intuition are highly trustworthy, anyway.
"Philosophy is vague, imprecise, or fuzzy"
The word 'philosophy' is also used in many different ways.
Sometimes it just means 'a personal outlook on life,' for example, "hakuna matata."
Sometimes it refers to a line of cosmetics.
Sometimes it just means a belief about a particular position: "My philosophy is that you should always use your turn signal, even if there's no one else around you can see."
Indeed, in general, it seems as if people use 'philosophy' to refer to something they've used intuition to decide.
That's okay, but if you actually take a philosophy course, you'll see that it's anything but imprecise. (This may be part of why philosophers are so good at writing clearly.) We demand clarity and precision; we demand that you say exactly what you mean. To see some examples of this in action, you can look at recent work in philosophy. Here's a nice example.
"Philosophy won't get you a job"
I discuss this elsewhere, but put briefly, philosophy is probably the single best preparation for your career outside of your major itself, because of the reading, writing, and critical thinking skills philosophy gives you.
Further reading ...