The whetstone, from prehistoric times to now, the instrument in a rudimentary form or as the meticulously made tool, has been used by many a bladesmith and other people to sharpen other tools, including knives, scythes, axes and more. Not everyone uses it daily, of course, and its importance is ignored until one’s knives crush a tomato instead of slicing cleanly through it. This is not to say that the other tools aren’t important, but one would be remiss to forget or deemphasize the whetstone.
Philosophy is that whetstone, being that which weaves in and out and through the underlying assumptions of many subjects, such as science, mathematics, sociology and more. It forms the history of these subjects. Before science, there was natural philosophy. Descartes, the man behind the famous line, “I think therefore I am,” now printed on more t-shirts than necessary, was a mathematician. He used mathematics to form his philosophical doctrine. If one has heard of Cartesian geometry, one has Descartes to thank. Early sociologists such as Durkheim, Marx or Weber, were speculating on human nature in relation to society, much like ancient philosophers.
The subject may have fallen out of favor in recent ages, seeing a downturn in participants and students, a common fate of the humanities. Lately, however, philosophy has diverged from the humanities in that respect, as it has stopped the decrease in the number of students majoring in it, and for good reason.
A 2009 study titled “Philosophy Temperament” showed a correlation between cognitive thinking and philosophy, as out of the over 4,000 people they tested, 842 had had philosophical training. The philosophically trained subjects did better than others in a Cognitive Reflection Test, which was meant to test the degree to which people questioned their intuition. Whether philosophy itself creates these sorts of critical thinkers or whether the thinkers gravitate toward the subject is a question still to be answered, but according to Rik Hine, assistant professor of philosophy at Washburn, this is encouraging.
“Even if it is the case that smart people just gravitate to philosophy, you have to ask why they are doing that,” Hine said.
And he is right, philosophy majors have time and again shown that they excel not just in their discipline but throughout broad areas of knowledge. Philosophy majors are consistently near or at the top in the LSAT, MCAT and GRE.
Again, the other disciplines are equally as important as philosophy, but it would do some good for the people training in those disciplines to have philosophical training. STEM majors, for example, could always recognize the importance of knowing that whatever they hear in class is not gospel. Is science really carving up nature to expose ultimate truths? The philosophy of science raises this question and attempts to answer it in nuanced ways. Understanding these nuances could make these to-be scientists more considerate, careful thinkers, and this is just one example.
Philosophy sharpens these subjects, but it needs more exposure. Hine agrees that philosophers have to work to get this image of their discipline out into the public conscious to not let the other tools get blunt.