David Papineau in the Times Literary Supplement:
What’s the purpose of philosophy? Alfred North Whitehead characterized it as a series of footnotes to Plato. You can see his point. On the surface, we don’t seem to have progressed much in the two and a half millennia since Plato wrote his dialogues. Today’s philosophers still struggle with many of the same issues that exercised the Greeks. What is the basis of morality? How can we define knowledge? Is there a deeper reality behind the world of appearances?
Philosophy compares badly with science on this score. Since science took its modern form in the seventeenth century, it has been one long success story. It has uncovered the workings of nature and brought untold benefits to humanity. Mechanics and electromagnetism underpin the technological advances of the modern world, while chemistry and microbiology have done much to free us from the tyranny of disease.
Not all philosophers are troubled by this contrast. For some, the worth of philosophy lies in the process, not the product. In line with Socrates’ dictum – “The unexamined life is not worth living” – they hold that reflection on the human predicament is valuable in itself, even if no definite answers are forthcoming. Others take their lead from Marx – “The philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point, however is to change it” – and view philosophy as an engine of political change, whose purpose is not to reflect reality, but disrupt it.
Even so, the majority of contemporary philosophers, myself included, probably still think of philosophy as a route to the truth. After all, the methods we use wouldn’t make much sense otherwise.