Is philosophy useful? I recently abandoned a course of philosophical study because I became overwhelmed by a sense that all I was doing - all I could ever do - was produce more philosophy. It was fun, it was interesting, I improved my research skills and now have a wider circle of strongly opinionated friends. But I couldn't escape the sense that real ideas were being abandoned in favour of increasingly intricate, but ultimately unhelpful semantic constructs and their counterexamples - for some reason, I am reminded of a paradox involving some ravens.

As you suggest, studying and practicing philosophy improve's one's analytical and creative skills: reading, writing, thinking. So, that is one significant way that philosophy is useful -- and especially so if it were true that doing philosophy is a comparatively powerful means of refining those skills. Likewise, studying philosophy (and perhaps especially the history of philosophy) can give you powerful insights about yourself, the history of your culture, and your world. Exactly what use you make of those increased skills and powerful insights is for you to determine, and I would submit that there are many opportunities to use them in productive and interesting ways. How to do this depends on your exact interests, goals, and passions with respect both to philosophy and your life goals, but certainly these opportunities extend far beyond publishing philosphical literature. About studying philospohy: If after thoughtful reflection you find some areas of philosophy narrowly uninteresting or...

My English teacher has said that it is important to read an author first, before reading her critics, so that one can form an opinion unpolluted by the arguments of others. Is philosophy like this as well? Should I read Wittgenstein before I read books and articles about Wittgenstein? Should I avoid books which try to summarize the great works of philosophy, in case theirs is a biased interpretation? Philosophy is pretty hard, and I think that few people can be expected to attack _The critique of pure reason_ alone; for the philosophy undergraduate, what should be the role of "secondary" sources?

With respect to beginning to study the history of philosophy, Ithink that it is almost always more interesting and rewarding to engagewith primary philosophical texts without consulting commentaries andother secondary sources: direct intellectual contact with the mostpoweful philosophers and philospohical arguments is a profoundlypowerful experience.You are right of course, that this is a difficult experience to secure, but the effort is almost always worth it. Patience is important. Reading even the most abstruse philosophical texts becomes much esaierwith practice; my general advice is to stick with the primary textswith a good degree of patience and confdence that you will becomecapable of more and more sophisticated engagement over time. Iknow that it is tempting to "turn to" secondary source when youconfront a difficult and frustrating text. If you are a student whowill be learning along with classmates and can gain additional insightfrom a professor, I urge you to resist this temptation --...

Is it much harder to be a philosopher now (that is, to make a contribution to the discipline) than it was 50 years ago? Is philosophy like science in that there can seem at times to be less and less left for us to "discover," over time?

I agree that it is more difficult to gain access to and to contribute to highly specialized and professionalized academic communities than to less specialized and less professionalized ones. Not all fields of philosophy are as highly technical as mathematical logic, but nearly all philosphical communities are highly professionalized and can be accessed only by those with strong professional credentials. That said, contributing to a highly professionalized academic community is by no means the only way to engage philospohical issues in a profound manner: the classical philosophical texts and problems are just as amenable (or not) to human thought as they have been, and it is no harder for anyone to think philosophically about them now than it has been in the past.

Why do I ask questions that I already know MY answer to? Why would I change my mind if I am already sure that, for example, 'knowledge comes from experience' or that, 'there is no life after this one'? Are there any instances in which any of the philosophers on this site have radically changed their minds or caused others to change theirs?

What often drives change in my own beliefs about important issues like those you mentioned (knowledge, life, death, ethics, etc.) is learning that I didn't understand those complicated topics as well as I thought I had. That this sort of intellectual growth is possible, in turn, motivates me to test my own beliefs and to continue to investigate issues that matter to me even when I already have my own clear beliefs about those issues. Many things cause this the sort of growth, including my own thinking about philosophical issues, my historical investigations into the history of crucial philosophical concepts, and many cases where my research or teaching leads me to pay close attention to others' philosophical perspectives. The growth commonly leads to small changes in my beliefs, and occasionally to radical ones (those are often extremely exciting moments); I think that, as an educator, I can lead many of my students to have the same same sort of change for the same reasons.

Why do people (especially philosophers) engage in arguments which cannot be resolved?

I would add that studying philosophical issues--reading about them, discussing them with others, and writing about them inside or outside a class--can not only be intellectually edifying, but pratically useful as well: this is an an excellent way to hone one's critical reading, writing, thinking, and oral communication skills that are useful in many professional and personal contexts.

Do philosophers really think that the problems they discuss are important in themselves, or does thinking about the problems merely serve as practice in analytical thinking? How does philosophy differ from puzzle solving (besides the fact that puzzles actually tend to get solved)?

As Richard states, there is considerable disagreement among philosophers about which philosophical questions are significant, and why. There is also considerable truth in your suggestion that studying the methods and texts of philosophy is itself a valuable way to develop one's analytical reading, writing, thinking, and communication skills. So, as a teacher of philosophy I hope that my students will both gain useful insight by studying diverse philosophical questions and approaches and will also gain useful analytical skills. This is an extremely powerful combination, and this power is one reason why philosophy students tend to do so well in the professional job market and also tend to advance quickly within their chosen professions. About puzzle solving: the difference that you touch on, that philosophical puzzles are rarely solved in definitive way that gain professional consensus, is the central one. I take this to mean that investigating a philosophical question is very different from...

What, if anything, do philosophers make of the fact that after centuries of philosophy, there is little consensus on the anwers to most philosophical questions?

The chief lesson I have drawn is that reaching consensus is not an important criterion for progress in philosophy. This is true in several areas of my own professional life, including in my discussions with colleagues, in my own study of philosophical texts, and in my own philosophical research. First, there is much be learned by exploring diverse perspectives to complex philosophical issues. My best discussions with colleagues are ones where we understand and explore the differences between our philosophical views; when this occurs, I rarely end up agreeing with others but I frequently gain new insight nonetheless. Second, this lack of agreement among philosophers—which occurs at so many levels--is itself a fascinating intellectual phenomenon. As an historian of philosophy, I am often enthralled by the ways that philosophers' thoughts about a single issue or idea have changed over time. Finally that philosophical questions and issues are not amenable to simple answers is exciting to me...