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Emily Breslin '10: The unexamined life is not worth living

As universities are trying to figure out how to juggle their decreasing endowments, they are cutting programs, and philosophy is among the cuts because of declining interest in the subject. There are two obvious and understandable practical reasons for this. Students are wary about choosing a concentration that does not directly lead to a job post-graduation, and liberal academia has embarked on a backlash against the canon of works by dead white men.

Neither of these reasons ought to be sufficient to preclude students from choosing to take philosophy classes. I am used to facing charges of elitism when I tell people that I am a philosophy concentrator. "Philosophy? What are you going to do with that? You're paying all this money for an Ivy League education and you're squandering it on pointless inquiry.  You're lucky that you can afford to do that."

My question for them is, Can you afford not to? I am not saying that everyone should concentrate in philosophy, but can you afford not to contemplate ethical questions in your everyday life? Can you afford to live without asking any questions about meaning?
It all comes down to the question of what is important. Being gainfully employed is important to me, but I am confident that the analytical skills I have acquired as a philosophy concentrator make me suitable for many positions. It is important to me that there is a space in which I can ask the questions I have had since I was little: In what sense are fictional characters real? What is time? Do I have free will, or is it already determined what I will do for the rest of my life?

Questions like these form a constant thread for me, and to have a meaningful life, I need to be constantly thinking about them. I understand that other people may not have the same obsessive need to constantly analyze, but I do believe that everyone is forced to analyze sometimes.

To turn to the dead white man question, I cannot understand why people have such trouble with this category of author and thinker.  We have come a long way in terms of how we define who gets to be a full person, to be sure.  However, at a time when women and non-wealthy, non-white men were completely marginalized, the writing of white men represented the pinnacle of scholarship in all fields. Perhaps the hesitation about reading dead white men comes from being uncomfortable with this power structure; if other people did not have the ability to express themselves because their experiences were not considered relevant or important, we ought to somehow retroactively protest by not listening to what dead white men had to say.

In a field like philosophy where people everywhere ask the same types of questions, though, it makes sense to turn to the people who wrote about them first (or at least the first documents that we have). I have difficulty saying that the philosophical thoughts of people today are somehow more important than the thoughts of people of the past, although this is apparently how scholars in many other fields feel.

While I find both practical reasons for the decline of philosophy troubling, I am more concerned about the general lack of understanding about what the study of philosophy actually entails. Philosophers spend most of their time thinking, talking and writing about questions that everyone considers at one point or another. A recent article in the New York Times chronicled one philosophy professor's expeditions into elementary school classrooms to discuss "environmental ethics, or ‘how we should treat natural objects.' " Even 8-year-olds benefit when they "consider how someone can maintain a belief in the face of contrary evidence" and "whether there can be objective standards for evaluating works of art," according to the article.

I feel we need to ask these questions. All too frequently, we are required to memorize facts that we will forget about as soon as the project or exam is over. What do we have that sticks with us? People think that philosophy is frustrating because one is first required to figure out exactly what a philosopher means by her words and then decide for oneself what is wrong with the theory, because there is always something wrong. One cannot simply swallow all the claims made in an article or book and regurgitate them on a test. One must engage with the material.

I understand that educational institutions are facing a financial crisis, and it would be unreasonable of me to advocate that funding for philosophy become a top priority. I realize that the intense study of philosophy is not for everyone. However, I do think that we ought to remember that, even when we are concerned with money, practicality and our future, philosophy has a place on our agendas, whether we realize it or not. As the second grade philosophy students realize, philosophical questions are for everyone. "We can say things about what we believe and stuff," a girl named Autumn told the Times. "It's what we feel and what we think."

Emily Breslin '10 is a philosophy concentrator from Harvard, Mass. She can be contacted at emily_breslin-at-brown.edu




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