It’s a question that is asked to me often. Especially in my current (well, current for one more day) environment of a super corporate big finance Fortune 500 company. Most people around me are very confused when they found out that I actually picked a major in college with no tangible monetary benefit other than the base line of “I went to college for four years and survived” to get past those job qualifications of at least having some college degree. So why would I basically waste close to four years of my life to get a degree only to not use it at all in the past three years working for the company that I work for? Well, first of all, it’s about what portion of my life I think was wasted. Pretty simple response there. Life fulfillment is really the name of the game, and I can’t exactly say that the past three years could be considered fulfilling. You go to work. You sit at a desk with a computer in front of it. You stare at the thing for eight hours, with various breaks during the day to chain smoke cigarettes to make the pain go away. You go home. You do it again the next day. The weekend ends before you even know it. You’re working in a temporary capacity so you don’t get paid time off. When you step back and look at things, it’s a pretty horrendous experience.
What I miss is intellectual discourse. I mentioned in my first article the kind of fresh air culture shock that occurred when I moved from suburban Pennsylvania to Boston. Well, imagine going back after all the personality building and changes that can happen over those four fertile years. And imagine knowing that all your best friends, some of which you literally spent every day with, stayed in Boston. And imagine having to deal with this by going to a job that I described in the above paragraph. You can understand now why I’m quite excited about moving back to the city in three weeks. But one thing I learned while I was in Boston was the idea of education as an end in itself. Now keep in mind that I originally came to Boston U with aspirations of majoring in English, which also isn’t exactly the most lucrative major (reminds me of the opening song of the Avenue Q musical, “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?”). The change was made due to my dissatisfaction with the English program. I was probably going to minor in Philosophy prior to my change, but I decided to just run with it. Really, it’s not specifically education that’s an end in itself. Because there are certainly types of education that are not designed to be the end result. Vocational training, business school, communications, these things are not designed to be ongoing pursuits. English literature could be seen as either an end or a means; it really depends on what you plan to use it for. But Philosophy. That has no visible applications in our modern work world. It’s an artifact, long since ignored.
Really, Philosophy as such is something that is taken for granted. You look at the history of Philosophy and it’s got its roots in everything. The first scientists were Philosophers. Aristotle defined notions such as metaphysics, logic and astrological concerns for generations. They weren’t always the pioneers of these fields, but they certainly had their hands in evolving and refining these ideals, running parallel with their own thoughts about the world and what is in it. There is no end to the philosophical method. You can look at it as the liberal version of science, where you have over the millennia a slow evolution of thought and action where the whole always contains the parts of its predecessor (this is the foundation for the simplistic version of the Hegelian Dialectic) with no legitimate end in sight. You’ll never reach a point where the philosophical enterprise “ends” much in a similar way as science. So it’s a discipline that has no conceivable end, but that the end is the actual process itself. It is theoretical academics. Philosophers will never make any new discovery that changes the world in a way that a scientist would. So the question is once again raised: why bother?
Most philosophers and philosophy students do not enter the field out of ignorance or pragmatism. As I mentioned, it’s not a field that attracts those who are looking for job security or a quick buck. It’s a field (especially in the current climate) that in a way has mutated into a combination of history and literature, where your average Philosophy class is going to consist of either an overview of multiple philosophical ideals in a kind of introductory course or an analytical reading of selected texts. In a way, Hegel could be considered eerily accurate when he pronounced his book The Phenomenology of Spirit to basically be considered the end of history. And we haven’t seen any kind of philosophy or philosophical movement that could be considered truly original since the work Hegel did in the early 1800’s. But I’m trying not to make this too dry of a read, so I’m going to get back to the point. I truly believe that interest in philosophy often comes from dissatisfaction with the world in some way, shape or form that leads to questioning the status quo. This could come from religion or science, or simply an inquisitive nature. Either way, the desire to dig deeper persists. And it percolates over time. A breakthrough occurs when you first read a truly philosophical text (for me, it was three of Plato’s dialogues, Apoloy, Crito, and Republic) and realize that there are others out there like you that are not satisfied by going through the motions. And it grows from there, and you’re suddenly trying to figure out just what the hell to do with this fancy degree in unemployment you just earned.
But what really matters is the fact that any true philosopher doesn’t care. Because the discipline is an end in itself. Maybe you move on to the “real world” and get a cubical job and slowly lose that mental sharpness, or maybe you find ways to keep yourself sharp. Or maybe you continue on your education to the point that the student becomes the teacher. What matters is the fact that it doesn’t matter. Fulfillment comes from the action of thought. I study Philosophy because my mind cannot allow me to do anything else. I wouldn’t be able to sleep well without this outlet. Why do I study Philosophy? Because my life depends on it. Care to think of a better reason?
This post was written to the tune of Failure’s Fantastic Planet and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Henry’s Dream