The Value of Philosophy

My goal in this statement is to give an account of my motivations as an aspiring philosophy student, and to sketch some of my areas of interest.

During my time in Peace Corps Philippines, I taught several college classes, including Intro Philosophy for 3rd year teaching students, so I know from experience that I love teaching, I love philosophy, and I especially love teaching philosophy. If I can someday earn a living at it, I’ll count myself an unfairly lucky man.

Still, it seems obvious that doing philosophy is distinct from teaching philosophy. My main goal as a graduate philosophy student will be learning to do the former–that is, learning to think more clearly about substantive, abstract questions. It seems to me that clear thinking is valuable in itself, even without external justification (e.g., “Clear thinking helps us survive;” “Clear thinking is a prerequisite to ethical action;” etc.). The value of philosophy, like the value of art, is not reducible to its practical utility.

This is not to say that philosophy lacks practical utility. Human behaviour is largely goal-oriented: we are agents, and we think about what’s good and how to effect it. In this way, philosophers are just problem-solvers working at the highest level of abstraction. They formulate and critique the questions, issues, concepts, etc. which are then used by more specific schools of thought. For examples, general concepts related to truth, ethics, society, etc. are applied in more specific, concrete ways by lawyers. This is one way in which philosophers do practically applicable work: they build basic conceptual tools.

Those are two reasons why I think philosophy, or clear thinking, is worth pursuing at the graduate level: clear thinking is an independently valuable activity, and clear abstract is prerequisite for other, more concrete human endeavors.

Having discussed my reasons for wanting to study philosophy, I will briefly discuss some areas of my interest.

First, I would like to think carefully about the question, “What is consciousness?” which question remains controversial and seems to me to have broad implications. I have some undergraduate experience with the physicalist views proposed by Daniel Dennett and Richard Douglas Hofstedter, who hold that consciousness can be adequately explained within a physical-monist ontology (as opposed to e.g. Cartesian dualism). I’d like to better understand what is at stake in this debate: for example, are “form” and “action” physical, or extra-physical, or something else entirely? Are either monism or dualism coherent positions? I am curious about the epistemic assumptions that underlie the physicalist view: for example, how does the fact that scientific inquiry is an essentially public and inter-subjective enterprise relate to questions about the privately available phenomenon of consciousness?

I am also interested in the epistemic distinction between what can be known and talked about vs. what exists per se. As an undergraduate, the works of Kant, Paul Tillich, and Thomas Kuhn introduced me to the view that reality is, in itself, ineffable, and knowledge is a sort of model or metaphor or symbol for ‘pointing toward’ reality. I anticipate having a sustained interest in this view and how it may be used. For example, I suspect that the modern/contemporary tension between religion and intellectual honesty (i.e. Nietzsche’s “Death of God”) is somehow related to naïve assumptions about reality and knowledge. Could a careful distinction between what is/what’s knowable be used in a critique of both religious and anti-religious positions? Work on this question could include an investigation of the historical development of “religion” as we conceive of it today (which development I suspect is intimately connected to the Enlightenment and its aftermath).

A third area of my interest involves the effects of technology on human beings, and our responses. Thinkers including David Foster Wallace, Neil Postman, Odo Marquard, and Guy Debord are all concerned with the effects of social media (e.g. printing press, telegraph, TV, Facebook) on persons and people; all four seem to broadly agree that 1-the medium affects the message, and 2-contemporary people are increasingly disoriented by the ocean of representation in which we’ve been engulfed. Our relationships to ourselves, each other, the economy, the world, etc. can be overwhelmingly complex and difficult to think clearly about: if I watch TV six hours a day, I am learning that there is a connection between being watchable and being real and good. This sort of phenomenon seems to me to be one small piece of a larger, pressing problem for my generation: how technology changes human life. I imagine that philosophers could assist by figuring out how to talk usefully about the situation.

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