By Saif Kureishi, senior
In Japan, it used to be tradition to give newly-weds a “pillow book” as a gift. This was a small volume of ukiyo-e, woodblock prints, depicting the secret world of sexual intercourse. Not only were these “pictures worth more than a thousand words,” but they also gave parents the ability to communicate intimate knowledge in a less embarrassing way. Admittedly, as a teenager that lacks in the looks department, I am not confronted by the complexities of the taboo of sex; instead, I am confronted with society’s newest taboo, one that I believe, in the long-term, is more frightful and dangerous to the whole of humanity than simple knowledge of fornication. This is the taboo of philosophy.
Philosophy is the study of this world through internal thought: how we comprehend our reality. Today, philosophy, along with the other humanities, is seen as the “Starbucks’s major”—something to put aside in the face and promise of STEM, “lest ye be serving lattes.” As Alex Preston, an editorialist for the Guardian, writes, “A war is being waged within the cloistered world of academia.”
Students are being pushed further away from the study of philosophy and closer to science departments so as to meet the needs dictated by the market economy. Austerity-stricken governments see this movement and thus cut funding for one department and channel towards the more modish one with a seemingly greater return. While it is imperative for universities to prepare kids for the future, a knowledge solely based on what’s outside of us, the outer and objective world, is one that will perpetuate the issues plaguing us now.
Humanity has evolved in one sphere only. We grew in technological expertise, building systems to communicate with others thousands of miles away. However, there was no subsequent or concurrent growth in moral integrity or in rational thinking. With the growth of food production, we find billions without food. With the advent of modern rocket science, we explore less of space and more of death. And though we have the means to provide everyone on this earth with sustenance, 1% of the population has 99% of the wealth. We’re incredibly shortsighted, seeing current economic development as more beneficial than future environmental security. These irrationalities are spurned by a head-down run forward to supposed “efficiency” and a rejection of the questions that philosophy tries to answer and the morality inherent in these questions. Such a deadly disease requires a powerful cure and the wonder of philosophical conundrums is the cure, not the disease.
Questions that seek to understand nature, rather than conquer it, are things many should understand so that they can place themselves in this universe, rather than outside of it. The problem of a solely scientific view of the world is that “I, myself” am not a part of it and thus my actions seem incorrigible. Wanting immortality, and a preference for empty materialism and fervent nihilism that promotes the acquisition of currency, can be solved with pondering your place. Life and love, death and pain and all other means of existence grow through philosophical discourse. When we ask “who am I?” or “why this universe?” we pull ourselves out of the apprehension that existence is like a rat-trap. By considering the everyday things in our life, we see majesty in the oddity of basic things. By seeing a giraffe as more wondrous than a gorgon, we gain an appreciation for quotidian life, and therefore we will no longer waste our lives climbing some never-ending ladder of cubicle work and academia.
When we think of these things we grow as individuals and explore ourselves more deeply, thereby understanding the relativistic morals and values we hold dearly. The sooner we recognize these things, the sooner we can stop living for efficiency’s sake. The sooner then we can start being human again, living in this world rather than out of it and thus the sooner we can start growing morally. Bertrand Russell, a famous mathematician and philosopher, articulated this idea perfectly in his book “The Value of Philosophy”: “Philosophy is to be studied … because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.”
Now I’ll admit, as a student who has stressed over the drop-down list under majors on the Common App, I have really struggled with the idea of me being a prospective philosophy major. To many logicians, the most famous and pervading of which was Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosophy is an intellectual neurosis built from a quirk or fault in our language that gives sense to senseless words. The study of which would then provide very little outside of a personal gratification or a belief that “I am legend” and thus such a study would provide very little incentive for future employers to hire a budding philosophy major.
However, the prospects of philosophy build very marketable skills. In fact, more philosophers can supplement the current, rapidly changing economic climate we live in. More than half of people employed today work in fields that didn’t exist when they were attending school. A recent study by Oxford University sees this trend accelerating with the advent of more advanced artificial technology. By 2025, more than 50% of current jobs will be labeled redundant and thus, as economic theory dictates, a whole host of new careers will open up. The skills that studying philosophy provides will never become obsolete. The ability to think, write clearly, explain complex ideas, play with connections and consider implications, and challenge orthodoxy are skills applicable to any field of work and will never, like the designs in Vogue, became vague and unimportant 10 years from now.
I’m not challenging all of you here to go suddenly become philosophy majors. To be honest, I doubt that I will end up applying as one. Instead, I’m simply asking you not to turn your head away from the study of philosophy or from the rest of the humanities. I implore you all to be your mind and not conquer it, to place yourself and to see what shaky ground you stand upon. Hopefully one day, budding philosopher parents won’t have to pass their children woodblock prints of the words of Plato. Hopefully one day, it will no longer be taboo, and in the latest edition of Playboy, there’ll be an article on individualism.