July 2, 2017

“The Nothing Nothings” - Finding meaning and making sense

This is a test paragraph. It is going to be followed by a quotation. The test, predictably enough, is of how the quotation style works. Let us see, shall we?

How did it come to this? I certainly didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a philosopher – the word had always struck me as not a job title but as an honorific, bestowed posthumously on heroic figures who, whatever their professions or intentions, played certain pivotal roles in intellectual history. The idea that you could make a living and file your taxes as “a professional philosopher” would have seemed to me absurd, and to be honest, it still does. When I compare my projects to those of my friends and peers – those of landscape architects designing for sustainability and community, students of policy committed to bridging partisan divides, friends working in schools to organize constructive play and on the radio to shape public discourse – it does little to shake off the nagging question: what in the world am I doing?

I started this blog to help piece together an answer to that question. But my purpose here is not to try to justify philosophy as a profession – I have no idea how I could – nor to convince anyone that they should or should not get any sort of degree in philosophy. What it is, in part, is an effort to keep myself honest. My hope is that making myself write about what I’m up to, and not only to those already in the fold, will help me see more clearly my own development and how I’m using my time. And if I can barely convince anyone that what I’m thinking about is worthwhile or interesting, hopefully I will either strive to get clearer on what I find worthwhile in it or else rethink whether there is so much in it after all.

Beyond questioning the value of my work, I am also here to try to figure out what I even mean by “my work.” I have a prepared excuse for when people ask me why I’m going to grad school for philosophy. I love language, math, physics, and music. Among my central goals are to learn and to help people learn. I think I’m decent and teaching and I want to get better. (Besides, I have sublimated past dreams of guitarist stardom to find fulfillment when gesticulating behind the podium; the electricity of a captivated audience stays with me for days.) So becoming a professor makes sense. But you can’t apply for a PhD in math and tell them you want to study proof as a language game, connections between mathematical and musical beauty, and also topos theory. (I actually sort of tried. Doesn’t work.) But philosophy! There, you just tack “Philosophy of” in front of everything and you’re good to go. I found a way to not make up my mind all the way to the highest peaks of higher education.

With respect to the specialization and departmentalization of academia, maybe I did pull off a bit of a trick, but I’m actually confident that philosophy is not just a convenient place for me to be; it’s exactly where I should be. I study math or linguistics not, in the end, to learn those subjects for themselves, but to try to see, as Wilfrid Sellars put it, “how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term.”

That’s not to say that I think I’m going to find answers, or that it’s possible to find answers, or that “answers” are the right sort of thing to be looking for. All I know is that many of the esteemed people who have dedicated themselves to this sort of pursuit get called “philosophers,” and many of the books and papers I’ve read that seem most relevant and insightful in this respect, which give me that sensation of awe and excitement, of grasping toward the infinitely distant and infinitely meaningful, get sorted under “philosophy”. (If they aren’t, I often think they should be. Conveniently, arguing over what counts as philosophy can count as philosophy.)

In short, I study philosophy because I could not escape - and had the luxury to let myself be captured by - questioning of this sort. And if I am right in thinking that the desire to pursue such questions is stuck in the heart of all of us waiting for the time and opportunity to express itself, perhaps it is not so foolish to hope that such work, however abstract or lofty, is not useless – that it might help people “make sense of things,” “see things in a new light,” that it might even be exactly what helps the next person along the path put together a few more pieces of the puzzle – whether that puzzle be scientific, ethical, or simply a perennial and personal “…why?”

I'd love to hear your comments. Email me at henwell@eltwish.com, and let me know, if relevant, if I may affix your comment to this post.

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