There are a few cliche questions that most seniors in college hate being asked. I was at a family birthday party over the long Christmas break when it seemed like I was being assaulted by these dreaded questions from every neighbor, aunt, uncle, and acquaintance.
So, remind me what you’re studying, again?
Theology and Philosophy? Huh, well, what made you decide to study that?
Really, you find that interesting?
Well good for you! We always knew you’d go far. Any big plans for after graduation?
So, what exactly do you plan on doing with philosophy?
It was this last question that, for whatever reason, bothered me the most. Why do I study philosophy? What do I want to “do” with it?
It’s no secret that philosophy is not exactly the most popular field of study these days. In fact, before I came to my University, I didn’t even know what it entailed. On the rare occasion that I would hear the word “philosophy,” it undoubtedly brought to mind images of wise looking sages donning togas while looking dreamily at the sunset, pondering life’s mysteries. In other words, I had some sort of inkling that philosophy dealt with the important and most fundamental questions about life. But besides that, I hadn’t a clue.
Growing up, I was always so drawn to creative writing and literature classes. I think my parents and other family members always assumed that I would end up finding a career that would also serve as a creative outlet for me. Expressing myself through words has never been an issue for me, to say the least. It’s a common occurrence that I get teased by those who know me well for my overly romanticized, wordy, and flowery tendencies with the English language. Upon receiving graded essays back from my teachers, there would often be some sort of comment written in the margins to the extent of: “Excellent paper! Next time, just keep it more precise and less flowery.”
It’s no surprise, then, that I hated my first philosophy class.
At my University, the core curriculum requires that every student take at least three philosophy courses: Philosophy of the Human Person, Metaphysics, and Ethics. Initially, I was less than thrilled. My first day in a philosophy class, my Professor (who eventually became one of my favorite and most beloved professors) spent the entire 50 minutes challenging us with a strange question: how do you know that the chair you’re sitting in is real? This aggravating question soon morphed into: what does it mean to be a chair, anyways? What is “chair-ness”?
It was the longest 50 minutes of my life.
I left class that day very confused. Is this philosophy? I thought philosophy was about proving God’s existence, or pondering eternity, or [insert something dramatic here]. Why did we spend 50 minutes talking about chairs?
The most aggravating part for me was adjusting to the way that philosophers use language. Being a wordy and creative person, I developed a sincere hatred for the way in which I now had to watch my words during class — each word in a proposition was loaded with meaning. For instance, some words which would simply be considered synonyms in an English classroom now meant entirely different things in the Philosophy classroom. You cannot simply use the words that “sound the prettiest.” Language is used with precision, and most philosophical texts seemed as dense to me as neuroscience textbooks.
As the days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, I slowly began to catch on. The basic principles of metaphysics began to build a foundation upon which my deeper, freer thoughts could develop.
I discovered that the true romance of philosophy did not lie in the aesthetic beauty of the words themselves, but rather in the truths expressed by the seemingly plain words. This was a beauty that grasped hold of me entirely; it transported me to a place that was both familiar and distant as I began to journey into the richness of life with a new pair of eyes. It was a radiance that far surpassed the beauty that I had previously discovered in the English classroom. It was the beauty of a life in search of truth which drew me in.
Suddenly, it was as if I had an incredible aerial view of life.
And I could see for miles.
In his work conveniently titled What is Philosophy?, Dietrich von Hildebrand states that “philosophy essentially and necessarily implies the actualization of this higher spiritual organ, and the realities which are the very topic of philosophy can only be verified in a way which, far from being interior to the tangible, incomparably surpasses it in its certitude and evidence” (1). It was my acquaintance with philosophy which finally made the invisible seem tangible and accessible.
After several years of studying philosophy now, I’ve noticed myself changing.
I’ve become softer, more observant.
I talk less. I listen and wait more.
Life feels more like a retreat or reflection. It no longer feels like an anxious race to be won.
I notice the little things more, little joys, little delights.
I allow the beauty of a painting, landscape, or song to take hold of me. I savor it.
I find virtue more desirable. I want to know the good, and I want to do the good.
I think this is why I was so startled by the question I had been posed at the beginning of this post: what do you want to “do” with philosophy? In short, I think my answer is as simple as this:
I don’t study philosophy because of what I want to do with it.
I study philosophy because of who I want to be.
(1) What is Philosophy?, Dietrich von Hildebrand