I’ve notched a few of these Opening Days on my blog-stick, enough to form a patterned schtick involving Douglas Adams’ philosophical whale, Monty Python’s non-argument, and a few other comic-gimmicky invitations to the philosophy dance. (“Oh no, not that again.”) It’s my eternal recurrence, my groundhog day, my season-opener. I love it.
I always want to convey to students on Day 1 the simple message that philosophy is for everyone (or at least it can be… No it can’t… Yes it can… Oh look, this isn’t an argument…), that it’s at once sublime and ridiculous, frivolous and profound, serious and fun. Serious fun. When you start asking questions, all kinds of things can happen. You never know for sure what’s rushing to meet you, or whether it will be your friend. That’s why you philosophize, as Professor James professed more than a century ago in the lectures that would become Pragmatism.
I know that you, ladies and gentlemen, have a philosophy, each and all of you, and that the most interesting and important thing about you is the way in which it determines the perspective in your several worlds. You know the same of me. And yet I confess to a certain tremor at the audacity of the enterprise which I am about to begin. For the philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means. It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos.
Right: you’re all individuals, all citizens of the cosmos, all with your own way of seeing and feeling and talking. So let’s introduce ourselves and get talking, CoPhilosophers. For,
Whatever universe a professor believes in must at any rate be a universe that lends itself to lengthy discourse. A universe definable in two sentences is something for which the professorial intellect has no use.
Nor the westernized philosophizing student intellect, either.
But of course we do know there’s a hard terminus awaiting this journey called life. Is it finally terminal, or a gateway, or a release? That’s a great philosophical question. Should we live as though we knew the end to be THE END? Another good one. Different philosophers have offered different answers. We should consider them. We will.
But lots of students, even some of the “best” students, don’t. A review in yeterday’s Times of William Deresiewicz’ Excellent Sheep indicts some Ivy League overachievers for underselling themselves, not asking big questions, not giving themselves the thrill and the mind-expanding experience of philosophizing while they’re still young enough for that activity to alter them in constructive ways. “Once in college, these young people lead the same Stakhanovite lives, even though they’re no longer competing to get in. They accept endless time-sucking activity and pointless competition as the natural condition of future leaders. Too busy to read or make friends, listen to music or fall in love, they waste the precious years that they should be devoting to building their souls on building their résumés.”
“The faculty could and should push these gifted obsessives to slow down and ask big questions.” That’s my cue. We’re not in the Ivy League, but we’ve all got our gifts and our obsessions. We’ve all got questions to ask and minds to expand and souls to build. So let’s get busy!
(You too, Environmental Ethicists.)
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