I wish I could say that I had a sudden realization, some profound epiphany concerning the human condition. It would be more thrilling for the reader. Unfortunately, the insights that I have reached through philosophy usually come about through a much more gradual, much less dramatic process. In compelling me to alter my understanding and interpretation of the world, the process can be dauntingly uncertain and even painful. I consider this very process of critical thought “philosophy.” But before I continue, I must clarify the meaning of this word. By philosophy, I mean the process of thinking, perceiving, and judging oneself and the world rationally in accordance with empirical knowledge. Philosophy also refers to the study of general and fundamental problems concerning truth, ethics, and human existence. I will address both in this essay. Nowadays people tend to have a negative conception of philosophy. The word invokes images of grand ivory towers situated behind ivy walls. Inside the towers in an oak-paneled room a pretentious old man sits on a gilded armchair, living in luxurious decadence. Out of touch with real world issues and having never encountered adversity, he spends his time contemplating ideas to amuse his intellect. This is not philosophy. In my experience, even educated people frequently misconceive of philosophy as an esoterically useless discipline meant only for an intelligentsia out of touch with the world. Among university students for instance, philosophy is one of the most ridiculed majors, right next to art history and English literature. This attitude towards philosophy has always infuriated me, not only because it shows the underlying ignorance of the believer, but also because of its glaring irony. The course of my life thus far has led me to firmly believe that philosophy is the most practical and necessary of all human disciplines.
I did not always believe in philosophy. In fact, I did not even know what philosophy was until sometime during my sophomore year of high school. Rather than being introduced to it or stumbling upon it by chance, I was eventually led to philosophy by my intellectual curiosity. In every class, as soon as I questioned the material on a deep enough level, the same type of apparently unanswerable questions would keep recurring. Biology class defined life as a series of ongoing chemical reactions and suggested that consciousness is the mere exchange of sodium and potassium ions across gated protein channels in the brain. In questioning these definitions, I hit upon philosophical discussions of defining human life, the existence the Platonic soul, and the existence of free will. In English class, reading Hamlet compelled me to consider the ethics of suicide and the possibility of living a meaningful existence despite life’s inevitable tragedies. Even math class, during our study of the summation of infinite series, caused me to contemplate the idea of infinity and the limits of the human mind in conceptualizing the infinite. These are but a few examples in the myriad questions I struggled with during high school.
As I began to systematically contemplate each of these questions, I noticed how they converged and oftentimes complemented one another. The debate about the existence of a soul coincides directly with the god debate. The discussion about free will relates to the ethics of suicide. Thus, not only does philosophy underlie the various academic subjects, but it ties everything together. It acts as a sort of interdisciplinary network, allowing me to synthesize information from one area with that of another. This synthesis allows me to produce conclusions, useful facts which I use to make decisions. In real life, decisions rarely require only a single area of knowledge. All human decisions necessitate thinking about various issues that branch into science, humanities, and other areas of thought. So in a sense, philosophy better prepares me to make real life decisions by making sense of knowledge in the context of all other types of knowledge. It is self-evident that no knowledge has any useful application unless it is contextualized with knowledge from other areas.
I have just discussed the importance of philosophy in the academic realm, but philosophy also exists as a powerful way of thinking. The German philosopher Nietzsche states, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” Apart from the debate of the possibility of absolute truth, there exists the simple fact that interpretation is a necessary and integral part of human perception. One might ask, “What about the objective truths derived from math and science?” I am referring to perception with the intent of applying the information. Of course the fact “one plus one equals two” leaves no room for interpretation. But to make use of it one must interpret this fact in the context of a real life situation. For instance, does falling in love and marrying somebody mean that the two of you exist as a single entity? Or do you both exist separately? What degree of agency should each retain in such a relationship? These questions depend on the understanding that quantities change when combined, but the meaning of such a fact must still be interpreted. In other words, although there are definite facts about the physical nature of the world, these are not truths in the strictly human sense. Knowing one plus one equals two does not inform us on how we should think about ourselves and the world. Hard facts must be interpreted, or humanized, in such a way that allows them to be applied to our lives. It is through this very process of human interpretation that we construct our reality. Philosophy refines the way one interprets the information he receives. The philosophical approach to interpretation entails constantly thinking about external information and cross-referencing it with other facts, with the ultimate goal of reaching a useful and informed conclusion. By approaching the world with a severely critical eye that questions every iota of information it receives, one can reach the most objective conception of the given situation. This involves understanding the various internal biases of both the information giver and receiver. As discussed above, humans operate based on interpretation, not hard fact. No matter how hard they try to give an objective account, it is necessarily influenced by subjective interpretation. Furthermore, one’s own reception of information is unavoidably skewed by internal biases. People often bend things to hear what they want. Philosophy works to counter this two sided subjectivity, allowing one to reach the most objective reality. I had to steel myself with this mentality during the college search process.
Every year during the summer and fall, colleges unleash impressively aggravating advertising campaigns involving tons of paper, emails, and phone calls. In its wake lie acres of deforestation, overflowing spam folders, and millions of poor misled students. Colleges like to personally address the letters to students by first name, writing in a friendly tone hoping to draw them in. They use numbers to boast about the number of Nobel prizes their faculty have received, their annual endowment, and the racial diversity of the student body. They present their institution as alone possessing these characteristics, existing as the most perfect place in the world for you to spend the next four years. I can imagine how the unsuspecting high school junior can easily get lassoed by this type of advertising. In order to find a truly well-fitting college, I approached the process fully aware of the marketing strategies these institutions employed. Furthermore, I understood that the colleges I was applying to are essentially similar with regards to academic quality, diversity of student body, and social atmosphere, differing only in location and other minor characteristics. This approach, I would imagine, spared me the stress of desperately wanting to be accepted to the only college I thought would suit me. I realized that I was applying to a number of colleges I would be very happy at, and that in the end, the experience will depend more on how I use the institution’s resources rather than what resources it provided me. By attaining the most objective reality of the situation, I was able to create the most beneficial interpretation.
Part of interpreting a fact includes determining how valuable that fact is. As humans, we live our lives doing, or with the hope of doing, what we want. We only want what matters to us, what is meaningful and what is valuable. Philosophy aids me on this quest for existential meaning because what I care about is often not easily apparent. It requires a combination of life experiences and deep contemplation to realize what I truly care about. I’m not talking about simple pleasures which can be discovered through reflexive emotional responses. Watching an entertaining movie makes me happy, but the happiness is also shallow and temporary. Simple thrills do not motivate me in the long run. What makes life worth living is the promise of experiencing true, lasting meaning. For instance, it took me many years to fully appreciate my musical education. I always hated practicing and listening to jazz and classical music when I was younger. Now, listening and playing such music gives me a feeling of satisfaction that I don’t get from anything else. Although this may have been a result of my acclimation to music after studying it for so many years, I think the full explanation must acknowledge the fact that I tried to understand and relate to the meaning behind the music. After eight years of study, I know with certainty that I value jazz and classical music on the deepest level.
Having a philosophical state of mind means constantly questioning not only the accuracy of one’s perceptions but also the quality of one’s valuations. It is easy to convince yourself that you enjoy something you actually don’t. Although I have no experience with this, my older brother David shared his experience in the job market and the realizations he’s come to. He told me about how fresh college graduates are frequently misled by jobs with high salaries, not considering the value of the work itself. After graduating, my brother was offered jobs by banks and consulting firms with impressive salaries, but these were jobs that didn’t interest him. Instead he chose to explore the tech-startup industry, working for smaller groups with more modest salaries and lacking the financial benefits of large corporations. Because of this, he’s discovered a passion for computer programming and web development, something he never would’ve been exposed to had he decided to work for a bank. I’m sure that many adults find themselves in the doldrums of a job they hate, realizing after many miserable years that the salary does not outweigh the negatives of the work itself. This can be avoided if one always knows and prioritizes what he deeply values. Through this rationalization, one can easily conclude that money should be treated as a means, not as an end. Philosophy can help one realize that it is not money that is valuable, but rather the possibilities that money provides. By constantly reevaluating my values, I emerge with a more absolute and profound awareness of what is meaningful to me. Philosophy acts as an intellectual sieve, filtering out the refuse and ensuring that what remains is truly valuable to oneself.
I’ve offered my thoughts on the academic importance of philosophy as well as its personal importance in attaining the most objective conception of the world and in striving for true meaning. But the question still remains, what is philosophy? Defining it is difficult because it exists in so many different forms and contexts. In the broadest sense, I consider philosophy an intellectual process which uses reason to investigate and interpret the nature of oneself, one’s environment, and the relationship of the two. Furthermore, philosophy is an internal mode of thinking that is reliable under all external circumstances. In its most ideal form, philosophy should exist as a universal approach to human problems, from the mundane to the profound. Emphasis is placed on reason because only through systematic logic one can effectively determine consistency and inconsistency, and consequentially, right versus wrong and value versus lack of value. All of this philosophical thinking leads to the ultimate purpose of deciding how to live one’s life.
Only by first evaluating the world and oneself objectively can one then decide how to act, acting being the interface between the self and the environment. Only by first answering the question “What is?” can one answer “What should be?” Everyday life demands decisions from us of varying degrees, compelling us to ask ourselves what is moral and immoral. This dilemma presents itself to me every time I choose to illegally pirate music. On one hand, it’s against the law and could have very serious legal ramifications if caught. On the other hand, the artists of the music I pirate already passed away. Their estates would receive all of the commissions from purchases. Knowing them to be artists in the purest sense, I can comfortably conclude that they would rather want people to be exposed to their musical artistry and genius than for their estates to earn money. This is an example of how philosophy remains essential dealing with the question of “How should I act?” Philosophy rationally organizes one’s knowledge and principles to allow this question to be adequately addressed. Because I am constantly exposed to new situations and gaining new knowledge, my answers to this question constantly fluctuates. It is easy to stop considering new information, unintentionally reverting to an outdated ethical mode. As shown by history, the individual’s failure to update their opinions with new facts can lead to disastrous injustices. I remember feeling deeply disturbed when studying about events like the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanjing, and the My Lai Massacre. How could these things happen? How could human beings commit such terrible atrocities to one another, not only murdering and raping but also torturing and mutilating. What happened to the common sense and rational instinct that should have been screaming for an end? These are unanswered questions which will continue to haunt me. But part of the answer, I think, is the fact that the individuals relinquished their ability to independently reason and valuate. Hannah Arendt says, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” I agree with her idea of the “banality of evil,” that more often than not, human injustice is a result of a lack of thinking, and consequentially the lack of exercising good will. Evil does not arise from actively sinful perpetrators but rather from passively unthinking and prejudiced bystanders. The philosophical mindset both prevents the individual from succumbing to the prejudices of his own complacent intellect and that of others. The philosopher exists as an active agent promoting active thought and thus spreading active morality.
My life has led me to philosophy not out of choice, but out of necessity. My education and personal experiences demand that I answer questions which require a rigorous type of thinking satisfied only by philosophy. For me, the question that will always remain at the core of my life is “What makes life worth living?” More specifically, what makes my life worth living? All other philosophical questions lead to this one. Inquiries into the nature of the universe, one’s identity, and the proper ethics both depend on and help answer this singular question. It is one which is expressed in the art and literature of every era from every region of the world. Contemplation of this question remains at the core of the fundamental human experience. In this sense, there is a touching element of human tragedy to philosophy, that it paradoxically strives to answer a question that has no objectively definitive answer. There is something inexplicably beautiful and deeply inspiring about this Sisyphean struggle. As a philosopher, I’ve come to realize that one does not attain meaning by simply answering the question conclusively and putting the matter to rest. Rather, meaning is found in the very process of attempting to find an answer. What has made my life worth living are all of the things I’ve experienced during my philosophical quest, from the inspiring to the tragic, from the profound to the mundane, from the beautiful to the grotesque. What makes life worth living is the chance to be a philosopher – the opportunity to engage in this existential dialectic, to experience what it means to be human and to know what it means to be me.