Commencement Address By Claire Jennings, May 19, 2018

Commencement Address delivered by Claire Jennings
Law School Auditorium, Boston University, May 19, 2018

I didn’t come into BU with the intention of majoring in philosophy. I had barely been exposed to philosophy in high school. I’m an aspiring screenwriter, and I thought I would focus solely on completing my film and television studies in COM. But after taking a philosophy seminar through the honors college, I knew I’d be back for more. The theme of the course was “Anger,” and I was overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of thought at my fingertips. Each of the philosophers we covered in the course managed to draw something novel from an emotion I hadn’t ever considered in depth. And this was just on the topic of anger! Who knew what some of history’s greatest minds would have to say about morality, or metaphysics, or any number of “big questions.” So it was with a sense of reverence and awe that I dove into my philosophy studies and pursued a dual degree.

In the History of Modern Philosophy class, I encountered the first major obstacle of my philosophy studies. We were reading about different theories of knowledge—Descartes’s “first item of knowledge,” Humean skepticism, Berkelian idealism—and I somehow agreed with all of them. Or, more precisely, I fiercely defended Descartes, then immediately jumped ship as soon as I read another philosopher’s rebuttal to his Meditations, and continued this pattern for most of the class. I returned time and again to the same question: “Who am I to criticize [insert philosopher here]?” Is this the least constructive approach to philosophy possible? Probably. But this line of thinking derailed me all the same.

Were it not for my professors and classmates in the BU Philosophy Department, I might still be too intimidated to offer up my own insights, additions, and criticisms of famous works of philosophy. As I progressed through my classes, I realized that disagreement doesn’t mean dismissal, and thoughtful criticism can begin a conversation. It’s a difficult balancing act, but a crucial one, both in academic philosophy and in everyday ideological clashes. My BU Philosophy education has inspired and emboldened me to to synthesize dissenting opinions, think critically, and project my own voice. This culminated in my senior Keystone project, a podcast highlighting areas of thematic overlap between philosophy and television. As I recorded each episode, I was surprised to find that I felt comfortable proposing my own solutions to longstanding philosophical questions. I saw that my interest in television could inform a new approach to issues like personal identity, empathy, and the function of definitions. In this respect, I borrowed a strategy from my philosophy classmates, who have likewise used their own interests, in everything from literature to biology, to enrich their analysis of the big questions we tackle in every seminar.

My newfound confidence, as exhibited in the podcast, was actually years in the making. Any philosophical fluency I can claim today, I owe to a number of mentors in the department. From Prof. Wingate, I learned to approach the ancients with rigor instead of reverence, trusting that the works of the earliest Greek philosophers can stand up to contemporary scrutiny. From Prof. Floyd, I learned the importance of preserving the value of truth in an increasingly divided world. I also learned how to pronounce Wittgenstein… I think? Prof. Dahlstrom showed me how to endow a notoriously tricky subject—metaphysics—with real stakes and a grounds in everyday life. Prof. Roochnik challenged me to be precise with my claims, and gave me a new appreciation for storytelling, food, and alcohol. Prof. Speight found the value in my most farfetched contributions to class discussion, and brought me much closer to actually understanding Russian structuralism. And of course, I blame Prof. Griswold for putting me on this track in the first place. His class on anger was my first as a BU student, and four years, countless advising meetings, and one podcast later, I couldn’t be happier with where it’s taken me.

Finally, to my fellow philosophy grads. We’re a small group, so I’ve gotten to know many of you. I count myself lucky to have been part of this community of intimidatingly smart, bold, and compassionate scholars. Not all of us are pursuing a traditional academic path after graduation, myself included. I’m going with the much more practical plan of moving to Hollywood and trying to become a screenwriter. Still, I know that my classmates and I will remain lifelong philosophers. Congratulations. With your intelligence, your bravery, and your decency, each of you represents what a philosopher today should be.