Commencement Address By Daniel Dahlstrom, May 19, 2018

Commencement Address delivered by Daniel Dahlstrom
Law School Auditorium, Boston University, May 19, 2018

Questioning

To all you mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, friends and relatives of the graduating class, to my colleagues, and – above all – to the members of the 2018 class of Boston University, graduating with a degree in philosophy – congratulations!

As I look out over your smiling faces, many of which have graced my classroom, I am honored that Professor Speight has asked me to say a few words to you on behalf of the Department of Philosophy at this commencement. The term ‘commencement’ seems apt enough; it means a beginning and while completing your college studies marks an end, it also marks the beginning of something. But what? Your graduation answers a lot of questions but it also raises new ones. I’m sure that you all are wondering about this new beginning, this beginning of something new. Some of you might be asking yourselves: What am I going to do next? Parents may be wondering: what in heaven’s name is my daughter or son going to do with a philosophy degree? What lies in store for them?

It’s pretty normal to have these questions; after all, it’s only human for us to ask questions. Other animals undoubtedly do a fair amount of probing and problem solving and in that extended sense they may be said to have questions. But, even if they do, no other species asks questions quite like we do. Some questions are pretty pedestrian: where should we go for lunch? Should I buy this car? Did you like “Game of Thrones”? Others are often practical and technical: how do I get to Chelsea from here? How do we download the app? We even put questions to nature, personifying, perhaps deifying it in the process: Why is it raining? Why is the sky blue? Why am I bald? We also question our government, public policies, and the fairness of our economic system. But we just as often question others and even ourselves. Here the questions can be quite personal, even existential, like questions of what commencement means: What am I going to do with my life? What have I done with it? Questions that we put to nature or the government, to society and to ourselves are budding philosophical questions. But a line of questioning is arguably philosophical only when it calls itself into question. Philosophers are not content to ask why; they want to know why we ask why, why we question, whether there’s any point to questioning, why we ask the questions we ask, what it means to question, whether a question is meaningful and not a pseudo-question. So why do we question? What does it mean to question? These are tough questions, perhaps tougher because you won’t have to take an exam to answer them.

Still, some answers can be given. Questioning is, in the first place, an acknowledgment of ignorance. Unless the question is rhetorical, we ask because we don’t know and, ironically, because we know we don’t. (This is why asking whether you love someone can seem so silly.) The ignorance can be solely on us when the question is about what happened or is happening; but it is not solely on us when the question is about what will happen. Either way, to question is to acknowledge that something remains hidden from us. But if questioning is thus a demonstration of humility, it is also an expression of hope. Those who find their lives hopeless despair of asking questions, whether of themselves or others. We ask questions because we are not completely clueless; we search for answers because we have found answers in the past. Indeed, the past is often our only source of clues to what will happen. As this last observation suggests, questions have a history, a line of questioning is always an historical line, where one question leads to another. It is also a line that we inherit and share with others, thanks not least to traditions and a common language. If questioning is an expression of hopefulness grounded in past success, it is because the expression is also a form of communication, telling us that we are not alone, that we are in this together. And there is no communication without listening. Questioning is an art that can always be perfected but perfecting it begins with listening (which is another form of humility).

The common inheritance that underlies questioning is obviously a double-edged sword. Answers and clarifications from the past help us revise and refine our questions. But just as traditions make questions possible, they can also limit and even suffocate certain lines of questioning. Listening respectfully is one thing, blind obedience something else. Earlier I remarked how philosophers discriminate between genuine and pseudo-questions. As this discrimination suggests, philosophical questioning requires the audacity of trying to get to the bottom of our questions and the courage of taking responsibility for them. Where does this hutzpah, this audacious courage bordering on brazenness come from? It is spawned and sustained by the childlike wonder at being at all, a wonder free from traditions and presuppositions because the child has not yet learned to conform to them (or because the adult remembers or fancies that she had to learn to conform to them). I hardly need to add that such wonder is alternately gratifying and terrifying – and necessarily so.

There is one other feature of questioning that deserves flagging. Questioning often brings things to a standstill, interrupting the flow of life. In this sense, it can be an impediment; it is often fatal if a dancer or an athlete has to ask what her next move is. But questioning our moves is also the only way of improving our game and, in the end, we have to do so on the fly. Questioning is our means of challenging ourselves with our hands on the stirrup or the rudder. If we stop and ask ourselves “why are we doing this?” or “why do we have these feelings?” we obviously do not stop living but we do take a step back from our lives as we are currently living them. Questioning is thus a way of stepping back from what is as if it could have been otherwise or could be otherwise going forward. As a way of responding to the wonder of being at all, philosophical questioning steps back from life as a reminder not only of the wondrous gift of life but also of its wondrous promise, a promise that is ours to realize only if we question and thus challenge ourselves.

This talk of the promise inherent in questioning brings us back to the question of your commencement. Earlier I noted how questioning in general fuses humility with hopefulness, ignorance with tradition. But I also tried to identify certain marks of philosophical questioning: the pleasing if challenging wonder that gives us the nerve, not only to question, but to take responsibility for doing so. This is how I see philosophy; philosophy is the art of questioning, something that we can always do instead of just going on the way we did before. In this respect it is an art with the promise of challenging and thus enhancing life, making it eminently worth living – individually, parochially, and globally. As college graduates, you have learned to question. But as philosophy majors, you have been introduced to the special sort of wide-eyed, no-holds-barred questioning that is peculiar to philosophy. And therein lie some answers to what is in store for you, what you will be able to do with a degree in philosophy. Whatever you commence in the coming months and years, you will be able to do so with the humility and hopefulness, the courage and wonder of the fine art of philosophical questioning.