Commencement Address by Dr. Rick Furtak (CAS ’96), May 19, 2012

Commencement Address delivered by Dr. Rick Furtak
Law School Auditorium, Boston University, May 19, 2012


Congratulations, graduates, and thanks to the philosophy department for inviting me here.

Even though I’m not acquainted with any of you who are graduating, I’m going to begin by assuming that we have something important in common, beyond the fact of having studied at BU.  I hope it’s safe to assume that you are among those of us for whom reading, writing, and thinking are some of our greatest loves – along with talking about ideas.  We philosophers (if I may use this term to include both you and me) often find that other people have trouble understanding these loves.  A fellow train passenger only needs to see one of us take out a philosophy book – nothing more odd than this!  And then he or she will ask: is that book assigned for a class that you’re taking?  They raise the query kindly enough, obviously meaning well, yet they seem unable to make sense of what we’re doing, except as an act of compliance in response to a command that’s been imposed upon us: a course requirement.  Something that we “have to do for school,” in other words.

I still find myself being asked this question, and I want to say: well, no, it’s not for a class!  Or, sometimes, yes it is – but not in the sense you intended.  That is, not only because I am the teacher of the class, but that whether I’m teacher or student, whether or not it’s for a class at all, I am fond of books like this.  I’m drawn to what is on their pages, what they bring to mind.  And I imagine myself rather impolitely asking them: haven’t you heard that philosophy is worth doing, as Aristotle claimed?  So even if a class happens to provide a context and opportunity to do this, nevertheless the activity of doing philosophy is something we do for its own sake, and to assume I’m reading this book only for a class is to get it backwards.  Just once, I wish the person who notices that we’re reading a book of philosophy would say: ah, philosophizing!  Isn’t that an intrinsically fulfilling pursuit if ever there was one?

Now, I’m aware that not everyone shares this enthusiasm with us, and maybe it’s all right if they don’t.  Maybe it’s okay if we appear a bit ridiculous in their eyes.  And yet: what we philosophers like to occupy our time with, “far out” though it may seem, is just further along the same continuum as other forms of reflection about our lives and the world around us, such as other human beings engage in, including those who never seek admission to our club, or never use this lofty title: philosophy, the love of wisdom.  But you have earned the right to use it, to say: “I majored in philosophy.”  And when you say this, years down the road (as you will, even then), I hope you feel that what you’re owning up to is not only part of your past, but an aspect of who you still are.

How can I hope or wish this on your behalf, without knowing anything else about you other than your undergraduate major?  Because I’ve come to believe that reading, writing, thinking, and talking about ideas, are good for a person: that these philosophical activities ought to fill a large part of our lives, not only because they’re inherently rewarding but because they enable us to live well and to understand ourselves in the midst of an existence that is often bewildering.  When I was a freshman philosophy major, at half my present age, I was swarming with questions, and nothing seemed to matter unless it could offer some promise of insight, to address these perplexities.  It was impossible for me to see a movie without yearning for it to end up being the film that changed my life, that resolved something in my mind and provided me with the guidance I was seeking.  As I began to find my way intellectually, what stood out most to me, as meeting this infinite demand (at least to some degree) were the philosophical psychologists, the literary philosophers, as well as the spiritual authors and poets who spoke in that great voice which echoes through our wisdom traditions.  Out of this search I formed the resolution to persist in the process of trying to understand.

And if by sheer perseverance I have gradually learned something about who I am and what I’m doing, and even what it all means, it’s equally true that I have deepened my appreciation of how incompletely I will ever succeed at understanding any of these things.  This realization is one that I can live with, although I also know that it will never let me rest.  You can find something like an answer, after all, by remaining with those questions that are never fully settled, and continuing to give them the respect that they deserve.  I think this is perhaps why philosophy seems to be such a youthful pursuit, while also being so appropriate for us as we grow older.  For it’s almost ridiculously ambitious, and yet so humbling at the same time; inspired by our highest aspirations, and yet always unfinished.

There’s no way I could end without quoting from the work of a favorite thinker.  And when I consider those whose words have been the most significant for me, it’s remarkable how many of those authors are ones that I studied with Victor Kestenbaum, during my undergraduate years.  I owe a debt of gratitude to many professors here, yet he was more of a direct influence than anyone else on what was opening up and taking shape in me, throughout that difficult period in my life.  As someone who is devoted to education with his entire soul, he was a model of the examined life; and he prompted me to read central figures from Plato to Kant, as well as those who were more on the margins, from Jaspers to Jung.  And if our syllabi also included cultural theorists, short story writers, or even biographies of musical composers, it was because – as he helped us to see – all of this was relevant to philosophy’s classic aim, of illuminating the human condition.  He made me want to emulate the eclectic and interdisciplinary thought of William James, Martha Nussbaum, or Søren Kierkegaard.  So much of what I have been doing since then traces back to his influence.

So, in keeping with the themes I’ve chosen to focus on today, allow me to bring up an excerpt from one of those books that I hope you keep reading, even if it means that people will keep giving you funny looks.  There’s a famous Nietzschean essay that Kestenbaum invokes, to develop a point of his own.  In this essay, “Schopenhauer as Educator,” Nietzsche invites us to discover the “law of our own being” by looking to what we have loved, what has raised us up and given us a sense of “something higher.”  Now, another contemporary American philosopher interprets this passage (rightly, I think) as claiming that our highest aspirations can be too easily dismissed as merely “adolescent” and regarded with “impatience,” rather than being seen for what they are: a “dimension of human existence” that ought to be always with us.  What Victor adds to this is even more elusive: if what we have “truly loved” gives us an intimation of higher potential not yet actualized, then there is no point at which we know quite who we are, or even what we’re becoming and striving toward.  So if I finish by simply wishing you “the best,” it’s because any more specific wishes would also be too limiting.  I’ve been trying to remind you of something that I’m sure you already know – that philosophy is not something to outgrow, or to leave behind.  May it continue to be with you, and may you keep having good conversations.