Commencement Address By Kamal Khashoggi, May 14, 2016

Commencement Address delivered by Kamal Khashoggi
Law School Auditorium, Boston University, May 14, 2016

The Violent Owl of Minerva

Philosophy is a violent activity. Of course, I am not speaking of a physical kind of violence––although the case could be made for those of us who have been up until four in the morning, wrestling with Hegel. I am speaking of a violence directed at our habitual patterns of thought, and at our ready-made answers. Every member of the graduating class has, for the last few years, been fighting with him or herself to let go of these guardrails and access the most abstract principles underlying all of our other thoughts. For, as it turns out, thinking critically and coherently does not come easily to us.

René Descartes, often dubbed the father of modern philosophy, opens his Meditations on First Philosophy with the following passage: “Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them. I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything and completely start again right from the foundations…” We don’t have to be as extreme as Descartes, but through him we can grasp an idea of the kind of excavations we perform in philosophy.

I know some don’t see the power in this violent style of thinking. But every careful student of history knows the potency of abstract thought at its most incarnate. It is no surprise, after all, that Alexander the Great, the first person to conquer the known world, had Aristotle for a teacher. It is no surprise that––for better or worse––if we examine the roots of every major political, scientific, religious, artistic or moral transformation in our history, we shall find there one if not a series of great philosophers and their ideas. Consider, as examples, the genesis of the French Revolution in Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes and others. Consider, the rise of communist states during the Twentieth Century, inspired by the writings of Karl Marx. Or, consider the contributions of Descartes, Leibniz, Newton and others to mathematics and to scientific methodology, which invigorated the scientific revolution. Our world is a direct consequence of these titanic thoughts and the way they conflict.

The power of philosophical thinking is not in question. But of course power alone is not always of benefit––we have only to think of such items as the hydrogen bomb to know this. Plato himself tells us that philosophy, in the hands of the many, leads to disastrous consequences. But nonetheless, what I would like to claim is that this kind of power has never been more desirable, utile or important than today.

For most of human history, our social institutions provided us with ready-made answers, which we could depend on whatever the questions that would arise. That is, questions of morality, knowledge, religion, politics and so on, had fixed answers depending on our cultures. Societal institutions provided us with stable boundaries of thought. But this is no longer the case. Today, technological and cultural developments have burst open the floodgates of information, opinion, knowledge and even human migration. Information and culture have never before circulated so extensively. But often they do so incoherently, hastily, or by passing through the foggy prism of an ill-equipped mind.
The result is a world characterized by an accelerated clash of ideas and cultures occurring both at the global and the individual level. This is not just an abstract clash, either. With a Saudi father and an Iranian mother, I can tell you that my very flesh is an ideological flashpoint.

We live in a globalized, cross-pollinating world. Contradictory ready-made answers barrage us from every angle and thereby nullify each other. And there is no going back. For better or worse, there is no way but forward. But how shall we move forward? How shall we interpret and act in this new world, whose incessant conflicts have violently robbed us of ready-made answers?
As some of you may have suspected, all that I have just said is not to say that we live in a world empty of philosophy, but exactly the opposite. In some sense, we have been condemned to philosophize from the beginning. The moment we have formed an opinion or made a judgment, we have philosophized. There is no way out of it. The trouble is that we rarely philosophize well. Just consider the way news anchors and pundits on CNN or Fox News dangerously speculate on matters totally outside of their expertise, for an example of such bad philosophizing. In this sense, Plato is right.

So in the absence of ready-made answers and right philosophy, we end up either with a more nefarious kind of ignorance––the bad philosophy I just mentioned––that is all the more dangerous for its conceit; or we end up with total paralysis in the face of competing ideas and choices. I am not speaking, here, only of grand political or scientific problems. I am not even just speaking of the ancient questions that have always haunted us, such as questions of death and eternity.

I am speaking of the responsibilities we hold to ourselves and to each other. How do our most mundane, little purchases at the supermarket affect people continents away? Which news programs shall inform us, and which shall misinform us? Through which filters shall the instant knowledge at our fingertips pass through? What shall we make of the foreigner at our doorstep? How shall our traditions cohere with the rest of the world, now that the two have come to blows? The most concrete example of this crisis occurring presently is that of the refugee crisis in Syria and Europe. There, we find a symbol for every ideological, religious, economic, political, moral and cultural clash which characterizes our age, and for which we have no ready-made answers.

Our old questions, too, are revitalized by the new world. The nature of consciousness, for instance, is no longer a curiosity hidden away in the ivory tower, but of central importance to how we shall make sense of and react to advances in artificial intelligence and bioengineering, which are on the horizon.

What we aspiring philosophers have learned is that there can be no half measures. We must all, to a certain extent, become philosophers in the true sense, or else inherit a world of infinite conflict and loss. It is no longer possible for us as individuals to navigate the world without the aid of philosophy, and I believe every member of the graduating class understands this.

Hegel tells us that the owl of Minerva only flies at dusk. It is not quite dusk yet, but please join me in congratulating the class of 2016 for taking flight.