Commencement Address by Ms. Dasha Polzik (CAS ’03), May 18, 2003

Commencement Address delivered by Ms. Dasha Polzik (CAS ’03)
School of Management Auditorium, Boston University, May 18, 2003

Henri Matisse, besides being a brilliant painter, was also an aspiring poet; he wrote, “You study, you learn, but you guard the original naiveté. It has to be within you, as desire for drink is within the drunkard or love is within the lover.” I have studied philosophy for five years now and apparently have guarded my original naiveté well, for I am still inclined to ask, “What is philosophy?” Perhaps more interesting than the fact that I am tempted to ask this question is that everyone is tempted to ask it: “grown-up” philosophers have attempted to pose and answer it. We the graduates have learned to think through and question everything; it makes sense that we should question our task.

The naiveté of the question “What is philosophy?” lies in the assumption that it has a straightforward answer. Like most philosophical questions, it does not, and perhaps we the graduates ought to know better than to ask. But we still try. Is philosophy simply inquiry into the principles underlying various aspects of the world? Then what separates it from the sciences? Is it the study of the human condition? Then what’s the difference between a philosopher and a good novelist? Does calling someone a philosopher amount to anything more than an honorific? What do we mean when we call a thought “philosophical,” or a person a philosopher? Does the term “philosophical” just mean that something is deep and abstract?

In a way, these questions are not the most interesting that philosophy has to offer, but I think it’s fascinating that we constantly ask them, constantly turn philosophy on itself and make it question itself. After all, perhaps we ought to be troubled by the fact that we cannot seem to give a definition of what we’ve been engaged in. Is philosophy really love of wisdom, as its Greek etymology tells us? We have all found ourselves under pressure to explain to our troubled parents or our curious friends or our future employers what it is that we’ve been doing. I don’t think any of us would respond, “I love wisdom, that sums up what I do.” None of us claims to be wise, of course, for we know that loving wisdom, for instance, and having it are not the same, but perhaps opposites.

Would knowing how to define philosophy add anything by way of value to our mode of life, to our philosophical worldview? Perhaps we should take our cue from the study of philosophy, from the methods of thought we have learned. What is it that has kept us enthralled through the years of study, has made us debate in class and afterwards, during seminar breaks and late into nights, despite the fact that we cannot define it? What has driven us to torture our parents, roommates, boyfriends, girlfriends, and random people at the coffeeshop with explanations of Aristotle’s conception of the world, or Kant’s argument for rational freedom, or Frege’s definition of number?

I have no thorough, rigorous definition of philosophy, no words of wisdom, no catchy phrase to sum it all up. If forced to defend a position, I would cite Wittgenstein and his insistence that we needn’t try to sum it up, that the very project of defining philosophy is nonsensical, for we have nowhere to stand outside of philosophy to analyze it with “perfect clarity” – but to defend this I’d have to read you my thesis, and then you’d all fall asleep.

But I can venture the guess that the reason we have taken philosophy so seriously, so “personally,” as it were, is that it is personal – it’s a matter of our identities. Floating out in a sea of unknowns, in a world that is hard to love, a daunting life full of difficulties, we have found an answer here, a lifeline in our studies, a definition of ourselves.

For some of us, these years will serve as a foundation, a mode of looking at the world and living in it, a mode of thinking which can be applied to any endeavor. For a few, philosophy will become a profession, a full-time occupation. But for all of us, philosophy has become a part of our identities, of who we are. The analytical way of thinking we have been taught, the value we place on making proper distinctions, on battling nonsense, on questioning illogical patterns of thought – these have become our defining characteristics.

Wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, we sat through our first philosophy courses – terrified in Professor Allison’s Kant seminar (terrified equally by Professor Allison and by Kant), laughing out loud in Professor Rosen’s lectures on modernity and its vulgarity, stunned by Wittgenstein’s cryptic remarks in Professor Floyd’s class, to name but a few of the amazing thinkers in our books and in our faculty. A realm of new thoughts opened up as a text would reveal an entire new world in a single sentence and we felt as though we suddenly had an arcane picture of the universe. “All human beings by nature desire to know.” “The world is everything that is the case.” “Human reason has the peculiar fate … that it is burdened with questions which it cannot dismiss … but which it also cannot answer…”.

I listened to my professors in awe during the first years, and went home after lectures to contemplate life on my fire-escape overlooking Bay State Road. By junior year, I had learned from the graduate students to be blasé about secondary literature, learned to talk excitedly and convincingly to anyone who would listen about why Wittgenstein was onto something and Descartes wildly misleading; I had my cocktail party versions of all the major philosophers all worked out. All the while, I was becoming deeper and deeper engulfed in the history of philosophy, and by my fourth year I was so overwhelmed by everything I had read that I was quite convinced I knew nothing at all and had no idea how to characterize what I was engaged in — how to define philosophy.

My fifth year brought some serious work and understanding of philosophy and redeemed my self-image, redefined me, restored the value of my identity in my own eyes. In essence, I realized that the important question to ask is not how you define philosophy, but rather how philosophy defines you.

The study of philosophy is the best task that I have found, the most interesting exercise of the intellect, and its questions constitute a way of life, a worldview, and thus for each of us, an identity. An ever-evolving identity, since one of the benefits of being an undergraduate is having no allegiance to any particular philosophical position. These have been the carefree years of philosophy: in a way, the best years of thinking, for we have been responsible only for discovering ourselves, without any further obligations.

In a single semester, we could go treacherously from being realists to idealists to pragmatists and back again, with self-definition the only thing at stake and knowledge the only goal. We’ve not been responsible for solving the world’s problems by applying particular philosophical theories to public policy – we were only responsible for getting the readings done.

Despite our teachers’ warnings not to get trapped in the game of “isms,” we would choose our camps – “I should be a Platonist! No, a Kantian! No, definitely a Heideggerian!” We would defend these temporary allegiances as fiercely as a mother defends her young, because we were really defending our temporary, evolving selves. Lines were drawn decisively: I have heard a philosophy student say, in utter seriousness, “How could I date someone who doesn’t believe in Aristotle’s Categories?”

But the particular positions are less important, less defining at this stage for us than is the overall value we place on the whole, on the study of philosophical questions. The temporary allegiances to particular philosophical positions may come and go, or they may become permanent loyalties. But the more important, permanent identity of the philosophy student stems from the undefeatable, unyielding love of ideas, the stubborn, persistent desire to make sense of it all, to get the distinctions right, to make some progress towards understanding.

At least in the sense of defining its students, philosophy is not simply a set of abstract principles or conceptions, not simply something relegated to the university islands of intellectuals. Our philosophical education has not only given us identities which we will take out into the world, in the sense that we now place a certain intellectual pricetag on clear, logical arguments and on thoughtful analysis of the principles underlying knowledge, art, the nature of the universe, moral conduct — our training in philosophy has also provided us with a mode of thinking, an ability to question incisively, persistently, logically, an approach to the world which we can take anywhere we go from here.

We’ve been given the tools of thought — may we use them well and not leave them scribbled in the margins of our books and shut away on our bookshelves. I hope none of us ever stops learning, ever surrenders the love of ideas with which we have been infused here. We have learned from each other and from our phenomenal faculty, and this will be a missed world — a culture of people who care to ask, “Wait, what do we really mean by the concept of reconciliation, or the concept of forgiveness? What’s at stake here?” — and then spend a semester investigating. Let’s hope we can recreate bits of this culture elsewhere, as thinkers out in the world.

An important question we have faced in our seminars, as well as from people who have not studied philosophy and question us, is, “Can our knowledge of philosophy ‘help’ out there in the world, beyond the walls of the philosophy seminar, beyond the numerous temporary identities we’ve crafted here by fervently believing in Plato one day and Quine the next? Can our permanent identities – consisting of a commitment to careful evaluation of ideas – do any good in the world?” Well, that’s a bit like asking whether clear, careful thinking can “help” out in the world. Any number of policymakers – from the neo-conservatives currently in American government to the philosopher Amartya Sen and his economic reforms in India to human rights activists and lawyers working to defend and promulgate a particular conception of the human being – these examples demonstrate that philosophy’s influence is prevalent in the world.

The task for us is not to define philosophy or pinpoint its role in the world, but rather to let our study of philosophy and the philosophical methods of thinking define our world and ourselves. We shouldn’t ask that naïve, elementary question, “What is philosophy?”, though it’s fascinating to think through our inability to answer it. We cannot define philosophy without wandering into nonsense, but we can reflect upon what we have learned here, can assess the tools we have been given by means of which we can meaningfully entertain our curiosity about the world. Our commitment to philosophy is what has defined us and what should continue to be our defining qualities no matter where we go from here. How we will do this, to borrow Nietzsche’s phrase, is “our question mark.”