Commencement Address by Mr. Ted Stinson (CAS ’09), May 17, 2009

Commencement Address delivered by Mr. Ted Stinson (CAS ’09)
Law School Auditorium, Boston University, May 17, 2009

Professors, parents, philosophy department staff, and fellow graduates: welcome. I am honored to be able to speak to you all today. Now, I’ve learned a thing or two about speeches from reading the Apology, but the bulk of my speech-making knowledge comes from watching the Oscars, so I’m going to use this time to thank some people. I was going to thank you, professors, for giving me the opportunity to speak to everyone today, but now I’m thinking that maybe this was just a chance for you to watch me humiliate myself in front of all these people. I’d rather thank you, and I think you’d all much rather be thanked, for the insightful and inspiring education you’ve given me and my colleagues over the last four years. Thank you, Matt and Kerri, and all the other administrative staff, for making the department run smoothly and dealing with these eggheads, and more honorably, for dealing with the tyrannical beast that is the Boston University bureaucracy. And I’d especially like to thank my fellow philosophy students, first for putting up with my obnoxious rants during class, but secondly for choosing to study a subject which, as very intelligent people (namely, philosophers) after much deliberation have always concluded, is both the most important and the most rewarding occupation that any human being could ever pursue.

But we all already know that we’re doing a great service for humanity. Today, I’d like to try to convince the only people in the audience who might need convincing: the parents. You should all be thanked for trusting your sons and daughters in their academic decisions. Like all good parents, I’m sure you think of us as well-monitored, long-term investments, and perhaps for some of you, it was difficult to accept that your child was planning on spending all this time and money, not in order to obtain a job or even the ability to perform some useful skill, but in pursuit of some obscure object called “truth.” But what I said just a minute ago, that all the great philosophers have pondered long and hard over justifying their own profession, is not a lie, and I’d like to take my time today to give you all my take on their insights and conclusions on the matter, so that you can be more assured that, even in these difficult economic times, your investments will continue to provide returns long after Wall Street is nothing more than mere abandoned buildings.

First, in trying to determine the value of something we do, we’ve learned that we should start by asking, what is it that we’re doing? So first I’m going to try and answer the question: what do philosophers do, anyway?

What don’t we do? Well, for one, we don’t make money. For proof, just ask anyone of these robed men or women sitting behind me. Even if we do happen to make some money, we still don’t pay much attention to it, and probably end up spending it all on books. Sorry about that one, parents, but even all these great philosophers couldn’t make a case for philosophy as being anything close to profitable. Philosophers also don’t make pottery or computer programs, tools or technology, or anything you can use for something else. Above all else, philosophers don’t do politics, mainly because we know better, but also because no one who isn’t a philosopher would ever put a philosopher in charge of anything besides a philosophy department.

This isn’t to say that philosophers can’t do these things. In fact, many of us here in this room do dabble in a few of these activities, from time to time, mainly just to see what it feels like. And usually, we’re pretty good at all of these things, even though we don’t do them. We do these things, like making money, or making something immediately useful to society, only so far as it will allow us to do what we really want to do, what we have studied doing for four years, what we were doing that led us to decide on a philosophy major in the first place. We think. Thinking is what we do.

Now you parents are really scared. But don’t worry, because the fact is that in doing all this thinking, we have thought a lot about the best way to do all those things I listed above, those things that society expects us to do, those things we absolutely dread doing. Of course, we’ve also thought about important things, like the self, truth, morality, the nature of the universe, and the ethical merits of pushing hypothetical people in front of imaginary trolleys, and so forth. And these are the things that we really like to think about. But we’ll concede some of our brainpower to think about those social things, too, because, you know, we feel sorry for you people who spend all your time worrying about them, and we’d like to help take some of the burden off of your shoulders. Plus, we’ve spent a lot of time honing these thinking powers, and judging by the conversations I’ve had with a lot of my colleagues, we’re pretty damn good at it. We like to think about things that we would never see ourselves doing, and then wonder how we could do them better than anyone else. One of these pretty smart guys I was talking about earlier, Arthur Schopenhauer, once said, “The task is not so much to see what no one yet has seen, but to think what nobody yet has thought about that which everyone sees.”

So here’s the catch, parents: even though we didn’t learn how to read a stock index, or memorize the human anatomy, or really receive any kind of pre-professional specialization, we have gained the ability to become experts in all of those things. Philosophers specialize in the universal. We have learned how to cram our thoughts into every crevice of a conundrum, to analyze a problem from every possible perspective. We have learned how to force our minds to contemplate the impossible, and then discover how to put it into practice. Perhaps most impressively, we can read 300 pages of incomprehensible gibberish in a night and summarize it coherently at 9:30 AM the next day. The point is, in choosing to study philosophy, we chose to study everything all at once. The great irony of the philosopher is, although we don’t want to do any of those socially useful things I listed earlier, we’re possibly the most capable of becoming excellent at them. That’s because, while others study only the excellence of their field, we study excellence itself.

So parents, you were right to support your son or daughter in their academic choice, and you are right to be here today to celebrate the culmination of their decision. But I have another revelation for you: while you are all celebrating, us philosophy students are secretly mourning. While you think that today marks the beginning of something, we know that it is really the end. Because the fact is, few of us will be joining these robed men and women behind me in academia. And we are jealous of them. You see, we know that being able to spend all your time thinking is a luxury. Professors, you have taught us too well for us to allow ourselves to join you. Because as you know, the first step towards thinking something new about what everyone already sees is learning to see, and we can all see that the world right now needs excellence to be put into practice. We see that the only ethical thing to do is to push ourselves in front of the trolley, out of the ivy-covered buildings and into that world of money and politics that we would love to avoid. So we are sad, because we know that we have to leave this world of pure thought and go do something useful, in order that this world may continue to exist. But I hope I can speak for the rest of my class in thanking you, professors, for giving us the tools we need to go save your jobs. And I hope I can speak for professors and students alike in thanking you, parents, for giving us four years to sit and think about how to do it.

Congratulations, class of 2009!