Commencement Address by Justin Koch (CAS ’12), May 19, 2012

Commencement Address delivered by Justin Koch
Law School Auditorium, Boston University, May 19, 2012

 

Why does “blank” subject matter? There are academic departments which must persistently furnish answers to this question, and there are academic disciplines for which the answer is so obvious that the question is not worth posing. For instance, it seems relatively clear to us why the study of biology matters. Our understanding of the way organisms work has enabled us to increase our life spans and improve our overall quality of life in a measurable way. Sometimes an academic discipline will matter more at one point in history than in another. When we were trying to go to the moon for the first time no one demanded justification for the study of astronomy in universities. However, now that exploration of space is not as high a priority as it once was, astronomy majors may have more explaining to do. But astronomers have it easy compared to we philosophers. It seems that it always incumbent upon philosophy majors to explain themselves; to justify their academic pursuits.

The experience is so common that it has become trite to talk about it. But I’ll talk about it anyway, since I’m up here. My first incident was in high school my senior year. One of my music teachers asked me what I was planning on studying in college, and I told him I was interested in political science and philosophy. He responded, with no pause at all, as if he had said this to several aspiring philosophers before me, “Philosophy? Well, the homeless have a lot of philosophy!” This has always stuck with me, for two reasons. First, it seems to me that one of the prerequisites for studying philosophy successfully is having all of your material needs met. I think I would have an even harder time engaging in the Husserlian epoché than I usually do if I was in need of a sandwich and a place to live. I hope Professor Hopp would agree with me on this issue. Second, I happen to know that this particular music teacher studied theoretical physics in college. As far as I know, theoretical physics did not make him better equipped to musically direct my high school’s production of “West Side Story.” Ought we to conclude that he wasted his time in college? Ought we to conclude that all philosophy majors are wasting their time because of the likelihood that they will not secure paying “philosopher” positions?

Some philosophers might reject the premise of this question entirely. Philosophy prepares you for every possible job; they might say it is universally beneficial. I respect the motivation for this position, but I don’t find the position itself plausible. I don’t know how my  my understanding of the possibility that there is an evil genius deceiving me into thinking that any of you exist at all might have helped me slice meat better when I worked at a deli the summer after my freshman year. In fact, insofar as any philosophical issue crossed my mind while I was at work I became a worse employee for it. And, indeed, I was really bad at that job. So let’s accept the possibility, in principle, that there are plenty of vocations for which the study of philosophy would not benefit you, and, indeed, some vocations for which the study of philosophy would be to your detriment.

This leads me to believe, basically, that attempts to directly connect the study of philosophy to securing a job may not only be futile, but more importantly, unnecessary to its justification as a worthwhile pursuit. I recognize that this statement may, in itself, be confirmation to some students in the School of Management that they are right to chide philosophy majors. But we need only remind them that philosophy is meant to address problems in living. Problems in understanding. That we have a division of labor where some slice meat and some professionally philosophize does not entail that philosophy is only truly useful to one and not the other. Questions of ethics, epistemology, aesthetics, and metaphysics, believe it or not, arise for everyone, all the time. We sometimes choose to ignore the ubiquity of these fundamental issues, but philosophy prepares us to better investigate them, to be happier, to lead fuller lives. The whole job thing may in fact be connected to this philosophical approach, but even if it is not, we can embrace the certainty that life outside of our vocation will be even more challenging. Our study of philosophy has made us well-suited for this journey. Thank you.