Commencement Address by Mr. Ethan Rubin (CAS ’10), May 16, 2010

Commencement Address delivered by Mr. Ethan Rubin (CAS ’10)
Law School Auditorium, Boston University, May 16, 2010

Good afternoon, everyone. First, thank you all for coming to support us today – we would not be graduating if it were not for your efforts. Congratulations to my fellow students for making it to this stage – I know how hard we have all worked to get here. Lastly, thank you to the faculty for getting us here – I’m not one for clichés, but you have taught us everything we know.

Since you’ve been kind enough to listen to me for a few minutes, I’d like to ask my fellow graduates if they have ever had this conversation:

So, what are you studying?
Well, I’m a philosophy major.
Hah. What are you going to do with that?

So, it seems like we’ve all heard it before, and most of us probably find it pretty aggravating. I know my parents are halfway convinced that I’m going to starve in the streets, and I suspect there are some other skeptics in the audience as well (no need for finger-pointing – they may be right to worry). Nevertheless, we soldiered on with our seemingly obscure and impractical studies and tried our best to ignore the “what are you going to do with thats.” But behind the annoyance is an important question, one which we cannot afford to ignore. And it is this: What is philosophy for? Why have we spent the last four years learning about it? Now, I don’t claim to have a definitive answer for you today – if someone sitting behind me does, please come see me after this. But before we leave this university, we should take a moment to consider why philosophy has been and will be important to us.

Philosophy is one of the only disciplines that can be applied to any other field. (The other is history, incidentally.) Here’s what I mean: we have a philosophy of law, philosophy of medicine, of mathematics, but this relationship doesn’t seem to work as well in reverse. The science of philosophy? The music of philosophy? Doesn’t make quite as much sense. There may be exceptions: the medicine of philosophy can become an issue if reading Hegel gives you an aneurysm, and I suspect our department head would argue that there is an economics of philosophy, but these are finer points. In any case, philosophy’s subject matter extends to virtually anything we have occasion to think about.

Until now, much of our educational focus has been on instrumental training – we spend most of our time thinking about how to get things done. Ever since elementary school, we’ve been taught how to write, how to add and subtract, how to trick our teachers into thinking we know something we don’t. But in philosophy, we learn why we do those things. Why should we learn to read and write? Turn to the philosophy of language. Why should we learn calculus, or in my case, long division? The philosophy of math has an answer. Why shouldn’t we pretend to know what we don’t know? Ask Socrates.

So, it looks like philosophy has the daunting task of justifying everything else we do. Sounds like a tall order, and perhaps an absurd one. But the goal is to determine what is of value. And that can be the most important pursuit. Why bother to work hard if you don’t know why hard work is a good thing? Why paint if you haven’t thought about the meaning of art? Why become a doctor if you’ve never asked why the health of other people should matter?

After four years of exhaustive and exhausting study, we’re here now for a piece of paper that basically certifies us to ask too many questions. Some of us will go on to ask questions in law, education, science, and many other fields. Some of us will ask our questions in graduate school, where we will remain for another 40 years until we come out with PhDs. But for all of us, one question should stand out when we accept that diploma:

What are you going to do with that?