The fact that I studied philosophy at Harvard felt more like a necessary occurrence than like a freely-willed decision. I tried not to do it; I really tried. You can tell that to my beloved high school track coach, who once, in response to an offhand remark that I might pursue philosophy in college, barked at me that I was a knucklehead and shouldn’t throw away my education. You can tell Coach Powell I tried, and I fortunately failed.
My quest for a course of study began with so many options. I was one of those students who shopped classes like they were free licks of ice cream flavors. In each deceptively short shopping week, I sampled everything that piqued my interest until I was slightly nauseous with the knowledge of how many things I would not learn that semester. Deciding on a concentration compounded this decision angst. It felt impossible to narrow down my interests to one discipline: I wanted everything—to understand consciousness and the brain, to dissect political theory, to discuss religion, to question gravity, to create art.
When the inevitable forced itself upon me in the shifting fall of my sophomore year, I chose to declare sociology in a fit of what I called “practicality”. After all, post-college I wanted to dedicate myself to social reform or to social work or to—at the very least—living in society. And I soothed some of my sadness over severing other options by signing up for a Mind, Brain, and Behavior (MBB) secondary. It all felt very reasoned and logical.
The major problem with this course of action was that I had already tasted of the illicit philosophy fruit. My freshman spring I had whimsically enrolled in Professor Moran’s Philosophy 188, a course on Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. And I had fallen in love. I still feel nostalgia for those sections. Once the weather warmed we would sit outside Emerson Hall behind Sever and discuss the paradoxes of love and the enchantment of music and the inconsistency of memory. These conversations fed my soul. They indulged my compulsion to seek deeper understanding of everything from the commonplace to the esoteric: how do I determine the most ethical course of action given a set of options? How can quantum mechanics fit into my Newtonian worldview? Can I believe my memories? Should I trust my sensations?
Questions like these burned under my skin, and as I began trying to dutifully fulfill my sociology and MBB requirements, I found that I felt a preoccupying absence in my classes which weren’t tailored to making sense of such abstract ponderings. It felt impossible to meaningfully study neurobiology without having deeply wondered about the material versus the spiritual nature of the mind. I could not concentrate (pun intended) on sociology, though I tried, before I had focused on making sense of the concept of social contracts, of government and of morality.
Philosophy struck me as the necessary prerequisite to all other intellectual exploration. I needed to learn how to doubt before I could learn how to believe; I needed to learn how to formulate questions before I could learn how to formulate answers.
Originally, I was reluctant to declare myself in an official relationship with Philosophy because of the misplaced feeling that it was foolishly indulgent, that by doing so I would be forgoing learning concrete skills that I could contribute to society in order to daydream about intangibles. By the end of my sophomore year, I simply gave in to my need to “daydream” and made Emerson Hall my home. Now, two years out of school and preparing to jump back in, I realize the full utility of my fated concentration.
It was obvious from the start that my classes in Emerson provided me with the physical and intellectual space to think with openness and intensity about the questions which so wracked me, and that they surrounded me by a community of individuals who were also drawn to careful thought about things unseen or assumptions unchallenged. The vitality in my classes fueled me. Everyone in the little department was animated and eager, from the concentrators to the TFs to the professors, in whose open offices I spent innumerable hours. I was able to get to know much of the faculty personally, and I felt that they were genuinely invested not only in my education, but in my well-being. I was nourished by Professor Hall’s home-baked cookies and riveting lectures on metaphysics, by Professor Simmons’ hugs and firm advice when I was overwhelmed by my thesis, by Professor Chen’s thoughtful check-in about how track was going before we dived in to a dissection of materialism.
Less evident than the community and intellectual pleasure that the philosophy department gave me are the malleable skills and habits of thought. Many disciplines expose their students to a deluge of facts and methods. But memorization of words, numbers, and processes is the simple part of learning. The hallmark of my education is its flexibility. I have been trained to see connections, to unearth assumptions, to call out pseudo rational-claims. Give me any body of knowledge and I am ready to approach it, to learn its vocabulary in a meaningful way, to see through jargon and emotion. Concentrating in philosophy honed my ability to dissect language, to analyze relationships among ideas, and to identify logical fallacies.
When I was first faced with the decision of what to focus my studies on, I was worried about missing out on the opportunity to master statistics or to read Joyce or to learn survey design. I’ve now found that, armed with my philosopher’s toolkit, I can readily jump into unknown fields and tackle new branches of knowledge. Not only do I have the soft skills to learn quickly and thoroughly, I have the eager drive to do so, an exploratory wonder born out of nurtured contemplation. I am endlessly grateful to all the faculty in the Philosophy Department for instilling in me an appreciation for the complexity of all thought and experience through their energy and wisdom. And to sophomores considering the concentration: if you love to think, I think you should.