When I landed on Harvard’s campus, I was determined to become a neurosurgeon. And I spent the next two years basically unpacking that goal in the true liberal arts fashion. Off went medical school, when I discovered my love for academic research and gained the courage to be more idealistic about my career choice. This particular step, I think, is much easier said than done, especially for those of us who don’t come from wealthy or academic families, or from communities where scholarly role models are not present.
Regardless of medical practice, I was still very much interested in the ‘mind’ part. At this point I had also realized that I enjoyed interdisciplinary work much more than focused and specialized work within one particular field. The topics that excited me were broad and had many moving parts. Thus, I joined Harvard’s Mind, Brain and Behavior program and got started on a neurobiology track. I was fascinated by cases like phantom limbs or H.M., the man with no memory. But, I found that the neurobiology coursework sought to first cultivate a thorough understanding of life sciences in general, and then hone in the skills to distinguish good research from bad research. There wasn’t enough space for philosophizing. That’s how I ended up in philosophy: What I really wanted to do was to question the basic scientific notions that constituted the common ground (and quite a shaky one as I was going to soon discover) of researchers. This was something I did not know before that philosophy could do, and once I knew that and knew how, there was no leaving Emerson Hall.
I discovered in both my studies of Early Modern and contemporary philosophy that the dialogue between philosophy and science is crucial to furthering our understanding of experience. Had I not switched gears to philosophy but continued to hold aspirations for a career in scientific research, I think I would have studied philosophy just as rigorously. The tools that philosophy awards to evaluate scientific theories and to see the full picture of whatever phenomenon that is being studied are indispensable to research. These are all considerations that are relevant to the scientist independent from aspects of philosophy that are crucial to any student. It is no doubt that philosophy holds a privileged position in the University to teach analytic and critical thinking applied to abstract, empirical sciences as well as social phenomena.
Philosophy offered me the methodology with which I could more satisfyingly delve into questions regarding human mind and experience. It also opened up new ways for me to engage with questions that I asked outside my curricular work, in my artistic work and my work as an activist. My conversations with fellow artists became longer and more fulfilling once I learned how to discuss philosophically what meaning a gesture can take on, and what metaphor a musical phrase can deliver. My conversations with my opponents became shorter and more productive when I could press them more easily about their notions of consent, hate speech, or gender.
Harvard’s philosophy department is an extraordinary place where you can not only study philosophy in order to ask philosophical questions about anything but where you can find courses on a great variety of such questions, and an undergraduate community of bright and curious thinkers with diverse interests. I’m happy to have found my home in Emerson Hall and to have run into so many friends, even in their senior year, having a great academic experience with their treasured philosophy elective.