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What attracted me to Philosophy?

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Aug. 28th, 2007 | 12:00 am
mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

This follows up on the two previous posts; together, the three of them attempt to answer the questions,

  • How, and why, did I come to choose "philosophy" as a major, and go all the way to a Ph.D. in that subject?

  • What does that [the answer to the first question] tell one about my outlook on life, even now, more than forty years later?  (And in particular, how might it help one to understand "where I'm coming from", and "what I'm getting at", in [some] things that I write today?)

The post dated August 8 of this year began the process by laying out the bare bones of the autobiographical facts which need explaining, and then posing the questions.

The one dated August 18 offered a partial answer to part of the first question; that is, it focused on some factors that kept me from choosing another, otherwise appealing, academic path: majoring in a "hard science" subject like physics.

But now we reach the heart of the first question: what were the positive factors which drew me to choose philosophy as a major, and then as a Ph.D. subject?

I don't know (don't remember?) what answer I would have given to that question at the time.  But I am fairly sure that I would not have come up with anything like the answer I shall give now.

This answer isn't simple: there's no way to reduce it to a single sentence.  I shall, indeed, first give the answer as briefly as I can, and then expand on it a little; but even the shortest form must begin with some background, that is, by stating some [alleged] facts about my state of mind at the time.

I was in considerable emotional distress much of the time, and it was at its peak during my sophomore year -- the year in which I was supposed to declare my major.  (Apparently, for sensitive souls, having a particularly hard time during the second year of college is actually rather common.)  A good part of the distress was associated, in my mind, with a lack of clear goals for my life; a lack of clear reasons for doing anything, in fact.  And it seems that I believed that studying philosophy would (or at least might) remedy this: might lead me to discover a sense of purpose.

Some of the pain had a more specific cause: I can remember some that was about romantic difficulties.  But at times, I had some quite seriously suicidal thoughts, and a few times, took actions towards implementing them; and at those times, the thought in my conscious mind was that there was no reason to go on living, because there was no reason ... no "valid" reason ... to do anything.

Some readers may have the highly logical response: if there's no reason to do anything, then, in particular, there's no reason to kill yourself.  If that occurred to you, congratulations, because my self-perception is that that very thought saved my life, more than once.  I believed that I was getting ready to kill myself; and then I didn't, because (again, in my conscious mind) it then occurred to me that there was no good reason to complete this action, any more than there was a good reason to do anything else.

If I recall correctly, at those times, I followed out the implications of these thoughts rather accurately ... for a while.  I can remember a time in an attic when I was thinking of hanging myself.  Once I "realized" that there was no reason to do that (either), I sat there and didn't do anything (except breathe) for, perhaps, twenty or thirty minutes.  Then I got hungry, or felt a need to pee, and acted on that desire.

In some ways, then, my thought processes were highly logical (one might also say, frightfully so) ... given my premises.  But not in all respects.  For instance, I didn't ask myself if there was anything to be learned, relevant to the "big question" of purpose in living, from the fact that certain desires did lead to action, without stopping to consider whether, say, being hungry actually gave me a valid reason for seeking out something to eat.

And even more strikingly, from my present perspective: I don't recall that the following question ever occurred to me, after I had established, in my mind, that if there's no reason to do anything, then it follows that there's no reason to kill myself.  That question is: why was it that, even after that, brooding about having no reason for anything still, in fact, led me to thinking of killing myself?

(I also don't recall being bothered by any inconsistency in the fact that, as described in my previous post, I managed to come up with what I considered a valid reason not to major in physics, though that was otherwise appealing.  It would seem that accepting a valid reason not to do something was, for some reason, less problematic.)

At any rate, it was against this background that I made the decision to become a philosophy major; and then I pursued the subject all the way to a doctoral degree.  I knew that questions like "what are good (or valid) reasons for doing things?" were questions that [some] philosophers worked on trying to answer.  (They fall into the sub-field known as "ethics".)

I was regarding the question, "are there any good reasons for doing anything?", as, quite simply, an open question.  (And thus, adopting what must have seemed like an appropriately skeptical, "nothing is certain" attitude, applying that even to my own apparent certainty that there were not any good reasons for doing anything.)  It was, in my eyes, a philosophical problem that had not yet been solved, at least to my satisfaction; and I proposed to try to solve it.

I must have been hoping that the answer would "turn out to be": yes, there are such things as good, or valid, reasons; for only in that case would finding the answer relieve me from further instances of the distress associated with thinking that there are not.  And I do, now, have a confident, intuitive sense that the desire to escape that distress was, at some underlying psychological level, the true motive (note in passing: not "reason") for choosing to follow this path.  Or a big part of the motive, anyway.

And that brings me to a stopping place, for I have completed an answer to the first question: how, and why, I came to pursue the academic career that I did. 

One might think that the next step would be to try to answer the second question: what does this piece of my history tell one, that's important in understanding the mind-set that I bring to life now?  I do intend to try to answer that, but not right away.  (Nor even "in the next post", nor "Real Soon Now".)

Instead, I plan to put this topic aside for a while, and go about the business of living ... including "writing about computers, life, and society".  That may well include a different kind of follow-up to this topic: having made this momentous decision to devote myself to the study of philosophy, with emphasis on questions like "Are there any good, or valid, reasons for doing anything?" ... did I come up with any sort of answer?

But as to what all this tells you about me ... that may just sort of come out in the process, and not need to be answered explicitly.  Also, perhaps y'all will be able to help me figure it out.

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