What Two Years of Philosophy at University Teaches You

 Edmund Patočka | 17 April 2018

I don’t wish to pretend that I am smart. Yet for some odd reason, I still ended up spending half of my free pre-honours credits on philosophy courses offered at our university. After two years of it, I now smartly conclude that I wish to pretend I didn’t. Careful consideration and self-examination narrowed down the number of causes of my disdain to four. So if the reader isn’t bored yet, I promise that after reading this piece they will not only still not be bored, but will conclude that they can walk down any avenue in the world as long as its name is not Oakfield Avenue. And if they do find themselves not only an but the Oakfield Avenue, then they will certainly not enter the building with the poetic number 69; and if they do find themselves in 69 Oakfield Avenue then the best course of action is a panicked flight towards the nearest exit door. 


Alas, the first cause of my discomfort was the material covered. Procrastinators, beware! The notion of having to read only one short book as a set text per semester may seem utopic. On reflection, the number of times one has to read the said “book“ to get any clue as to what the author meant may actually approach that accursed 69. The problem is also the canon. In our age, we have reached the wise observation that the best way to embark on studies of a subject stretching to Ancient Greece is to read a book by a 17th century Frenchman who at one point denies the existence of his hands. Nourishment on his wisdom then prepares the student to study a book on moral philosophy chosen by a throw of a dice out of three harmoniously coexisting systems of radically contradicting thought. After reading Mill, I can conclude that if Mill has any likeness to Aristotle, then University of Glasgow “debates” are the Agora of Ancient Athens. In a follow-up, it is a Scottish tradition to pass on the teachings of a Scottish philosopher expelled from every university in Scotland he applied for. It is no wonder that the students in 2M will get a taste of Hume’s rip-off of Cicero’s rip-off of Aristotle’s rip-off of Plato’s rip-off of some obscure Egyptian mystic, with a nihilistic twist. As it turns out, Hume is an ideal mentor to prepare them to accept belief in worlds that potentially exist and subsequently reject any of the books philosophers wrote before the Frenchman. This is a clever way to justify the choice of the book in 1K, although now nothing seems to be taken for granted anymore, even the existence of one’s own hands. Finally, the students will positively develop their logic by studying a short book by a logical positivist without being told what logical positivism is.


Secondly, the very form of study might elicit a comment. Non-honours philosophy immediately attracts by the highly concise titles 1K, 1M, 2M, 2K already communicating that the content of the courses will be an abbreviation of wisdom. Appeasing as precision is, many ambitious young philosophers embarking on their academic journey will find that they still do not see any resemblance between a couple of arguments dissected at a lecture and a body of text situated in a complex history of philosophy, itself not covered in either a “K” or an “M”.  Also, if K stands for knowledge and M for morality, one might wonder what happened to the courses on ontology, which could easily be called 2B or not 2B (¬2B). To this question there is an easy answer. Since hands might not exist, the course ¬2B is probably better suited. Due to its non-existence, there is just no need to enrol for it. Time and Being have been dealt with for the time being.


Personally, I have found the efficient causes of my disdain to be the least problematic. The lecturers are all a nice bunch. All humour aside, I am grateful for the patience they had with us and for their willingness to answer questions and help struggling students. But I beg the reader to allow me but one observation. It is on the topic of attire. As much as I admire Facebook, I would never have thought that the aesthetics of Mark Zuckerberg would impress the sublime minds of contemporary philosophers. If I only learnt one thing from my philosophy lectures, it is that the surest way how to spot an analytic philosopher is that they try not to wear anything that would make them look like a philosopher. There might be some odd link between smart clothes and smart metaphysics, because that is very often the other thing analytic philosophers seem to leave in the wardrobe before coming to the lecture theatre.


I will conclude with the final cause of my problems. It is the whole question about the meaning of it all. What good does it bring studying philosophy nowadays? Is it ordered to any good end at all? If the purpose of a degree is a good CV, many students might be turned away from studying philosophy. One does not need to study pragmatism to know there are more pragmatic ways to earn money. If the final cause of a degree is education itself and love of wisdom, it is up to the reader to decide whether this end can be achieved with a curriculum not discussing final causes but rather possible worlds where casually dressed Frenchmen who have no hands write short books about modal logic.


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