The Sway of Philosophy

March 17, 2005 | one comment
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As I see students get excited about Heidegger or Wittgenstein or some other philosopher and the insights into their own lives and the gospel that come with that excitement, I remember my first year or so in graduate school.

I went to graduate school in philosophy at a time when there was no philosophy major at BYU. There were philosophy classes, but one couldn’t major in it. I had come back from my mission completely unsure as to what I wanted to study. I thought about linguistics, but didn’t enjoy it. I thought about Asian studies, but for some reason that I still cannot explain decided against it, though I was very interested in it. My best friend, on his way to law school, tried to talk me into the law, but I didn’t really know what it was nor why I would be interested in it. I settled on English because I like to read and it seemed to leave the ultimate decision open for a little longer.

Because the Honors Program of the time required it, I took an introduction to philosophy course. I liked it, so I took a few more courses. Then I took a course from C. Terry Warner and fell in love with it. But I was still unsure about what I was going to do after life as an undergraduate.

By the fall semester of my last year in school, I still didn’t know what to do. I was married and we had a child. Janice had her Master’s degree, and I had no clue what to do after graduating. (We were unequally yoked then, and we still are.) Terry kept urging me to go to graduate school in philosophy, but I was afraid to do so. Because of something less than a sterling record during the three semesters before my mission, my grade point average was almost a B+. Few of my English professors knew who I was, so they couldn’t give strong recommendations. Graduate school seemed out of reach, but I applied to two programs in philosophy and one in English, partly at Terry’s urging, partly because I didn’t know what else to do, no more programs than that because we couldn’t afford more application fees. One of the philosophy programs accepted me–I am certain on the basis of Terry’s recommendation and perhaps nothing else–and we went off to Pennsylvania to graduate school. I took sixteen hours of directed readings my last semester at BYU so that I could try to prepare myself, but I didn’t really know how to fill those hours so, though I worked hard, I’m not sure how much good they did me.

When I got to Penn State, I was afraid that at any moment I would be found out for the charlatan that I was, so I studied hard. I read and read and read, trying to catch up to what I imagined everyone else already knew.

That immersion in philosophy–reading it in the “study” we improvised out of a closet, hearing professors talk about it in classes so filled with smoke that I could hardly see them, talking with other students about it in the commons room and at local taverns–was one of the most important formative and happy experiences of my life. However, part of what formed me then was my extreme malleability.

Each time I worked earnestly on understanding a particular philosopher, I was convinced that he was absolutely right. –And I would see the gospel as compatible with what he said, indeed, as illuminated by it. The trouble was that I had that experience with each philosopher, even though they were not quite compatible. One semester I would be a Kierkegaardian, the next a Hegelian. Of course, I wasn’t unaware of the conflict between them, but being aware of that conflict wasn’t enough to change my experience: everyone seemed right, and everyone helped me think about the gospel in new and helpful ways.

Since then I’ve gotten sufficiently strong philosophical legs that I am no longer swayed so completely by those whom I read (though I think teaching those philosophers as if I were is sound pedagogy). Or perhaps I should say that I may be swayed, but I’m no longer bowled over. Neverthless, I value that initial experience, the experience of being swayed, even bowled over, by everyone. I think it is has served me better than the alternative would have, whatever that alternative might have been. I hope that some of my students are having the same experience.

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One Response to The Sway of Philosophy

  1. Dan Richards on March 18, 2005 at 1:50 am

    Jim–

    I have also found myself to be very malleable, and this made my first year of law school difficult. I’ve since gained more confidence in my ability to stake out legal positions (at one point I worried that I’d read opponents’ briefs and only be able to say “Makes sense–we’re sunk”). Likewise, as a missionary (and otherwise) I have had no trouble resisting the persuasion of those who tried to convert me to another faith. But when not acting as an advocate, I still often find myself blown about by every wind of doctrine. I read the op-ed pages of the New York Times almost every day, and I usually end up agreeing with Brooks and Krugman, Friedman and Safire, and any number of other mutually exclusive viewpoints. Are there any virtues to malleability? Do you think students would learn more if they read Heidegger with a highly critical eye, or is there something to be said for getting inside the philospher’s (or pundit’s) head and experiencing their own conviction before turning to an opposing view?