The Study of Philosophy

With all of the ways one could spend four years in college, why would anyone study philosophy?

It’s impractical.

It’s largely self-serving.

Given the vast syllabus of reading necessary to be even modestly well versed in both Eastern and Western thought, there is terribly little material one can cover in such a short amount of time.

It makes no sense to absorb oneself in such an esoteric endeavor with such thin coverage and so little quantifiable value.

It’s an expensive way to squander time, and even harder to explain to those helping pay for it.

Yet I did it, albeit about three and a half decades ago. Truth be told, I still spend unreasonable amounts of time delving into such curious texts as Kierkegaard’s Either/Or and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.


Why Then and Why Now are two different things. Let me try to begin with a justification, and then tell you how it has helped me to be better in business, better in service, better in life.

Philosophy is mostly about reading literature, but not the fun stuff. It’s mostly non-fiction, and it’s mostly argued opinion, if not conjecture. There is some history and an occasional parable, but mostly it’s very dense expository in translation. Occasionally you get to drill into something quirky and theatrical like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but that’s a tangent, not core curriculum. I mostly focused on the Western canon, so that means works originally composed in Latin, Greek, German, French, and Russian. The translations are often as head-scratching as the source texts.

From the middle ages to the Renaissance in Western philosophy, there is little differentiation between theology and philosophy, so if you don’t want to read about God, this is probably not going to be your thing. You can reject faith later as is often the tradition in modern existentialism, but you have to read a lot about it to reject it comprehensively. Faith is a subject of mainstream devotion and much conflict in our culture. It’s worth learning about it, regardless of what you choose to believe.

The tension in philosophy between quantifying the physical world and attempting to explain metaphysics is persistent and unresolved. Logical argument as a discipline embraces mathematics until calculations outreach contemporary science, forcing abstraction onto problems that later generations will solve. Laws, ethics, psychological motivations, justification for conflict and its resolution, and even aesthetic judgment all prove evolutionary. What is certainty at one time is speculation in another.

Rejection, revision, and reform are the guiding constants of substantial ideas. It’s all quite messy, contradictory, and exhausting.

Philosophy for me as a young person became a passion of personal growth, self-realization, and academic inspiration. It was helpful to me that it was mostly non-emotional because I was also a student of the arts, which were emotional. I needed the balance. I needed the complementary discipline. I needed to be satisfied that hard questions were worth attempting to answer, even if those who answered them began by rejecting the last person who tried to reject them. Somehow that all seemed progressive and appealing to me.

I also managed to convince myself that the power of logic was broadly applicable in almost any field of inquiry. At the very least I would find the structure of articulating an idea useful in dramatic storytelling. While it might not have seemed obvious or even apparent to me how that could be put to use in purchasing food for consumption, I had faith I would figure it out at some point.

Ah, faith—it surfaces in the least likely of circumstances.

There was also this quintessential challenge from Socrates in Plato’s Apology:

“The unexamined life is not worth living.

Those words messed me up because I took them seriously. I even wrote and directed a short film in college specifically about the reincarnation of Socrates in modern times to make this point. It was called Apology. It was supposed to be funny. It wasn’t, but the dialogues of Plato became so ingrained in my consciousness that I had to give it a try.

Failure came early and often after that, but with much clearer reason.

That was Why Then. Let’s cut to Why Now. Yes, there actually is a timeliness to all this.

Our next presidential election is on the horizon. A lot of awful stuff has happened since our last presidential election. I’m upset. I’m more than upset. I’m baffled, befuddled, and out of sorts. Our nation may never heal. I doubt we will get over these scars in my lifetime.

Philosophy remains my comfort zone. It’s a place I go to make sense of things that do not, will not, and perhaps cannot make sense. I wrestle with this all the time. It does not immobilize me. I get things done. To my surprise, I have indeed learned how to apply logical argument to my work. I use it in storytelling and even find ways to wind ponderous floating into the plots of my novels. I also use logic to make arguments in business—in sales, in legal, in coaching. That’s become a byproduct of philosophical usefulness. The core practice is now about coming to terms with the absurd.

I’ve heard all the rhetoric about how our president got elected, about somehow appealing to a forgotten middle class. He has never acknowledged income inequality as one of the defining issues of our generation, never displayed any evidence of empathy or humility, yet he declared himself the champion of hard-working people authentically in need of a break. Those voters may have been duped, but he is an absurdity, as is their loyalty. Our embrace of ignorance and authoritarian mindlessness is absurdity. I use philosophy to live with the absurdity. As long as I am wrestling with difficult ideas, I am convinced the wrestling matters.

Where there are ideas, someday there will be solutions.

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Why are we here? Why is there consciousness?

To do this hard work.

To self-define in the name of combating the absurd.

To commit authentically to making that which is bad better.

Might there be such a thing as Applied Idealism? It’s a counterintuitive notion, difficult to contemplate certification, but spiritually tempting. Samantha Power grapples nobly with reaching for a more attainable abstract in her new book, The Education of an Idealist. It’s comforting to know we are not alone in our outlandish aspirations.

When I envision structures of evaluation, I often discover that the separation of thought and action is at best temporary, if not arbitrary. Logic does not exist outside a problem; it is embedded in the problem. Ethics aren’t distinct from rules and laws; they are expressed in the adoption of rules and laws. Pragmatism does not have to be isolated from hope. When I contemplate a model of assessment and apply it rigorously, I can be held in check by obstruction, but I can’t long be fooled.

As long as I can study, I can stay a fighter. As long as I can delve into the abstract, I will always have more stories to share with you. Once in a while I may even get you to chuckle. That’s when I know your mind is opening and perhaps ready to absorb something new.

In the end, is the study of philosophy a tragic waste of time? I guess for many that might be a fair conclusion. I’ll never see it that way. I see it as vital. I see it as necessary.

Stay tuned to this channel. There’s a lot more philosophy ahead. Considered yourself warned. Or alerted. Or ignited. Ideas are always free. What we do with them is seldom without cost.


Image: Pixabay

More on Why Teachers Really Matter

Dr. Berit Mexia: Being and Time
by Ken Goldstein
Iolani School Bulletin, Fall 1997

Now we come to what could be called the most characteristic element of Taoism-in-action. In Chinese, it is known as Wu Wei. It is also the most characteristic element of Pooh-in-action. In English, it is not known as much of anything in particular. We believe that it’s time that someone noticed it and called it something, so we will call in the Pooh Way.
Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

In your life, you should only be so lucky as to meet an individual who can teach you something no one else can. In your life, you should only be so lucky as to study under someone who can bring you to think in a way you previously could not imagine. In your life, you should only be so lucky as to have a friend share with you the true gift of learning, to know a person who knows what it means to see things differently, to spend time with someone who truly changes the way your mind works and sends you down the roads less traveled. If that happens to you just once, you have had the good fortune to experience a miracle.

I was that lucky. I was a student of Berit Mexia.

In the Spring of 1979, in the second semester of our Junior Year, a few of us disco children were sitting around trying to figure out yet another way to beat The System at Iolani. Of course no one could ever really beat The System at Iolani, but that never stopped a few of us from trying desperately year after year. The question at hand was how we might be able to get through the semester elective in the Religion Department we owed the school for graduation without actually taking any of the classes offered in the catalogue. There was no particular reason for this act of intellectual rebellion, other than the fact that we knew we could cause a stir if we actually made it happen.

Now it came to pass that this same Buck-The-System group of us had in our Sophomore Year been assigned to a study hall under the tutelage of one Berit Mexia, Ph.D. It was mostly in our procrastination around getting through daily trigonometry drills and chemistry problem sets that we would strike up conversations with Frau Mexia, and it was in these same conversational travels that we learned she had studied under someone named Martin Heidegger in the Black Forest of Germany. We also learned that she had written a doctoral dissertation on the meaning of subjectivity in the writings of Soren Kierkegaard, and that when she wasn’t brushing up on her Plato and Aristotle she was delving into the role of Zen in the advancement of western thought.

What I remember most was the gold pendant she wore most days that displayed the three words that told her whole story: “Live Love Laugh.”

It was always that simple. No matter what we talked about, no matter how serious the stream of consciousness or how complex the logical argument, the take-away was always one of heart. The subject of which we were getting a taste was known as Philosophy, which previously had meant little more to me than deconstructing the lyrical refrains of “Brain Damage” on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Frau Mexia put it to me in a different way, she asked me one question: “How do you get a goose out of a bottle?” She said that one would keep a highly disciplined student busy for perhaps a year, maybe two.

So that would be the ticket, we would get Frau Mexia to take a one period break each day from teaching German to teach us Philosophy, and we would convince Headmaster David Coon to let us take that class as our religion elective. When we asked Frau Mexia if she would teach us, she naively agreed, mostly because she knew we didn’t have a prayer at changing the Iolani curriculum in both creating a class that had never been taught and in shoe-horning it into a department where it was a stretch at best. But we got her promise to teach us a survey class in Philosophy if we got it approved, and when twenty of us signed a petition and said we needed this course for own personal well-being and presented it to Headmaster Coon, he of course said no.

That is, he said no the first time we asked. He also said no the second time. And I think the third. His primary concern was that at our tender age we could not yet appreciate the depth of the material that would be put before us, that we had not yet achieved intellectual context in our lives to put in perspective the heresy of Socrates or the torment of Nietzsche. The reason that I know this was his concern is because he told me, and I was appalled, not so much because of his lack of faith in our intellectual development to date (which was well warranted, we were after all rebels) but because he had not yet considered the gift of the teacher who would teach us. Heck, I was in sell mode, I had to get this deal closed. Don’t ask me how, but somehow he said yes.

And that was when my life changed. I sure hadn’t planned on it.

Remember, this started as a way to Beat The System. So when Frau Mexia showed up to teach us Philosophy in the fall of 1979, in the first semester of our Senior Year, and handed us Plato’s Apology for our first night’s reading, imagine our surprise. This was not going to be a cake walk. We were going to work. We were also going to learn.

I could take you through that class and tell you all the things we learned because I remember most of them. I could name for you all the writers whose works we read because I still have their books on my shelf. I could tell you how Frau Mexia created a seamless arc connecting the ancient classicists to the modern existentialists and then bridged the gap between western linear logic and eastern mysticism. But that is not what you need to know about Berit Mexia. What you need to know about Frau Mexia was what she gave to us of herself, what she embodied that was unique, and why my debt to her will never be repaid.

First impressions in literature mean just as much as they do in social and business settings. The way in which an idea is introduced is every bit as important as the actual content of the idea. This is the difference between instruction and teaching. Any reasonably well-read or well-versed individual can usually be counted on to instruct, but it takes something much less tangible than memory to teach. Most people really do not “get” Zarathustra because their first impressions of it were not well framed, and they spend perhaps the next twenty years with a bad taste in their mouth for its core conceit because they have only a vague notion of its meaning. Too little knowledge of anything really is dangerous because in the end all we can retain are our impressions. This was Headmaster Coon’s fear, and it is legitimate. Enter Frau Mexia. She would not allow her students to spend their lives backing out of the confusion that too easily emerges as the result of careless instruction. She took us forward into each idea one layer at a time, continually took our temperature on meaning, and only then turned the page. That is what it means to teach, and it is a rare gift to have as well as to share. I don’t think she knew this, she just did it.

It is a loving demon, this thing called Knowledge. It is not a casual curiosity, it is a lifelong commitment. It will consume you if it is not guided by discipline such that it can become Wisdom. These are not just words. The Teacher keeps the demon at bay.

And then there is the person. Who was she?

As humble as she was, Frau Mexia simply refused to conform. She refused to see the world as you and I see it. She refused to accept cynicism as a given, she refused to seek selfish means, she refused to acknowledge the ordinary as anything but extraordinary. She knew that it was an honor to be a teacher, and she saw her opportunity in life to learn and teach as privileges one and the same. Her life was about sharing wisdom, and her life was about humor. Her mission (if she had one, and I don’t think she thought she did) was to get you to look at whatever you were looking at in a way you just couldn’t have on your own. And after a while you’d actually get so brazen as to think you were getting there on your own, and she’d just laugh an innocent laugh and suddenly you were humbled. You knew you had not arrived there on your own.

Just when you would capture the essence of Hegel she would rip the rug out from under dialectics and throw you into Kant. Were you to digest the categorical imperative, she might just point you to the poetry of Kafka. And lest you ever got too full of yourself, you were never more than a verse away from her favorite philosopher of all, Winnie the Pooh (I kid you not, pretty much everything you need to know is all there in the first four books of Pooh).

There was only one point–there was always another way to look at the world, and whatever you were thinking today, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t immerse yourself fully in trying to see the world another way. This was intellectual rigor, this was academic frustration, and this was the joy of going inside and making your mind work at the level God might have hoped or even intended when we were created. She taught us to think, to reason, to intuit, to never take our minds for granted, and to never take ourselves too seriously. In lesson after lesson we learned that wisdom is knowledge of our ignorance. Most importantly, she made it fun.

I know I have not said it right. I cannot say it right. I can only feel it. Every single day, I still feel it.

Philosophy means “the love of knowledge.” I was seventeen years old when I began studying Philosophy under Berit Mexia, she opened this door for me and my friends in the Class of 1980 and she went on to teach this class year after year, long after we disco-generation punks graduated from college and came out here in the world where life and business are too often about less interesting and less noble pursuits. I know she touched others as she touched me because it happened, and I know they are thankful as am I. It has been a lifetime of discipline and a lifetime of learning. This was what her life was about. That, and a light that emanated from her in a way I still cannot describe. She was just too unique, too brilliant, too different, too focused, beaming with too much joy.

I am still trying to get that goose out of the bottle.

Live Love Laugh.

Berit Mexia Peace Institute