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

A Great Teacher is a Gift for a Lifetime

Valerie Haas: Classically Remembered
by Ken Goldstein
Iolani School Bulletin, Fall 2010

Valerie Haas was a Master Teacher.  She was serious about her work, serious about her students, serious about the classics and their relevancy to our lives. She cared immensely about excellence, precision, continuity, and character. She was guarded, yes, but she was equally multidimensional. There was a lot to her, and if you wanted to know what that was, asking would have been a poor strategy. It was her job to teach, it was our job to learn, but it was everyone’s job to listen and care. If you got that, you got extra credit. And your life was richer for the epilogue.

Context is a variable of interpretation that is not terribly well understood or appreciated. To understand context is to put translation on par with circumstance. Surely even the most stubborn and uninterested recruits can be taught to decline a noun, but can they be taught to understand why otherwise rote memorization might one day save their curricula vitae? The simple answer is you can likely learn anything you want to learn, but the truth is, you must commit to deciphering the context of a subject or you are right back to recitation. A good teacher knows this, and lets you decide how to ascribe context to drill. A great teacher knows when you get it, and withholds just enough satisfaction that you are forced to bring reference to bear.

Just how good was Valerie Haas at this near brutal form of inspiration? My sense is that the football and basketball coaches quietly studied her classroom, but would never tell the tale. Let’s see, you have a roomful of 13 year olds who always raise their hands, enunciate clearly when called upon, share perfect tempo in choral reading, and don’t even bother to step into the classroom if late without an automatic side trip for a tardy slip. The rules are clear. And the scores? Fiftysomething years of gold, sliver, and bronze medals in national competitions, not a year missed without a student celebrated on a global scale with the words “Iolani” and “Hawaii” attached to their accolades. And remember, we are talking Latin.

But back to context. If you dared utter the words “dead language” in her second floor classroom, you were not going to have a good semester. Then again, if you asked her why it still made sense to study Latin in the late twentieth century, you would be readily introduced – for that matter metaphysically welcomed – to purposeful dialogue. Fully a third of all lessons and class discussions focused on etymology – what are the root words in English that we can track to their origins. If you wanted to survive the redlined grammatical assassination of an English or History paper, you were coming to a knife fight with a polished saber – provided of course you had mastered Latin sentence structure. If you thought poetry was tough, Cummings and Whitman had nothing on Ovid or Virgil. Connections from then to later became clear in no less than the texts of Caesar (Omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa est…”) while we also learned how Cicero laid much of the pipe necessary for Shakespeare to mold history into drama (Cicero even secured himself a bit part from The Bard). And once you’ve chewed through the back beat underlying dactylic hexameter, forever more the iambic pentameter of Elizabethan rhythm proves less surreal, more accessible, staggeringly fluid.

So she taught us Latin to make it easier for us to learn everything else?  Well, I suppose I would call that a byproduct, but not quite context.  Imagine for a moment the very notion of teaching Latin to 7th and 8th graders (and the lucky brave who went beyond) in the middle of the Pacific, in an emerging modern city welcoming refugees of the Vietnam airlift. Consider the local political climate of a proudly proclaimed melting pot seeking reconciliation of perspective within its own Polynesian heritage, and planted there an “old school” transitioning from didactic monologue and homilies on original sin to encouraged discussion and embrace of God’s absolute love – no personal computers yet, but the times they really were a changing. Consider the notion of order, structure, and the fundamental task of college readiness for students who knew they had been signed up without escape clause for a college preparatory contract not even knowing a wee bit what was in the deal. Consider on the radio The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, The Doors – all highly encouraging of mythic enlightenment, but nowhere including reference to the accusative or case. Now get up and teach Latin, and still turn out thinking honor students. The case for context is no longer shared; it is the teacher’s problem.

Or is it?  Did we really think fear alone – fear of challenge, fear of rigor – was trepidation enough to keep us in tow, let alone rope a dope with the arriving digital age? That was not my observation, intimidation was a style of schooling that lost purpose as expected reasoning replaced mandated conformity, as the daunting essay test really did demand a well supported opinion, and voices were meant to be expressive, not muted in programmed restraint. Could a traditionalist make that switch? She didn’t need to, because she was there from day one.  She never changed because her style was crafted in permanence – stepping in the same river was moot, the forms defined all. It was we who changed, she was the catalyst. The context was the contemporary, though as I later learned many times over, the root of contemporary is temporary. Valerie Haas was of The Day, every day – and it worked.

Am I telling you she was a rebel? Well, if insisting that heels still slam to the floor when other teachers are starting to let students wear their hair over their ears, then I suppose yes, she was a rebel in holding onto tradition. Not surprisingly that was hardly her aim.Her aim was purely to help us understand that the roots of all change rest warily in the past, and in order to effectively bring change one must digest and dissect the past. It is noble to bring reform, but sensible reform is virtually impossible without complete retrospection and intelligent cataloging. We embrace the classics for their beauty and resonance, for their structure and significance, but all creative destruction begins with that which we choose to change. To change an idea, a school, a society – to make the present better – is to embrace the legacies of the before not as perfect, but as accurate in the time of their origin, their context.  The great scientist and the great artist have this in common, before they dismiss the failings of misinformation they fully walk in the realm of the masters. You cannot bring change if you have no empathy for that which you are trying to change. So you study. And you study hard.  For long periods of time. And then when you see what is wrong you also see what is right, whether then or now, in order to come to terms with consequence. And it is the role of a Master Teacher to pass along this truism from generation to generation, whether the static around it is comprised of AM radio or digital streaming, it just does not matter.

The great mentors teach us to learn, and context is the documentary where and when of change, not the more glamorous and speculative why or how. The where and when are learned in our lessons, the why and how are exercises in creativity introduced through event and circumstance. Context remains a priori, the root of perspective, preamble to change. Context is truth serum, inescapable in argument, disarmingly complex, a detective story often without hero, yet always the set up, the amplification, the table setting for the menu to be.  Valerie Haas understood that every hour she was in the classroom, every minute of study hall, even in the fragments of hallway chatter, which I promise you she enjoyed more than she let on. She was studying you, because she wanted you to be ready to be better, to be courageous and take on necessary action. She would help you if you wanted help, she would drill you if you were up to the task, but mostly, she wanted all of us to make the world better by understanding language, poetics, chronology, and discipline. She knew we were just kids, and that we would grow to become adults, and perhaps when we stumbled on a word misused we would know how to find its real meaning. And then do something with it, something creative, something that mattered.

Valerie Haas was that good. We owe her our respect for a lifetime of context. Carpe diem, wrote Horace. At thy call we gather. Godspeed, Miss Haas.

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For the original online version, please click-through the following link and scroll down to the bottom of the page:

A Latin Teacher: Classically Remembered

Time is the best teacher of all.  It causes us to rethink what we got wrong.  A teacher can offer perspective we never could have understood when it was offered.  If we are lucky, we live long enough to learn to rethink what was given.

National Latin Exam