Out of all the classes offered at Harvard, philosophy courses aren’t exactly seen as the most popular. Spend 15 minutes in the back of a Philosophy 138: “Heidegger’s Being and Time” lecture and you’ll quickly see why. There doesn’t seem to be much appeal at first in discussing how Heidegger’s being-with can solve the seeming contradiction between logical positivism and the understanding of the Other as a subject with independent experience. This low demand among Harvard undergraduates for philosophy courses might appear, at first, to make sense.
This arises from a misunderstanding of the field of philosophy. Throughout the 20th century, philosophy became much more inward-looking than in the past, with philosophers specializing in certain fields to such an extent that one needed to learn an extensive vocabulary to even hope to be able to participate in discussion. This led to the field of philosophy closing off from the public, with only those learned enough able to contribute.
Things weren’t always this way, however. During the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Industrial age, philosophers weren’t specialists huddled in the basement of a university building scribbling away at a thesis that only a couple dozen people could ever hope to understand. Instead, Socrates was a sculptor, Montaigne was a statesman, and Spinoza was a lens grinder. Philosophy wasn’t an arcane academic topic. Instead, it was an essential part of daily life, something that no one could avoid and everyone appreciated.
Today, however, philosophy is shifting back to its previous role as an invaluable tool for living in the world. Faced with deep-seated problems, people of society, especially Harvard students, have begun asking questions that can only be answered philosophically. Questions of “what ought to be done” are mainstream in conversations undergraduates have every day in the dining halls. The theme of the decade has been moral responsibility, which has been thrust into center stage when discussing everything from divesting from fossil fuels to cancel culture.
There’s a reason Professor Michael Sandel’s “Justice” class has become wildly popular among undergraduates. In making philosophy accessible to the general public, it has become an entry point for the philosophy-hungry students who have begun to realize the importance of asking these bigger questions.
That is why I implore you to take a philosophy class before you graduate. The reason I give in support is not that it can help you to think critically, or write properly. To do so would mean reducing philosophy to nothing more than low stakes preparation for when you have to think critically and write properly about things that actually matter. It would amount to urging you to run the Boston Marathon so that you won’t get winded walking to class every day, or studying Latin so you’ll do well on the SAT vocabulary section.
Instead, taking a philosophy class will do something much more important. It will force you to look inwardly and lead you to be critical of your own beliefs. The summer before my freshman year, I asked myself, how many of my beliefs and actions could I really defend? I was opinionated, but how many of these opinions were really based on a logical basis, rather than just preconceived biases I had as a result of my childhood? I wanted to be held accountable for my beliefs, and philosophy gives me that exact opportunity.
One of the biggest enablers of this intellectual accountability was entering Harvard itself, with its intellectually diverse group of students. Some of the most productive philosophy isn’t discussed in Emerson Hall, but in the dining halls. When such a large group of students is exposed to each other, each with their own beliefs and ideals fermenting since childhood, everyone is bound to take a critical eye to even their own deepest held principles.
What I thus ask you to do is just continue these conversations and investigations into the nature of truth that you already carry out, except now, take advantage of the institutions put in place to facilitate and nourish these discussions. “An unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates, and Harvard gives the opportunity to take this examination upon oneself. A course in philosophy formalizes the thought processes that already exist, giving you both the tools to more effectively deal with those questions that keep you up at night and encouraging the formulation of more of these questions.
Sometimes, the questions philosophy tackles may seem like emotion or art, too ethereal and grand to truly understand and only perverted by their formalization into a classroom. However, the formal discussion of these questions in an academic setting, far from stripping them of value, instead reveals new insights, allowing one to build upon years of human thought. To sit in a philosophy class at Harvard is no less than sitting in a dining hall discussing these same questions with hundreds of generations of humanity.
All actions you take are based on your previously held beliefs, and philosophy aims to investigate this very basis of your identity. Other classes may alter your skills; a philosophy course will alter your very self. When you graduate from Harvard, you may be thankful for having taken courses and participated in extracurriculars that help you find a job. However, these will live on your resume, while a philosophy course will live within you.
Manny A. Yepes ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Cabot House.
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