Dare to be a philosophy graduate – it might just pay off

This week’s Guardian Education Supplement (Tuesday 12th February, 2013) carries a timely article on the value of the less obviously vocational subjects. Its message: Dare to be a philosophy graduate ??? it might just pay off (1).Philosophy can transform one’s life, and it has mine. Following Nigel Warburton @Philosophybites is a great way to keep in touch with philosophical ideas. I loved doing the subject at university. It did not come served on a plate. I had to explore, challenge and internally digest and spew out philosophical ideas, be my own detective to understand and test their relevance and properly appreciate their significance. Doing philosophy is a salutary antidote to a consumerist, fast-food, fast-opinionated Western society. It is like going to the gym, but a gym of the mind. Doing philosophy reveals the human mind to be both awesome and deeply flawed, insightful and full of illusion and delusion. One cannot just read philosophy off the page: one needs truly to engage with the subject, and this is -and ought to be- hard work. Philosophy is a permanent lesson in humility, and what psychoanalysts call “symbolic castration” – that liberating sense that none of us has “it”, whatever “it” is – and this is a spur to living. The joy of doing philosophy as a full-time student was one thing. It has been an even richer experience blending philosophy into my work and other interests. Philosophy is aimed at building character. And character, as the Ancient Greeks said, is destiny. A child can philosophise, as can an elderly person. One of my earliest philiosophical contributions was during a philosophy class at my French school, the French Lycee in South Kensington. The bearded teacher, who was rather adept at engaging his pupils, was explaining the difference between synthetic and analytic statements – that is, the difference between statements which are true by reference to experience, and those that are true by definition. He ventured, “So if I say, Alll swans are white, and one turns down out to be black, what’s happening here?” Quick as a flash, I replied, “You kill it!” The bearded teacher laughed, and called me a Marxist. Whether this was an early sign that one day I might become a Government communications director, especially at the department in charge of farming, I will leave others to judge.I do not despise success, and can appreciate that it has a growing importance in our lives, not least in the battle of survival. To enjoy success – one’s own or somebody else’s- is human, and to be encouraged, or we risk becoming machines or monsters. But success – in that rather one-dimensional sense of material and social success – is not at the end what life is about, unless one chooses to be enslaved to a world of appearances. As Einstein – de facto rather than de jure philosopher- said, I would rather be a man of value, than a man of success. And this implies wisdom. Wisdom matched by practical commonsense serves us best, in good times and bad. Kipling warned that we should treat success and failure as imposters. My generation was influenced by the lingering presence of A.J. Ayer (who was one of clearest and most fluent of philosophers, but ultimately said very little), the ongoing, almost eternal presence of Descartes and Kant (the latter demonstrates that great thinking is not necessarily matched by great writing), and the rising popularity of the Later Wittgenstein and living philosophers such as Daniel Dennett. One of the great benefits of philosophy is understanding how much the way we frame or reframe “reality” (whatever that is) informs our experience of it. Learn enough about a range of philosophers and their work – whether it is now long-gone Empedocles, the great pre-Socratic philosopher, or the living, prolific mass-of-contradictions Zizek- and you begin to spot connections, the new and the old. Philosophy has almost 1000 students at The Open University at undergraduate level. Philosophy is also part of its interdisciplinary offering, especially the OU’s main entry 60 credit module, AA100, which has around 7000 students a year. The OU has seven faculties and two institutes, and philosophy comes under the vibrant Faculty of Arts.More than 70% of the OU’s students combine work and study. The OU takes great pride in equipping students to make more of themselves, which often means helping them get the best from their jobs and careers, enabling students to apply what they learn to their work. It is one of the ironies of distance learning – the OU would rather call it open, supported learning- that it keeps students close to their daily lives. Study is designed to fit in around the needs of the student. The OU offers a breadth and depth of study experience, and a range of subjects relevant to an individual student’s study goals. What a university education gives a student is not only a body of specific knowledge, but also a way of thinking about the world, and at its most impactful, a way of being in the world. That’s what an employer or a colleague, a boyfriend or girlfriend, a brother or sister ultimately benefits from when a student studies at the OU.To the sceptics who do not think philosophy is integral to a civilised existence, I would refer them to Jonathan Glover on inhuman crimes (2).(1) http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/mortarboard/2013/feb/12/dont-scare-studen…(2) www.jonathanglover.co.uk/the-light-and-the-dark-in-human-nature/the-light-and…

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