In praise of uselessness…

A student and I were chatting for a few moments after class on Friday.  She told me that she enjoys our class because she gets “to think about and discuss some important things,” things that don’t seem to come up over there in the business school where she pursues her major.  She wondered whether she should consider changing her major from something she doesn’t like (business) to something she does (seem to) like (philosophy).

Now, I sharpened up this brief conversation to make a point:  this is the moment that any honest and self-aware philosophy professor dreads more than any other.  What do I say next?

Do I go on and on about how the humanities are not respected in academia (despite the lip-service paid them), about the miserable job prospects for one who wants to pursue humane learning in a professional capacity, about the viciousness of campus politics (because, as they say, so little is at stake), that academia seems to breed negativity, etc.?  Who’d recommend to a young person that way of life?  And do I say that the humanities are just something we do for a while, now, while we (at least you) are young, that getting a job is the main thing because so much else in our lives hangs on our economic circumstances, about how the humanities are seemingly useless to living in a consumer society such as ours, about how just because we do not enjoy something does not mean it is not good for us—I teach (about) Aristotelian virtue, after all—etc.?

On the other hand, how do I tamp down the obvious enthusiasm—even love—that I have for philosophy and for what I do with my life?  The students can’t miss it.  And they want that or something like that.  It doesn’t have to be academic philosophy, but they want something that will produce the effusive joy in living and doing in them that they see coming from me.  They know I’m not doing it for the money (Lord knows).  They know I had a career in business that brought in a very nice income.  They know I got to see a little of the world—maybe more than most do.  But they see that, after all, here I am.

And they see that how I experience the philosophical life generates a joy in me that is akin to the joy someone else might find in stamp collecting or ice hockey or cooking—but that it’s also more than that.  The philosophical life is about life itself, about us, even all about me in a non-superficial, non-egocentric sense.  Students in college (and even—maybe especially—the “non-traditional” students, the returning adults) are at a point in their lives where it seems to be “all about me”—again, not just in some superficial, selfish sense.  In fact, you might say that the superficial, selfish manifestations of “all about me” arise just because there is no authentic arena for thinking about, wondering about, imagining what “me” means for most of these students.  When students find such a space, they gravitate towards it.

And yet, the self-aware, honest philosopher would have to ask: This “joy” you’re referring to—is it genuine?  Is it coming from pursuing philosophy itself (if it has an “itself”)?  Or does it come from being in charge in the classroom, from being on stage, raptly attended to (if you are any good at performing), from being the know-it-all in the room, from not having to meet payroll anymore, or deal with neurotic funders or board members or troublesome employees, or the bottom line?  Is philosophy, for me, “all about me,” in a superficial sense?  And am I in any way encouraging the same quest for selfish ego-gratification in others, in perhaps impressionable young people?

Just asking oneself these questions is—inescapably—philosophical, an occupational hazard of the philosophical life, the price to be paid for a joyous pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.  It’s all in the game.  And the answer is:  Sure, it’s selfish.  But it is not only selfish.  When my students drive away in better cars, I know it is not only selfish.  What I do is fun, but it is also serious.  It is to me, and it is to the students around me.  I should really say fellow-students, because (selfishly, yes!) I am still learning, yearning for learning.  I know that I do not know.

Knowing computer programming, accounting, or animal husbandry is useful.  Not knowing is useless.  Constantly examining one’s life is useless.  Philosophy is useless.  It gets in the way of the useful, upends efficiency and effectiveness, makes trouble where no one noticed anything troubling.

I think this truth about philosophy infects academic philosophy.  I would be willing to bet that most departments might frown upon taking philosophy personally—or at least worry over when it gets “too personal,” as if it is not really about persons, teacher-persons and student-persons.  Departments, I would imagine, tend to worry about confusing eros with philia.  It is a fair concern.  If philosophy is personal—about persons—then some sense of intimacy might develop.  And then, call the lawyers!  It wouldn’t be useful to make education be so personal—not just for these reasons, but also because we’ve made education all about certification.  We have tests and grades and such in order to be able to certify.  So a “good” philosophy student is one who knows about philosophy—which one might be even if one is not a philosopher—does well by knowing names and dates, how to define terms, the stock arguments, who influenced whom, etc.  Making philosophy to be knowing-about-philosophy is very useful for academic philosophy because you can assess it.  If you teach virtue ethics, for instance, you could ask questions about Aristotle and Alasdair MacIntyre.  But you could never follow a student around the rest of her life trying to assess how virtuous in living she’s become.  That’d be creepy.

Knowing about philosophy might be useful outside the academy…it is hard to see how, though.  What would you do…open up your own little philosophy shop?  I guess you could engage in interesting cocktail party conversation.  You could win big on Jeopardy!, I suppose, being able to ring in fast with, “Who was Descartes?”  But it won’t come up on a regular basis in corporate headquarters.

I could try to re-describe philosophy—academic philosophy—in terms that make it appear as if it were useful.  In academic philosophy, you learn the art of careful, close reading; argumentation; debate; critical thinking; seeing the “big picture;” etc.  All these are eminently useful skills to develop.  My students know, for instance, that a big part of the reason I made a buck or two in the business world was simply because I developed these skills.  I never had business, information technology, or manufacturing courses, but I ended up having a bunch of people who did have these courses work for me.  It would be impossible for me to argue that philosophy—at least academic philosophy—has been useless to me.

But all of that makes up the form of academic philosophy, not the content.  You should be learning all of those skills across the liberal arts curriculum.  But for me, the content—what philosophy is all about—matters.  It would be better if conversations about Aristotle, Kant, and Mill came up on board rooms and shop floors as much as in lecture halls.  But they usually don’t.  So, for many reasons, philosophy happens intensely only on college and university campuses (if it does at all).

Speaking of Aristotle, he defines happiness as an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.  Happiness is not a feeling or emotion, but an activity, an actualization, a way of being, a state once achieved that is permanent.  Aristotle says we do all things for the sake of happiness.  What this means is that everything we do we do because it at least seems useful to us for getting what we ultimately want:  happiness.  But this means that happiness—in the sense Aristotle means it—is useless.  It is not for the sake of anything.  There is no “in order to” that follows happiness.  On the contrary, everything else is “in order to” be happy.

If happiness—again, not to be confused with mere pleasure, although it includes it—is what we want, then what we want is, itself, useless.  What students see in me—someone taking joy from the ultimately useless, i.e., someone pursuing genuine happiness, someone working on being happy—is just exactly what they are looking for.  I don’t mean me, that it is peculiar or specific to me.  There is no cult of personality going on here.  I mean they see something in me and what I’m doing that goes way beyond me, that, in fact, makes them forget all about me (in both senses of that—forget about EW and forget about their own superficial “all about me” attitude) and start to be able to grasp who they are and what happiness means to them.  And they start to question whether “getting a job”—the most useful thing in the world—will mean happiness for them.

But—again—the problem for me, their teacher and somewhat reluctant advisor—is what to say to them about all this.  If I say the most important things are the most useless things (i.e., they are goods in themselves, regardless of whether they are useful for anything else), I don’t want them to think there is nothing useful for getting to the “useless.”  Aristotle would be emphatic about this.  There are many things that are useful for getting to happiness (even as they should not be confused with being “happiness” itself).  But if I emphasize just how important the useful things are (like accounting and computer programming, engineering and law, architecture and culinary arts), I don’t want them to think that we’re just wasting time, then, on this useless philosophy stuff.

So my student friend was wondering, in effect: Should I trade useful for useless?

Now what kind of advisor would I be if I simply were to say:  Yes, go for it!?  Part of me thinks I ought to be sued for nonsupport were I to do so.

My academic advisor answer is:  “You know, philosophy is a great minor.  Goes great with business management.”

It’s a useful response.  Still, I want to give them something a little more useless because, well, useless is more….


(from the archive: originally appeared October 4, 2009)


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