I have been asked many times what I will do with a major in philosophy, often by Human Biology majors. I tell them sincerely, be a philosopher, and they say no, what will your job be? So then I tell them I will write. I am going to write in some way or another, and help change the minds of others for the better. I will bring knowledge and experiences to those who could not have them otherwise.
Well and grand, they reply, but what if it doesn’t work out? I reflect for a moment and consider. I’ll do something else, I suppose. I then pose the same question to them. There are so few med school spots and so many Human Biology majors. What will you do if you don’t get in? Invariably they reply that they will get in, full of the confidence that one attains when they are pursuing a “real” job.
What follows then is a defense of my intended profession, supplemented by a conversational interview with Kirstin Quade, a fiction writer who lectures here at Stanford. Writing fiction enables you to communicate in a variety of ways that you would find much harder if attempted through other means. You can give personality to place and show the thought processes of individuals. It is more than painting a picture that simply looks good, which is no easy task, mind you. To do fiction well, the characters must have reasonable and rational attitudes and behaviors, or at least have a reason for lacking them. It is okay for the world of fiction to have strange and bizarre things happen because it gives meaning to that which it shows. Sometimes the meaning that it tries to convey is that the world itself has no meaning. Kirstin says that she reads because “there is so much about the world that she doesn’t understand.”
By giving fiction meaning, writing gives life meaning. The inexplicable cruelty of circumstance and unfortunate events can be given meaning through literature when the world provides none. Putting meaning in life events encourages a positive valuation of life and an increase in the will to live. How many among us have you heard give great praise to a book either in childhood or late life, saying that it has brought them to a greater understanding of a situation or loved one, or internal peace about an event in their life? The frequency with which literature helps those who take the time to read it is proof enough of its power and importance in society. Kirstin believes that “the practice of writing offers us the possibility of becoming better people.” She also thinks that through engaging the consciousnesses of others and their situations, we can learn how we may change.
I asked Kirstin what a person should do if they feel they have something to express about the world. She told me to simply “find work that moves you and then read those books again and again.” Once a person understands what does work and what does not work, they can then produce something that does work. In life we do the same thing; we must constantly be aware of what we are doing and how others around us are acting. From them we can learn what behaviors we think are appropriate and which ones aren’t, and then be armed with that knowledge in case we ever find ourselves in a similar situation. Reading and writing prepares you to live your own life.
I want to be a philosopher and study the world and the people around me. I want to learn what I can about them so that I can learn about my own nature and behavior. I will then share my love of knowledge with others through writing, so that they too may become philosophers.
Do you want to be a philosopher too? Let Sebastain know at sjgould “at” stanford “dot” edu.