Philosophy Major Talk
"Mom, Dad, I'm a Philosophy Major."
Ward Moberg '69
April 11, 2007
I have been asked to share with you "how [the study of] philosophy had an effect on my life." I appreciate the opportunity to do this and thank the philosophy department and Professor Heldke in particular for extending the invitation.
At Gustavus, and during all of the ensuing 38 years since I graduated in 1969, I find that philosophy is first of all interesting. It also obligates me to always seek a better understanding for whatever I am doing, and finally, it has applications pertaining to the workplace.
Since I was first introduced to philosophy at Gustavus I have always enjoyed reading it. I like it because I am constantly being exposed to new ideas and insights. I confess that I have to take it in small doses. It takes time and patience to digest a paragraph of Spinoza. Philosophy texts are interesting, but by their very nature they are not page turners. Plato's Republic is not beach reading.
I recall sitting through the first six weeks of my class on the introduction to philosophy, diligently taking notes, reading the assignments, and being unmoved by the whole thing. A test was announced. I went through my notes hoping to make some sense out of them. I was skeptical; maybe skepticism was my first call to philosophy. Suddenly there appeared in my notes the relationship and difference between rationalism and empiricism. Since my teacher was a rabid logical positivist, the rationalists did not fare too well.
It brought back to me my first excursion into the life of the mind. I attended a small Bible school before coming to Gustavus. We were assigned to read a book about theologians. I stumbled across Karl Barth's idea that God is "wholly other". It is hard to describe what that idea did for me. I am not talking necessarily about a religious experience, but one that did bring up the Biblical image of "putting away childish things". I had crossed the threshold into my mind. It was as if my head opened up and there was limitless space for ideas. I could never go back to my "childish things" of collecting bits and pieces of information. I had entered the world of ideas. I think it was Alfred North Whitehead who wrote the book Adventures of Ideas. That title said what philosophy became for me, an adventure of ideas, but I am a little ahead of myself.
That experience of an excursion into my mind reappeared in the discussion of empiricism and rationalism as I studied for my intro test. I was hooked, convinced that philosophy was for me, and I needed to discover the ideas behind things.
The readings in philosophy that I found intriguing naturally generated writing assignments that helped me distill their content. I wrote quite a few papers. I can still see my neighbor in the dorm pop in and exclaim, "Another paper!" Since he was an English major I felt affirmed that I was doing something that entailed academic rigor.
The papers could be scary, but they also offered another expedition into the world of ideas. There was the thrill of finding new insights and ideas from the texts. I composed the rough drafts in long hand. As I wrote, new thoughts would come to me and I would scribble them in the margins. Soon the page had many arrows from the margins pointing to where I wanted them placed in my paper.
I am still excited when new ideas and insights come to me. In looking back through years layered with reading philosophy and poetry, I'm convinced studying philosophy was as much a listening exercise as it was a thinking one. Sitting at my desk and writing papers was the start of a life-long process of letting the philosophers and others speak to me through their writings. I can identify with Rilke in his opening line of the Tenth Elegy: "Someday, emerging at last from the violent insight,/ let me sing our jubilation and praise to assenting angels."
Philosophy has also obligated me to always seek a better understanding for any task with which I am involved. The best way that I can illustrate this is with a brief look at Plato's Allegory of the Cave. It is an underground cave with an opening toward the light. There are prisoners chained and facing the back wall of the cave. They have never known anything else and have never seen the light. There is a fire between the mouth of the cave and the prisoners looking at the wall. Between the fire and the prisoners is a low partition and people carry statues and figures that appear above it and cast a shadow on the back wall. That is all the prisoners have ever known.
Should a prisoner be freed and look at the realities that were known only as shadows, the prisoner would be blinded by the glare. The light would be too much and he would welcome the opportunity to get back to looking at the shadows on the wall.
A few do escape and get accustomed to the light. They see the objects that were once shadows and are freed of their prejudices formed by looking at the shadows on the back of the cave. If they continue and go out of the cave they see sun-illuminated objects that are universals. If they can see the sun itself they have knowledge of the "Idea of the good, the source of all reason."
I'm not going to pursue this any further and get tangled up in Plato's world of forms. I'm guessing that your professors would give me 12 of the 20 points possible for the test question that asks to discuss the Allegory of the Cave.
My point is that after studying philosophy I feel obligated to move toward the light, that is, moving in the direction of a better understanding for whatever I'm engaged in. I cannot be content to be chained to the back wall of the cave. I'll share a few examples.
Once a week I meet with my friend Ingrid. She is in her eighties. She is from Denmark and lived in Germany until coming to the United States in the sixties. Together we slowly read books written mainly by German authors, like Goethe, Rilke, Mann, and Grass. We spent an entire year reading Spinoza's Ethics. At our sessions we discuss the chapters or poems that we have read during the week. We take time to absorb the texts. She reads the books in the original German. She is able to point out strengths and weaknesses of the translations. I must confess that my German is still a shadow on the back wall of the cave. In our discussions we help each other. In the back and forth conversation we usually arrive at a better and deeper understanding and appreciation of the books. I must admit that at times Spinoza left us cold. Let me be quick to point out, and Ingrid would agree, that it is our fault and not Spinoza's.
Another example is my weekly pipe organ lesson with Melanie. She originally taught my daughter Diane when Diane was in high school. When Diane went to Gustavus eight years ago, Melanie inherited me. We are good friends, but when I get on the bench at the organ it is strictly a teacher/student relationship. I am often called to task; the lesson is my weekly dose of humility. My wife Kathy often goes with me and tells Melanie she likes it when someone else yells at me. The upside of all of this is that in my own limited way - I am not a virtuoso by any stretch of the imagination - and with Melanie's help I am making music. That depth and understanding would never have come my way if I had decided to buy an instruction book and figure it out on my own.
These examples point to a constant quest for better understandings. When I start looking into things I quickly realize that I have been content with shadows on the back wall. Philosophy charged me to not be satisfied with my prejudices and to think that the shadows I see tell it all. There is a light at the other end of the tunnel and that is where I must concentrate my efforts. That I will never reach a complete understanding in anything is not the point. It is enough to be on the journey toward the light.
I don't want to leave you with the impression that I always adhere to philosophy's obligation to seek a better understanding. I do have instances of backsliding. As far as knowing how my computer works I am chained to the wall of the cave and happy. I have no intention of learning to use hand and power tools. In this instance I probably don't have a chance with Heidegger, because one of his favorite examples is a hammer. I love to read philosophy while waiting for my car to be fixed at the garage. I am inspired by being in the presence of greatness. Here there are mechanics who understand what I will never attempt to understand. The "what" that I am referring to is for me the supreme mystery of the universe, that is, the internal combustion engine.
The question still remains: can philosophy get me a job so I can pay off all of my college loans? First, I'll cut to the chase—the answer is yes. Right after college I got a corporate job and if I had stayed, there is a good chance that people in the college's development office would be camped at my doorstep. I don't say that to be arrogant, I simply list it as a real possibility.
The other side of the coin is that after looking at corporate life for a while through my background in philosophy, I concluded that it was not for me. And I emphasize "not for me." I believe the business field needs and respects people who see the world through a different set of eyes.
I decided to go into education instead and spent 29 years in a 5th grade classroom. I enjoyed the work and was part of an excellent school system. Philosophy is not irrelevant in an elementary classroom. When I student taught I was shown a new science curriculum on which all of the teachers had taken several weeks of special training. I looked at it and in an instant knew how it worked. I have no special aptitude for science and had to learn a lot of science, but I could spot underlying principles or, if you will, the philosophy which supported that particular curriculum.
Another example is from teaching math. Philosophy underscored for me two aspects that I thought were essential for that subject. First, find out what the students need to know. The math standards or principles outlined ten areas of mathematics that should be covered, e.g., geometry, measurement, symmetry, and computation. Readily seeing the basic principles to be taught made teaching simple and I never used a text book. Paper, pencils, a blackboard and a host of manipulatives got the job done. The other thing was to teach the students how to understand how math worked. Activities like adding unlike fractions needed more than a "first do this and then do that" approach. It required understanding what fractions were and how they worked. It presented a teachable moment among many for passing on philosophy's pursuit for understanding to youngsters.
Philosophy gave me a sense of the labor conditions under which I worked during my career. When I started, the school board had full control over us. A little later during the rise of the teacher's union movement it became an adversarial relationship with the board. The last contract that I negotiated before I retired seven years ago was a collaborative effort between the teachers and the board. My view is that I had experienced a classic thesis, antithesis, and synthesis model that developed over the years that I taught. Did it reflect the Hegalian or Marxist model? I'm not sure, but I'm inclined to think it was the latter. Unfortunately the teachers did not fully understand what had happened and have now reverted back to an adversarial role with the board. I regret this and probably did not fulfill my obligation to philosophy by doing more to help my colleagues understand what had happened.
I got involved in fund raising to build a new Osceola Public Library. Those of us on the library board had never raised money before. I figured it couldn't be that difficult, if you look for the essentials and not get bogged down in a lot of details; again philosophy at work.
I came up with the following plan: you make your goal something easy to identify, that is, build a new library, then let the public know what is going on, and in person first hit up the big donors and then contact everybody else. Sometime later Kathy sat in on meetings when the local hospital was considering a building project. They hired a professional fund raiser. The method he outlined was the same as the one I came up with; here again philosophy affirmed me.
I am compelled to make a conclusion. Otherwise a petition may be sent around to have my degree in philosophy revoked. There always remains the urge to understand things better. Whatever I am involved with is constantly being reworked. There is also the realization that I will never get it completely right. I can still recall one of my philosophy professor's frustrations when after class he would be approached by a student wondering "what is the right answer?"
For example I used to be asked "What's an existentialist?" when people found out that I majored in philosophy. This often happened at dances held on the second floor of Alumni Hall. It never made me a "chick magnet" but it was enough to broker an extra dance. The truth is that by the end of the night I had retreated from the dance floor and was down at the Flame Bar.
I think I have a better tentative answer than I did about forty years ago. On the dance floor I said something like existentialism has to do with making one's own values and making oneself the center of the world; the existence before essence model. I also tossed around names like Sartre, Camus, and Kierkegaard. I am an existentialist, but the form I use now is reversed. Existentialism now plays a secondary role to essentialism. This is not an original idea. I read it someplace, but can't remember where. How I see this is that when I make decisions from my understanding of the essentialists, i.e., Plato or Spinoza or the math curriculum, I am acting existentially. The only part that is my own action is my understanding of Plato or Spinoza or the math curriculum and that depends on where I am in the cave. My goal is to always be moving toward the light of the essentialists. Now when I hear about post-modernism and language games I wonder if all of this will change again and I'll be looking for a new understanding of existentialism. Perhaps, now such terms as "existentialist" and "essentialist" are simply passé. I don't know. I've got to find out.
I said earlier that being skeptical may have been my first call to philosophy. But there is at my stage in life one thing that I am sure of: there is so much to understand and so little time.