Is there life after philosophy?

Posted on April 6th, 2010 by

While traveling back from Baltimore recently, a young man—maybe 24 or 25—wedged his tall self into the middle seat next to me and proceeded to pull out a paperback book by Slavoj Žižek. Žižek, the Slovenian philosopher. That Žižek. Of course I had to talk to him.

Confessional time out: I always talk to people on airplanes. I am frequent flyers’ worst nightmare; the woman who insists on trying to strike up a conversation with you, no matter what you happen to be reading. I have a good reason for it. I like to think of it as a medical reason; I’m terrified to fly, and can only do it with the aid of prescription drugs and conversations with total strangers.

So, it’s true, I probably would have talked to this young guy if he’d been reading the latest Stephen King novel, but the fact that he was reading a work by a Slovenian philosopher made it inevitable—indeed, made me not even wait for the takeoff before I tried my opening gambit.

“You don’t find many people reading him on an airplane.” (Notice I didn’t say “reading Žižek.” That’s because I don’t really trust myself to say his name out loud. Truth be told, I barely know enough about Žižek to be able to rub two facts together in hopes they’ll kindle a conversation.) “Are you a student of philosophy?”

“Well, I used to be, but now I edit television commercials,” he responded. “As I told people when I got out of college, none of the big philosophy firms was hiring.”

Yeah. Funny how that is; you’d think that with the economy in the tank and all, there’d be a lot of growth in the existentialism sector. But it doesn’t seem to have materialized. So, was the philosophy major a bad idea, or did he find himself well served by this “useless” degree?

“Well, when I first got out, it was difficult, I’ll admit. I felt pretty lost the first couple of years after college. Other people came out trained in how to do something, and there I was, not really having any marketable skills. But now, I feel like I’m in a better place in my industry than the people who got technical degrees in film or something like that.”

Really? Why is that?

“People who were trained in film learned in college how to do the technical parts of the job, and they are thus technically very proficient. Because I came into the industry not knowing how to do anything, I had to employ a kind of Socratic method—that’s really how I thought of it—to learn what I needed to know in order to do my job. As a result, I didn’t just learn the skills and techniques; I learned why those techniques are useful, what purposes they serve, why they work.”

Sounds kind of like Aristotelian causality.

“Well, yeah. And as a result, when I’m in a tight situation, I can call upon those more fundamental principles—the big ‘why’ issues—and be creative in thinking about how to resolve the situation. It makes me a lot more flexible. And it’s philosophy that taught me how to be curious and ask the questions I needed to be able to ask.”

So, there you have it; another first-person account of life on the far side of a B.A. in philosophy.

BTW, this was the book he was reading.


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